New Southern Baptist Convention committee reviewing sexual abuse allegations creates system to accept complaints

Holly Meyer
Nashville Tennessean

A new committee that helps decide whether a church should be kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for mishandling sexual abuse is up and running.

Established in June, the Credentials Committee announced this month how to submit complaints for their consideration. 

"The committee can make inquiries, and based on the information we receive, we can recommend that the convention sever its relationship with a church," Stacy Bramlett, the committee's chairperson, said in an email.

Unlike hierarchical Christian traditions, the Southern Baptist Convention, a large network of evangelical congregations headquartered in Nashville, does not have authority over local churches. All it can do is remove one from the convention if it is not adhering to what it means to be a Southern Baptist church.

The newly created nine-member Credentials Committee is now a part of determining whether a church can stay or has to go.

How a sexual abuse crisis spurred the creation of the Credentials Committee

It was formed as a response to the sexual abuse crisis in Southern Baptist life that has come to light in recent years. Media reports in the last year have revealed just how widespread sexual misconduct is among Southern Baptists who hold formal church roles.

Joel Miller, a missions and outreach pastor, prays on the second day of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala.  The president of the Southern Baptist Convention has apologized for the sexual abuse crisis besetting his denomination and outlined an array of steps to address it.  ( Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP)

As part of its reckoning, voting representatives of the more than 50,000 Southern Baptist congregations changed the convention's bylaws during its big annual meeting held in June in Birmingham, Alabama, to create the Credentials Committee. 

More:Southern Baptist Convention: 3 ways churches will tackle sexual abuse after the annual meeting

More:Southern Baptists gathered in Alabama amid a reckoning over sexual abuse. How they addressed the crisis.

It is a standing committee, but the members will change over time. Currently, five laypersons and four pastors serve on the it. Bramlett, senior vice president of Independent Bank in Collierville, Tennessee, is one of four women; there are five men. 

"The committee feels the importance and the weight of the responsibility of our task. We ask all Southern Baptists — and others — to pray for us," said Bramlett, who is also a member of the Executive Committee. 

"The issues before us are real. They impact people's lives. We want to be fully guided by the Holy Spirit's leadership each step of the way." 

Committee announces online submission portal 

Members of the Credentials Committee have spent the last six months figuring out the logistics of how to do their work and developing processes to carry it out, Bramlett said. 

In early December, they announced the establishment of an online submission portal, which details the process for submitting complaints against Southern Baptist churches in order for the committee to review them. They can be emailed or mailed in, too.

What the committee will be assessing is whether a church with a complaint against it is in friendly cooperation with the convention or if it has departed from Southern Baptist polity, doctrine or practice, Bramlett said. 

"If the committee forms the opinion that a church is not in friendly cooperation with the convention, we will submit a report to the executive committee stating our opinion and the reasons for it," Bramlett said. "The Executive Committee will consider the report and determine whether the church is in cooperation with the convention." 

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, is shown on a video screen as he addresses the denomination's annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday, June 13, 2019. Greear apologized for the sex abuse crisis besetting his denomination and outlined an array of steps to address it. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

The decision of the Executive Committee, which acts on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention when it is not in session, stands unless the church appeals it to the convention during its next big annual gathering, she said. 

In addition to sexual abuse issues, the Credentials Committee will also review complaints related to discrimination based on ethnicity and other issues concerning faith and practice. 

What does the process involve? 

The committee will not publicly announce submissions and will keep its deliberations confidential unless committee members decide the convention needs to sever ties with a particular church, Bramlett said. 

"It is the committee's intent to maintain as much confidentiality as possible while doing what is necessary to complete our assignment," Bramlett said. 

However, the committee will not consider anonymous complaints because the members may need to communicate with the person who filed it, Bramlett said. In addition to reviewing the information provided in the submission, the committee could also review details provided by the church in question and potentially share information with them that was provided in the complaint, she said.  

"If a submitter does not feel comfortable sharing their identity or speaking directly with the committee, we would encourage them to invite a friend or advocate to complete the submission process for them," Bramlett said. 

The submission form directs people to report abuse to law enforcement so a criminal investigation can be pursued, explaining that submitting a complaint to the the Credentials Committee is not a substitute for reporting allegations to civil authorities. 

The submission process also offers those filing complaints the option to be contacted by someone outside of the committee who is trained to assist victims of abuse. 

"In all cases, the committee will seek to demonstrate care and respect for those who have submitted," Bramlett said. "We know that some submitters may be abuse survivors, therefore we also provide a support phone call as an option." 

Jennifer Weed, left, and Nisha Virani demonstrate outside the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting Tuesday, June 11, 2019, during a rally in Birmingham, Ala. The "For Such a Time as This" protest called for a change in the way the SBC views and treats women and demanded action to combat sexual abuse within the establishment.

Push back and calls for patience follow announcement of complaint process 

After the complaint submission process was announced, some sexual abuse survivors and victim advocates have raised concerns about it. 

The Rev. Ashley Easter, founder of The Courage Conference for survivors of sexual abuse, is critical of it, saying its processes are not well-defined. 

"I would strongly caution victims of abuse about considering reporting to this less than a transparent organization with a history of denomination-wide abuse cover-up," Easter said, in an email.

She also wants to see the Southern Baptist Convention take additional steps to address sexual abuse in the church, like creating a sex offender database of those credibly accused and convicted. 

"Without this public database, there is no transparency, and abuse cover-ups will more than likely continue," Easter said. 

Other sexual abuse survivors, including Susan Codone, have called for patience as the Credentials Committee gets up and running. 

"I've been around long enough that I think six months as a committee is far too soon to judge," said Codone, who was sexually abused as a teen by the youth minister of her Southern Baptist church in Alabama.

"Give them a year. Let them get into the context of what they're seeing in these submissions and then I think they probably need to evolve and ask for more expertise and more help." 

Sexual abuse survivor Susan Codone speaks during a panel discussion at the annual convention of the Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 10, 2019.

Codone, who had spoken about her experience as a sexual abuse survivor during this year's annual meeting in Birmingham, was in her hotel room when the creation of the Credentials Committee was approved. And although they did not consult her in advance, someone ended up nominating her to sit on the committee, but her nomination was ultimately voted down. 

Codone said she is not sure the Credentials Committee is the right assignment for her, but would like to see its members become more diverse in the future, including more representation from survivors and people of color.

Overall, she thinks the creation of the Credentials Committee was a good first step in what she hopes is a longer process. 

"I would love for the convention to throw everything it has at the sexual abuse problem, but it takes a long time to change the culture and a system, especially one as large as the convention," Codone said. "I think the submissions are going to tell the story of what they need to be able to do next." 

Reach Holly Meyer at hmeyer@tennessean.com or 615-259-8241 and on Twitter @HollyAMeyer.