The Southern Baptist Convention gathers for its annual national meeting Tuesday with one sobering topic -- sex abuse by clergy and staff -- overshadowing all others.
Inside the meeting hall in Birmingham, Alabama, delegates representing the nation's largest Protestant denomination will likely vote on establishing criteria for expelling churches that mishandle or cover up abuse allegations. They also may vote to establish a new committee which would review how member churches handle claims of abuse.
Outside the convention center, abuse survivors and other activists plan a protest rally Tuesday evening, demanding that the SBC move faster to require sex-abuse training for all pastors, staff and volunteers, and to create a database of credibly accused abusers that could be shared among its more than 47,000 churches. They will also be urging the church, which espouses all-male leadership, to be more respectful of women's roles -- a volatile topic that's sparked online debate over whether women should preach to men.
Sex abuse already was a high-profile issue at the 2018 national meeting in Dallas, following revelations about several sexual misconduct cases.
Soon after his election as SBC president at that meeting, the Rev. J.D. Greear formed an advisory group to draft recommendations on how to confront the problem.
However, pressure on the church has intensified in recent months, due in part to articles by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News asserting that hundreds of Southern Baptist clergy and staff have been accused of sexual misconduct over the past 20 years, including dozens who returned to church duties, while leaving more than 700 victims with little in the way of justice or apologies.
"For years, there were people who assumed abuse was simply a Roman Catholic problem," said the Rev. Russell Moore, who heads the SBC's public policy arm. "I see that mentality dissipating. There seems to be a growing sense of vulnerability and a willingness to address this crisis."