ENID, Okla. — How the church responds to sexual abuse is expected to be a major topic of this year's meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, which convenes Tuesday in Birmingham, Ala.
Last year's convention was overshadowed by allegations Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's then-president Paige Patterson failed to report allegations of rape and sexual assault, and an expansive report by the Houston Chronicle in February detailed more than 20 years of sexual assault by Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) clergy, staff and volunteers.
Eric Costanzo, pastor at South Tulsa Baptist Church, said the Houston Chronicle articles heightened public awareness of the issue of sexual assault in the church, but the allegations surrounding Patterson already had ensured the topic would be a central theme of this year's meeting.
"Thankfully, the Southern Baptist Convention can say we were already working on this issue before the Houston Chronicle articles broke," Costanzo said. "The final catalyst was the alleged failure of Dr. Patterson to report sexual abuse to the authorities, as it should have been."
Costanzo's congregation, which draws in about 1,200 worshipers on Sundays, already is part of an SBC initiative aimed at preventing and responding to sexual abuse in the church. South Tulsa is one of several churches enrolled in a pilot program, Church Cares, launched last week and designed to better teach clergy and lay leaders how to respond when sexual assault occurs.
"Our church is excited to be one of the pilot churches for the curriculum the Southern Baptist Convention is releasing for churches that care for sexual abuse victims and protect the vulnerable, in terms of sexual abuse in churches," Costanzo said.
According to the Church Cares website the curriculum is designed to equip church leaders "to respond well in the initial stages of learning about instances of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse." The 12-lesson program "brings together top experts from various fields to help leaders understand and implement the best practices for handling the variety of abuse scenarios at church, school, or ministry."
Costanzo said he hopes the curriculum moves beyond the pilot stage, and is embraced by the convention's representatives, called messengers, at this week's meeting.
"We are prayerful this will be a very unified stance followed with action steps," Costanzo said, "and churches like ours will be able to lead the way in piloting some of this material as we train our own leaders internally, and help other churches walk through that process."
However, Costanzo said he hopes the convention will go beyond the training curriculum, to pass a binding resolution setting uniform guidance for how SBC churches respond to and report sexual abuse.
"The goal is to have a unified vote, a resolution statement regarding denomination responses to sexual abuse," Costanzo said, "and there could be a resolution on how to address churches that don't comply.
"My hope and prayer is that all the messengers at the meeting will see this as a top priority," Costanzo said, "and will be unified in their response, and that it will will be a clear message that will be sent, biblically and in terms of our call to love and protect the vulnerable, and others and our children."
Wade Burleson, lead pastor at Emmanuel Enid, said he expects measures to come out of this year's meeting to prevent abusive clergy from remaining in the pulpit.
"I think there will be recommendations on the sexual abuse issue that will come out," Burleson said, "and I think actions will be taken by the convention that will send the signal we are serious about making sure predators are not passed around from church to church.
"It's just a matter of getting Southern Baptist Churches to understand the importance of background checks, mandatory reporting, and getting resources to help churches," Burleson said, "and that'd be a great start."
Twelve years ago, Burleson submitted a proposal from the floor of the SBC annual meeting to track clergy who faced credible allegations of sexual assault. Burleson said the Houston Chronicle articles published in February brought light to the need for that kind of tracking.
"The Houston Chronicle has done us a service in establishing an informal database, but it's not extensive enough," Burleson said. "I think the numbers are significantly greater than what they're reporting. So the question is, 'How is it feasible to do what I've been asking for for 15 years?'"
Despite the need, Burleson said he doesn't expect a universal tracking database will come out of this year's meeting.
"I don't think that will probably be the recommendation that will come out, because it is way too big of a job for our convention," Burleson said. "I think you'll have to establish a nonprofit with a board of experts that the Southern Baptist Church will fund to manage that."
Burleson said he will be making a motion at the meeting Tuesday that will bring light to the issue of the church's responsibility in addressing clergy sex abuse. He declined to give specifics on the motion before it is made to the SBC messengers.
"It will allow the convention to speak directly to our obligation to see that predators are not passed from church to church," Burleson said. "We will have an occasion as a denomination to make a statement about sexual abuse."
As the messengers prepare to tackle that and other issues affecting their more-than 47,000 churches and 15 million members, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma communications director Brian Hobbs said it is "a key time in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention."
"It’s our prayer that, as Oklahoma Baptists and others gather for the annual meeting, the Lord guides our steps as we consider all the important matters before us," Hobbs said.
Oklahoma's Southern Baptists will have a chance to hear one of their own preach the annual meeting's sermon this year. Stephen Rummage, senior pastor at Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, is scheduled to deliver the convention sermon at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday.
Rummage said he "was really surprised" when he was selected to deliver this year's sermon.
"I’ve been preaching God’s Word for 28 years, since I was 22 years old," Rummage said. "I’ve always been amazed that the Lord would allow me to stand before his people and preach. I’m honored to be able to bring a message to my fellow Southern Baptists ... and I am praying that God would use me to encourage the people who will hear me."
Rummage said his sermon will focus on "the cross of Jesus, and the priority of sharing the saving message of Christ with others."
"God loves people, and he has provided a way for people to be forgiven of sin and spend eternity with him through the death and resurrection of Jesus," Rummage said. "That’s the message I’m preaching."
Rummage said he hopes all Southern Baptists will embrace this year's theme of “the Gospel above all.”
"As followers of Jesus Christ, God has given us a message of hope, forgiveness, and new life that people everywhere need to hear," Rummage said.
For more information, and to watch live stream broadcasts from the SBC annual meeting, visit http://www.sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc19.