Report details widespread cover-up of sexual abuse among Southern Baptist leaders

A new independent report documents in devastating detail how the past leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention ignored sexual abuse allegations for the better part of two decades, and sometimes silenced or tried to discredit accusers. Anne Marie Miller, a survivor of the abuse and author of “Healing Together: A Guide to Supporting Sexual Abuse Survivors,” joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A new report documents in devastating detail how the past leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention ignored sexual abuse allegations for the better part of two decades and sometimes silenced or tried to discredit accusers.

    Amna Nawaz has more on the details of this disturbing report and the challenges it poses.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., with about 14 million members across 47,000 churches.

    This independent report, over 200 pages' long, examined hundreds of cases of sexual misconduct and abuse between 2000 and 2020. Among the findings, church leaders publicly fought calls to track ministers accused of abuse, even as they privately maintained a list hundreds of names' long at one point.

    The report finds church leaders — quote — "protected or even supported abusers for years."

    Joining us now is one of the survivors of church abuse, Anne Marie Miller. She is the author of "Healing Together: A Guide to Supporting Sexual Abuse Survivors" and a registered nurse in Dallas.

    Anne Marie, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for your time.

    I know you have had a chance to go through some of the report. I'm sure you have seen the headlines. What was your reaction? Did anything surprise you?

    Anne Marie Miller, Author, "Healing Together: A Guide to Supporting Sexual Abuse Survivors": Honestly, nothing really surprised me about the report. I'm so glad that it's here. I'm so glad that tangible steps have finally occurred after decades of this.

    But reading the report, unfortunately, nothing was really a surprise.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should mention you grew up in the Southern Baptist congregation. You were 16, as you have spoken publicly before, when your abuse by one of the church leaders began in the 1990s.

    And years went by before you reported it to church officials. What happened after that? What was the response?

  • Anne Marie Miller:

    The response after I reported it was — initially, it seemed like a good thing, like people were caring for me.

    But the actual organization ended up not reporting it to authorities and allowing the person that abused me to continue going up the ladder in the Southern Baptist Convention. So he was a high-ranking executive when he was finally arrested in 2018.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What was that like for you at the time to see that happen?

  • Anne Marie Miller:

    It was almost as traumatizing as the abuse itself.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And what about from the congregation? Did you get any response from them?

  • Anne Marie Miller:

    I actually had left the church at that point, because I did not feel safe in the church. And I was really wrestling with my faith at that time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It did take you years after that as well. You eventually went to the police, right, when church officials didn't do anything about it.

    What happened after that?

  • Anne Marie Miller:

    I went to the police thinking they weren't going to do anything because it had been 20-plus years since it had happened.

    But, within 24 hours, they were investigating it. And he was arrested and eventually indicted for four sex abuse felonies. At that point, there was a large reckoning happening within the Southern Baptist Convention. A lot of abuse stories had come public. And I believe that it was kind of that moment that this task force and other investigations started to become finally necessary, because the media was finally pushing these stories forward, so they had to do something to address it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Anne Marie, when you were younger, did you know of other people who had been abused? Were these kinds of stories known within the church?

  • Anne Marie Miller:

    They weren't.

    I grew up in small towns in West Texas, but I think they were probably happening. It's just not something you talk about in the church. You don't talk about sex in general. And so, if you're abused — like, with my own abuse, I didn't feel like I could talk about it, because I didn't see it as abuse at the time.

    But I felt as if I was sinning, and I needed to protect this man of God who was abusing me, because it would look bad on God, it would look bad on the church. There was sin involved. So, there's so much shame involved in it that, especially with kids and adults, you just don't know how to deal with that in such a religious environment.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are details in this report, like how church leaders talked about survivors like you, how disparaging they were, how hard they worked to silence people like you.

    What was that like for you to read?

  • Anne Marie Miller:

    It's hard to see names that you are familiar with, that are supposedly leading people to Christ, caring for others, showing compassion for the poor, and at the same time calling survivors satanic.

    And just, sometimes, people would receive death threats from leaders within the Southern Baptist Church. I wasn't, but I have friends that received death threats from pastors within the convention.

    And that's just beyond comprehendible to me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should note that, unlike the Catholic Church, which has grappled with similar issues, there's no top-down hierarchy in the Southern Baptist Convention.

    Does that — to your mind, does that make accountability harder?

  • Anne Marie Miller:

    It does.

    It's something I always called the idol of autonomy. And it's kind of just a way for churches to escape liability or really for the whole organization, because, if you have something happen in this little church, then you can't sue the entire organization. They're not responsible.

    It's like, oh, that's their thing. They need to deal with it. We can't do anything else about it.

    And they dodge accountability.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what would you like to see happen now?

    Now these hundreds of pages are out there. It's an independent report. There's some shocking revelations in here. What should happen next?

  • Anne Marie Miller:

    I think that the everyday person that goes to Southern Baptist churches need to really consider where they're spending their money and where they're going and see that there are tons of survivors that need care and compassion, and know that this is true.

    This is objective documentation. It's not made up. So, believe survivors and care for them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we should mention church executive committee leaders said they're committed to doing all they can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse in churches.

    Do you believe that they will?

  • Anne Marie Miller:

    I guess we will have to see. I don't know how to answer that question. I hope that they will.

    But we're going to need to see it. And we need a lot more than thoughts and prayers. We need tangible action.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Anne Marie Miller joining us tonight from Dallas.

    Anne Marie, thank you for your time.

  • Anne Marie Miller:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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