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Southern Baptist officials sexually abused hundreds, new reports reveal

About 700 victims were sexually abused, assaulted or raped by Southern Baptist Church leaders and volunteers across two decades, according to a six-month joint investigation by the Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express. The papers also detailed how church officials brushed aside repeated warnings of trouble. William Brangham talks to Robert Downen of the Houston Chronicle for more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Twenty years and 700 victims, that's just part of the shocking revelations contained in a joint investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News into sexual abuse, assault and cover-up within the Southern Baptist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in America.

    The report is called "Abuse of Faith."

    William Brangham has more on the findings.

  • William Brangham:

    This series makes for very difficult reading, and, frankly, this conversation might not be appropriate for everyone.

    After a six-month investigation, the two papers have documented about 700 victims being sexually abused, assaulted or raped by Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers. Many of the victims were children, some as young as 3 years old.

    In addition to these violations, some teenage and adult victims were then shunned by their church. Others were told to have abortions. The papers also detail church officials brushing aside repeated warnings of trouble. Some leaders who were convicted of sex crimes and officially listed as sex offenders were later able to return to the pulpit. One still works with teens in Houston today.

    The Houston Chronicle's Robert Downen is one of the three reporters on this series. And he joins me now.

    Robert, thank you very much for doing this, and just kudos to this really remarkable and horrifying bit of reporting that you guys have done.

    I don't want to dwell too much on this, but I wonder if you could start off by just giving us a little more sense of the types of crimes that we're talking about here?

  • Robert Downen:

    We looked into 20 years' worth allegations. A lot of those involved sexual assault of minors, solicitation of minors online.

    Among the many cases we found involved youth pastors who were kind of using their — the technology that they have now to kind of groom victims in youth groups, sometimes for sex, other times for sending them nude photos. We found many cases in which people were convicted for child porn.

    So, really, as far as the scope of crimes, it was — it's pretty broad, what we found, so…

  • William Brangham:

    And how did you go about compiling all this evidence?

  • Robert Downen:

    For a while now, there's been — there have been a number of bloggers and activists, victims, survivors, who have been tracking this stuff, who have been compiling it. So that definitely made for the first leg of finding these cases, made that a lot easier.

    But, after that, we started using court records, doing any kind of searches we could of online civil court records to find civil suits that also may reference convictions. Really, you name it, we tried it to find these, which I think kind of speaks to the broader issue as well, is that these cases and the people accused in them are sometimes very, very hard to locate.

  • William Brangham:

    You document about 220 offenders. And I believe it was 380 who were accused.

    You also detail, in very chilling parts of your reporting, how church leaders were warned about this kind of trouble, that victims would go to them and say, this is going on, you have to act.

    How did they respond?

  • Robert Downen:

    In 2007 to 2008, where the loudest calls for this — and as I did mention, there have been all of these bloggers and these people who have been for years now saying, hey, this is an issue, and you guys need to do something about it.

    And, in 2008, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, or at least the executive committee, had that opportunity, and they declined to implement a lot of the reforms, in part because of the denomination's polity.

    Effectively, the Southern Baptist Convention is less of a denomination than it is a cooperative, cooperative of 47,000 churches, each of which is independent and self-governing. So, therefore, the executive members, the — quote, unquote — "leaders" of the convention,don't necessarily have the same authority to implement change top down in the way that you would see in, like, the Catholic Church.

  • William Brangham:

    But it does seem, at least from your reporting, that church leaders didn't actively respond to it.

    In some people's words, they seemed to have dodged the issue.

  • Robert Downen:

    That's definitely a sentiment shared by a lot of people who were pressuring them and other survivors and victims. I think that it's a fair critique to say that, obviously, after years of them being made aware of this issue, the fact that no reforms were ever undertaken or really seriously considered, I think that it's a fair critique from the people who were vocalizing this problem for years.

  • William Brangham:

    How has the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention responded recently to your reporting?

  • Robert Downen:

    The current leadership, current president, J.D. Greear, as well as Russell Moore, who heads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, they have been generally responsive.

    They definitely see this report as opening a lot of eyes, and really laying on the table the extent of the SBC's sexual abuse problem. Thus far, almost all the reactions we have gotten have been either people who are shocked or people who are grateful that this was finally coming to light in a way that really can't be ignored anymore.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, there are two more installments of your reporting to come out in the coming days.

    Robert Downen at The Houston Chronicle, thank you very much.

  • Robert Downen:

    Thank you for having me.

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