Southern Baptist Group clears churches of mishandling sex abuse

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Southern Baptist officials have cleared seven churches accused of covering up sexual abuse just days after a top leader called for greater scrutiny following a joint newspaper investigation that revealed allegations of rampant sexual misconduct within the largest coalition of Baptist churches in the country.

Only three churches should be at risk of losing membership over their handling of allegations of sexual abuse, according to a Southern Baptist Convention working group statement released Saturday. The group also warned Southern Baptist leaders not to publicly criticize churches without offering an opportunity to comment, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reported.

The statement comes after convention President J.D. Greear's announcement last week that churches showing "wanton disregard for sexual abuse" should be kicked out, just as the Nashville-based denomination kicks out churches that affirm homosexuality. Greear, who is a pastor at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, called for further inquiries into 10 churches.

The working group's stance indicates clashes within the denomination over how to respond to the hundreds of sexual abuse cases that were brought to light by the two newspapers this month. The six-month investigation found that more than 700 people, many of whom were children, reported being victims of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist church pastors, workers and volunteers over the past two decades.

"We understand it is difficult, if not impossible, to issue a report on sexual abuse that will be met with satisfaction by everyone," said Ken Alford, chairman of the convention's work group, in the recent statement.

The three churches singled out by the working group include Cathedral of Faith in Houston, which is led by a registered sex offender, Bolivar Baptist Church in Sanger, Texas, and Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

The churches didn't respond to the newspapers' calls for comment on Monday.

Greear also didn't respond to a request for comment.

The working group's message has sparked outrage from victims and advocates who have pushed for reforms for years.

"Change will not happen until churches face legal consequences, both criminal and civil, for failure to report sexual abuse," said Amy Smith, a victims' advocate in Dallas. "Words and policies don't protect kids and vulnerable people. Actions do."

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