SBC Executive Committee Says No Charges Following Federal Investigation

An 18-month-long federal investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee has concluded without any charges or action against it, the Executive Committee said on Wednesday.

The country’s largest Protestant denomination has been the subject of a Justice Department probe following a 2022 report that showed SBC leaders refused to respond to allegations of abuse due to legal liability and failed to enact policies to protect its members from predatory pastors.

The Executive Committee—with staff at its Nashville headquarters and dozens of elected trustees from across the country—oversees everyday business for the SBC. The entity said it was informed last Thursday that its part of the investigation had concluded “with no further action to be taken.”

A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to confirm or comment on the status of the inquiry when contacted by CT.

The Justice Department has not publicly acknowledged or commented on the SBC investigation since it began. Federal grand jury subpoenas and proceedings—for better or worse—are shrouded in secrecy. To protect the accused and the integrity of the investigation, the government often doesn’t disclose who had been involved.

According to the Executive Committee, the investigation was expected to look into multiple entities. Presidents of each of its seminaries and agencies had signed a letter in 2022 agreeing to participate and saying, “Our commitment to cooperating with the Department of Justice is born from our demonstrated commitment to transparently address the scourge of sexual abuse.”

Jonathan Howe, the interim president of the Executive Committee, said in a statement Wednesday that the investigation into his entity had ended. He did not comment on the status of other SBC entities that could be involved.

“While we are grateful for closure on this particular matter, we recognize that sexual abuse reform efforts must continue to be implemented across the Convention,” he said. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to assist churches in preventing and responding well to sexual abuse in the SBC.”

Multiple advocates for abuse victims—including SBC abuse survivors Megan Lively and Tiffany Thigpen as well as attorney Rachael Denhollander, who has advised the SBC task forces charged with abuse reform—say they were told by officials that the case is still open and ongoing.

Christa Brown, a survivor who has led the charge calling for reforms, including a database of abusive leaders, responded on X.

“This does not lessen SBC’s moral responsibility for grievous harms. Nor does it alter the reality that, in countless SBC churches, leaders violated state laws and standards,” she said.

From the outside, it was never clear what federal statute Southern Baptists might have violated or how federal prosecutors might make their case, several experts told CT.

There’s a lot still unknown. Neither the SBC nor Justice Department officials have publicly specified the scope or focus of the inquiry, which dated back to August 2022. At the time, the Executive Committee’s general counsel said the entity had received a subpoena but no individuals had been subpoenaed yet.

The Justice Department website says that child sexual abuse is “generally handled by local and state authorities, and not by the federal government.” It’s unusual for federal investigators to get involved in clergy abuse, though they have examined abuse and cover-up by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Orleans, starting in 2018.

So far, none have been charged under federal laws, such as those that restrict racketeering (RICO) or interstate trafficking (the Mann Act). Any possible federal penalty for Southern Baptist entities as part of the probe into abuse response would be the first of its kind.

Besides the Executive Committee, no other SBC entity—such as the denomination’s six seminaries and its missions agencies—has publicly acknowledged any involvement in the investigation.

A spokesperson for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the SBC’s public policy arm, said it had not been subpoenaed or asked for information from federal investigators.

In a response to CT, ERLC president Brent Leatherwood stated:

We have a responsibility to combat abuse by ensuring predators do not have the ability to prey on our churches, and equipping pastors with the tools to do so. The Gospel demands it and messengers have consistently called for such action. Carrying out that objective in a cooperative way remains the goal.

The ERLC continues to offer resources around abuse response and prevention. It was part of the SBC’s initial abuse response following the landmark 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle that compiled 700 cases of abuse in Southern Baptist churches.

The issue of abuse has dominated the SBC ever since. There were claims of former seminary president Paige Patterson mishandling abuse at two schools; a lawsuit involving Conservative Resurgence leader Paul Pressler, accused of abusing young men for decades; conflicting factions over whether abuse was really a big problem for the denomination; limited mechanisms for expelling churches who employed abusive pastors; and a massive third-party investigation authorized by convention messengers.

The SBC is also currently facing lawsuits from victims of abuse as well as from leaders named in abuse reports.

The Tennessean reported that legal expenses cost the Executive Committee $2.8 million in the previous fiscal year and that the entity underwent layoffs in part due to the cost of the abuse response.

Last month, the volunteer task force overseeing abuse reform in the SBC announced plans to launch an independent nonprofit to manage the programs, including a database of abusive pastors.

This is a breaking news story and has been updated.

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