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The DOJ is investigating Southern Baptists for mishandling sex abuse allegations

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Southern Baptist Convention says it's being investigated by the Department of Justice for mishandling allegations of sexual abuse. The SBC is the largest Baptist group in the United States. The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News started reporting on allegations of abuse in the church in 2018. Robert Downen is a reporter with the Houston Chronicle and was on that story long before Friday's announcement. Robert Downen, welcome to the program.

ROBERT DOWNEN: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: Robert, how significant is this news that the DOJ is investigating the Southern Baptist Convention?

DOWNEN: It's hard to kind of gauge it definitively right now because the details of the investigation are very, very sparse at this time. But it is still, nonetheless, an unprecedented level of scrutiny that the SBC is now facing.

RASCOE: Is the SBC saying that they're going to cooperate with this probe?

DOWNEN: Yes, in their statement, which was signed by, you know, basically all of the SBC's leaders, they pledged full cooperation. And I think it's - it'll be interesting because what the DOJ appears to be looking at is the findings of this report that came out in May - that there was a lot of explosive stuff in there about former leaders mainly. And since then, they've elected new leaders. And a lot of the people at the center of that report are no longer in positions of power or have fallen out of favor with the denomination.

RASCOE: You've been working on this story since 2018. Can you talk to us about the scope of the abuse that came out in that third-party review?

DOWNEN: Sure, so we started our reporting in early 2018, but our first reporting found that at least 400 SBC church leaders and volunteers had been convicted or credibly accused of sex crimes. Most of them were criminally convicted - and that they had over 700 victims at a minimum and also that SBC leaders had been ignoring, for decades, calls from survivors to address this problem. You know, they had pretended themselves immune from it. They had said that their loose structure, the kind of coalition structure that they used made it really difficult to implement sweeping reforms on a national level. However, what we find out in this May report, kind of kickstarted by our reporting over the last few years, was that while SBC leaders were publicly saying that, you know, some of these reforms were not feasible, they were privately doing those exact reforms, including keeping a private list of credibly accused and criminally convicted ministers that had worked in SBC churches.

RASCOE: What are you hearing from survivors after this new development?

DOWNEN: On the one hand, there are survivors who are saying, you know, this is just the beginning of an investigation. Like, it doesn't mean anything until charges have been filed. And we very well may never see an outcome of this, given that it is wrapped up in private grand juries. On the other hand, there is a sense of, you know, this never would have happened four or five years ago. And the fact that not only the Department of Justice but the top brass of the SBC continue to look into this and also are acknowledging that the problem exists, I think, is seen as validation by many of the survivors who have been saying as much for decades.

RASCOE: What are you watching for next?

DOWNEN: We are definitely going to be pushing for more details on the investigation, though that may be difficult. But one of the most interesting things, I think, for me and a lot of evangelicals is going to be how this kind of plays into this broader rift between the conservative Southern Baptist leaders and this uber-conservative group that has been kind of opposed to abuse reforms. And I do think that there is some fear on the survivor community that that group is going to try to, you know, take this and run with it as part of this broader narrative that they've been pushing, that the abuse reforms are kind of a Trojan horse for liberalism and all sorts of things that they frame as attacks on their conservative faith despite the people pushing for those reforms also being themselves very conservative.

RASCOE: Robert Downen is a reporter with the Houston Chronicle. Thank you so much for joining us.

DOWNEN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.