For decades, Southern Baptist leaders rolled their eyes whenever there were headlines about clergy sexual abuse cases.

That was — wink, wink — a Catholic thing linked to celibate priests. Then there were those mainline Protestants, and even some evangelicals, who modernized their teachings on marriage and sex. No wonder they were having problems.

This was a powerful, unbiblical myth that helped Southern Baptists ignore their own predators, said Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear during a recent national conference. The event was hosted by the denomination’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the new SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group.

“The danger of this myth is that it is naive: It relegates abuse to an ideological problem, when it should be most properly seen as a depravity problem. ... It fails to recognize that wherever people exist in power without accountability, abuse will foster,” said Greear, pastor of the Summit Church near Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

“What part of society has not been affected? It happens on Wall Street, in Hollywood, on Capitol Hill, in academic institutions, sports programs, Catholic and Protestant churches, liberal and conservative,” he added. “I want to say something as an evangelical to evangelicals: We evangelicals should have known this. Didn’t Jesus say there would be wolves in sheep’s clothing that would come into the flock in order not to serve the flock, but to abuse the flock?”

The shameful truth, said Greear, is that victims inside America’s largest Protestant flock tried, in recent decades, to awaken SBC leaders. Then alarms sounded last February, when the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News revealed that several hundred Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers had been accused of sexual abuse, with 700-plus victims.

This created another myth: that these news reports marked the beginning of the crisis. Some Southern Baptists, said Greear, also suggested that victims should learn to practice forgiveness, implying that their cries for justice were “attacks from adversaries, instead of warnings from friends.”

The SBC president became emotional at this point: “It’s wrong to categorize someone as ‘just bitter’ because they raised their voice when their important warnings were not heeded. Anger is an appropriate response — a BIBLICAL response — in that circumstance. ... It is doubly bad when we use their anger to simply reaffirm our myths.”

The ultimate question is whether SBC leaders have the authority to force local churches to take these issues seriously. For centuries, Baptists have stressed the autonomy of individual congregations when dealing with issues of doctrine and discipline. Local churches ordain, hire and fire their own clergy — period.

“It will take no small amount of courage to confront the crisis of abuse amidst rampant skepticism,” said nationally known Bible teacher Beth Moore, a childhood sexual abuse survivor who spoke during the conference. “The skepticism is fair, because talk is cheap. We earned distrust, and now we must take the long road of earning trust and walk forward in a posture of humility. It will take much courage not only to resist defensiveness, but to resist deflection. If we are cowards, the generation coming up behind us will either despise us or be like us.”

There is no question, Greear admitted, that sexual abuse has hurt the church and its mission. Polling by LifeWay Research found that 1 in 10 believers under the age of 35 who had fled SBC churches said they did so because they “felt abuse had not been taken seriously.”

Why did so many Southern Baptists look the other way? Far too many leaders embraced other myths, said Greear. Some argued that church leaders should handle accusations privately, keeping scandals out of the public eye. Some claimed that scripture forbids using secular laws to punish straying believers. Greear probed that myth verse by verse, concluding that, if “we are dealing with a criminal issue, we disobey scripture in not getting the authorities involved.”

Some Southern Baptists have even argued that a few hundred abuse cases isn’t that big of a problem in a denomination with nearly 15 million members and thousands of pastors and church workers.

Once again, Greear was blunt: “What if one of those statistics involved your son? What if one of those data points was your daughter? Doesn’t Jesus leave the 90 and nine to protect the ONE?”

Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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