by Robert Downen | Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear speaks to the denomination’s executive committee Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. Just days after a newspaper investigation revealed hundreds of sexual abuse cases by Southern Baptist ministers and lay leaders over the past two decades, Greear spoke about plans to address the problem.
Alford’s resignation is the latest in a series of headline-grabbing events over the Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of sexual abuses. The newspapers found at least 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers had been accused or convicted of sex crimes or misconduct since 1998. (image: Mark Humphrey, STF / Associated Press)
A Southern Baptist Executive Committee official on Friday resigned, citing “controversy and angst” over his former committee’s recent decision to end inquiries into multiple churches over their handling of sexual abuse.
Ken Alford oversaw the bylaws committee that last Saturday announced it would end most of the 10 church investigations recommended by President J.D. Greear days earlier. Greear had made the recommendations after an investigation by the Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News that found more than 700 people had reported being sexually abused by Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers in the last two decades.
Six of those churches were in Texas, including three in Houston. The decision was met with swift backlash from survivors of sexual assault, many of whom said they were never contacted by SBC officials, as well as some prominent SBC pastors and figures.
In his resignation letter to the Executive Committee, which was obtained by the Chronicle, Alford wrote that “while condemning the report of our workgroup was unfair, I believe that it was understandable, especially coming from victims of sexual abuse and their advocates.”
“It was unfair in the sense that individuals accused us of ‘conducting a hasty investigation and quickly clearing six churches’ without interviewing victims, victim advocates, or other authorities,” he wrote.
But, he wrote, it was also unfair of Greear to ask the committee to do something that Alford said it was neither equipped nor intended to do.
“What should be obvious is that the task of conducting extensive investigations of churches is an assignment far beyond the capability of our small Bylaws Workgroup,” Alford wrote. “Beyond that fact, however, is the reality that neither the Bylaws Workgroup nor the Executive Committee has any investigative authority given to it by the SBC.”
The workgroup, he added, “conducted NO investigation, because we were not authorized to do so, and we did not ‘clear’ any churches, because that determination was not a part of our responsibility.
A spokesman for Greear declined comment Saturday night because Greear was about to lead services at his church in North Carolina.
Christa Brown, who for decades has called on the SBC to address sexual abuse, previously described the decision by Alford’s committee as a “Saturday night massacre of hope” for victims.
She said Alford’s resignation is further proof that the SBC should allow third parties to investigate sexual abuses.
“What’s ‘unfair’ is for any SBC insider group to presume to investigate the SBC’s own affiliated churches, ” she wrote in a text. “And that’s an unfairness that harms children, both now and in the future.”
Alford, who once resigned from a major SBC entity because of an affair he had, also said he understood why the incident – which he described Friday as a “moral failure” – raised questions about his ability to lead the group.
“Let me settle that question: I am NOT worthy!” Alford wrote. “I am not worthy of chairing that group, nor am I worthy of serving on the Executive Committee. Honestly, I am not worthy of serving as a pastor or of being married to the wonderful woman that I am.”
Alford’s resignation is the latest in a series of headline-grabbing events over the Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of sexual abuses. The newspapers found at least 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers had been accused or convicted of sex crimes or misconduct since 1998.
SBC leaders said they were outraged by the report’s findings, calling the acts “evil” and vowing to examine how the SBC can better handle the sexual abuses that victims and advocates have for years warned were at a crisis level.
One leading SBC figure has since apologized for his previous support of a church and popular religious leader at the center of a massive sex abuse scandal.
Alford’s resignation appears to be the first related to the series.
Days after the series concluded, Greear called for investigations into 10 SBC churches, including Houston’s Second Baptist Church, which the newspapers reported had been accused of mishandling multiple abuses by a youth group leader and contract worker, both of whom were later convicted.
Second Baptist has denied those allegations.
Unlike the Catholic Church, Greear does not have broad powers to implement any kind of sweeping reforms. The Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 member churches subscribe to the idea that each congregation is autonomous and self-governing, and thus don’t answer to any central figure or hierarchy.
That idea, called local church autonomy, has allowed sexual predators to sometimes move from church to church, the newspapers found.
Benjamin Cole, who runs the Baptist Blogger website, said Saturday that Alford’s resignation “does not begin to address the systemic failure” of the SBC’s responses to the ongoing and public sexual abuse crisis it has faced since the investigation published.
“The convention does not merely need a change in leadership, it needs a change of culture,” Cole wrote in a text message.
Robert Downen covers general assignment and breaking news stories for the Houston Chronicle’s metro desk. Prior to that, he worked as a business reporter in Albany, New York, and as the managing editor of a group of six newspapers in Illinois. He is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Illinois University. You can reach Robert via @RobDownenChron