The leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, said on Friday that the church was under investigation by the Justice Department for sexual abuse and that it would “fully and completely cooperate.”
Church leaders said in a statement that multiple branches of the denomination, which includes seminaries and Missionary organizations, were under investigation and that the church was continuing to “grieve and lament past mistakes.”
In May, leaders of the church published a scathing review that said reports of sexual abuse were suppressed by top church officials for two decades.
That investigation, which was conducted by an outside consultant, covered reports of abuse from women and children against male pastors, church employees and officials from 2000 to the present.
One of the report’s most striking revelations was the existence of an internal list of 703 people suspected of abuse that had been compiled by an employee of the denomination’s executive committee, its national leadership body.
“For almost two decades, Survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention,” the report said, “to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff.”
“They made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails” and appeared at meetings and held rallies, the report continued, “only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling and even Outright hostility.”
The church subsequently published a 205-page list of hundreds of ministers and other church workers whom it described as being “credibly accused” of sexual abuse.
On Friday, the church’s leaders vowed to continue reforms meant to combat sexual abuse in its ranks. “We recognize our reform efforts are not finished,” they said. “Our commitment to cooperate with the Justice Department is born from our demonstrated commitment to transparently address the scourge of sexual abuse.”
The leaders included Seminary presidents, executive committee members and the heads of Missionary organizations.
A spokeswoman from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department would not confirm the investigation on Friday and had no immediate comment.
Pastors and church members have been openly frustrated in recent years at what they described as inaction by the Southern Baptist Convention. The crisis blew into the open in 2019, when an investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News Revealed that roughly 380 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers, from youth pastors to top ministers, had pleaded guilty or been convicted of sex crimes against more than 700 victims since 1998.
The Justice Department in recent years has investigated Roman Catholic dioceses for sex abuse offenses, but it has so far struggled to prosecute them. The FBI opened an inquiry in June into the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans, The Associated Press reported.
The Southern Baptist Convention was created in 1845 when Southern Baptists split from northerners over the issue of slavery, which the southerners at the time supported and the northerners opposed. The SBC now has almost 14 million members and more than 47,000 churches in all 50 states.
Glenn Thrush, Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias contributed reporting.