Southern Baptist Convention sex abuse report: 44 women made allegations against Jacksonville pastor

Top Southern Baptists plan to release secret list of pastors, church-affiliated personnel accused of sexual abuse

Top administrative leaders for the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, said Tuesday that they will release a secret list of hundreds of pastors and other church-affiliated personnel accused of sexual abuse.

An attorney for the SBC’s Executive Committee announced the decision during a virtual meeting called in response to a scathing investigative report detailing how the committee mishandled allegations of sex abuse and stonewalled numerous survivors. The committee anticipates releasing the list Thursday.

During the meeting, top leaders and several committee members vowed to work toward changing the culture of the denomination and to listen more attentively to survivors’ voices and stories.

The report is expected to contain new details about former Jacksonville Pastor Darrell Gilyard. He was a pastor at Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville in 2007.

He was convicted of having lewd contact with two teenage girls, sentenced to three years in prison and added to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s sex offenders list.

On Tuesday, News4JAX learned that the report includes allegations by a woman that she fought off an attempted rape in 1991 at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville. According to the report. Gilyard was working there when the Jacksonville woman, Tiffany Thigpen, says she was attacked. She said she was terrified and traumatized.

The report shows Dr. Jerry Vines, then-pastor of First Baptist, “was dismissive of her report” and told her “it would be embarrassing for her if others knew about it.”

And, according to the report, after that, Gilyard worked at a church in Texas, where other women accused him of abuse.

The SBC Executive Committee said it became aware that “44 women had reported being victims of sexually inappropriate conduct” by Gilyard. The letter on page 146 says, “In almost every case, they were reportedly shamed for it and left feeling they were not believed.”

On Tuesday, News4JAX learned that the report includes allegations by a woman that she fought off an attempted rape in 1991 at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville.

The report says Thigpen wrote a letter to the Bylaws Work Group in 2019, stating how Gilyard was allowed to move from church to church with prominent SBC figures vouching for him. No one on the Bylaws Work Group responded to the letter. Thigpen also made a submission to the Credentials Committee, as well.

The report shows she says the process has taken an emotional toll, writing, “Imagine telling for decades to a non-receptive audience, to an audience who abuses you with their shame and their hateful words against you.”

News4JAX reached out to Thigpen for comment but has not heard back.

Dr. Heath Lambert, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, sent News4JAX the following statement on Tuesday night:

“I am horrified and saddened by the abuse and cover up of abuse that was chronicled in the SBC sex abuse report. That is particularly true of the abuse of a precious former member of First Baptist Church 30 years ago. It is sinful and wrong to abuse any human being, to counsel abuse victims to remain silent, and to protect abusers from exposure. The leadership of our church today demands strict screening of all staff and volunteers, strictly enforces policies protecting innocent people, and requires all accusations of abuse to be reported to the authorities. I call on any person involved in abuse or concealing abuse to confess this sin and seek reconciliation with those they have wronged.”

The 288-page report by Guidepost Solutions, which was released Sunday after a seven-month investigation, contained several explosive revelations. Among those were details of how D. August Boto, the Executive Committee’s former vice president and general counsel, and former SBC spokesman Roger Oldham kept their own private list of abusive pastors. Both retired in 2019. The existence of the list was not widely known within the committee and its staff.

“Despite collecting these reports for more than 10 years, there is no indication that (Oldham and Boto) or anyone else, took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches,” the report said.

Boto joined the Executive Committee in 1995 and became executive vice president and general counsel in 2007.

On Tuesday, the committee released a statement singling out and denouncing Boto’s words written in a communication to survivors and their advocates on Sept. 29, 2006, that “continued discourse between us (the Executive Committee and survivors’ advocates) will not be positive or fruitful.”

The committee, in its new statement, said it “rejects the sentiment (of Boto’s words) in its entirety and seeks to publicly repent for its failure to rectify this position and wholeheartedly listen to survivors.”

Gene Besen, the committee’s interim counsel, said during Tuesday’s virtual meeting that releasing the list is an important step toward transparency. The names of survivors, confidential witnesses and any uncorroborated allegations of sexual abuse will be redacted from the list that will be made public, he said.

Besen said the committee’s leaders will also look into revoking retirement benefits for Boto and others who were involved in the cover-up. He urged committee members to set aside past divisions and stay united in a collective commitment to end sexual abuse in the SBC.

Willie McLaurin, the Executive Committee’s interim president and CEO, issued a formal public apology to all those who suffered sexual abuse within the SBC, which has a membership of over 47,000 churches.

“We are sorry to the survivors for all we have done to cause pain and frustration,” he said. “Now is the time to change the culture. We have to be proactive in our openness and transparency from now.”

Executive Committee Chair Wally Slade began the virtual meeting by acknowledging the survivors.

“Our commitment is to be different and do different,” he said. “We can’t come up with half-baked solutions.”

After the report’s release, more sexual abuse survivors have been contacting the Executive Committee to tell their stories, Besen said. He said he has asked Guidepost to open up a hotline so survivors who reach out “are directed to the proper place and receive the proper care.” The committee will publicize the hotline number as soon as it goes live, McLaurin said.

The Sexual Abuse Task Force, appointed at the demand of SBC delegates during last year’s meeting in Nashville, expects to make its formal motions based on the Guidepost report public next week. Those recommendations will then be presented to the delegates for a vote during this year’s national meeting scheduled for June 14-15 in Anaheim, California, according to Pastor Bruce Frank who led the task force.

Frank, lead pastor of Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden, North Carolina, said the crux of the task force’s recommendations based on Guidepost’s report would be to prevent sexual abuse, to better care for survivors when such abuse does occur and to make sure abusers are not allowed to continue in ministry.

Survivors and advocates have long called for a public database of abusers. The creation of an “Offender Information System” was one of the key recommendations in the report by Guidepost Solutions, an independent firm contracted by the SBC’s Executive Committee after delegates to last year’s national meeting pressed for an investigation by outsiders.

The proposed database is expected to be one of several recommendations that resulted from Guidepost’s seven-month investigation presented to thousands of delegates attending this year’s national meeting

Lawyer and writer Christa Brown, who says she was sexually abused as a teen by the youth minister at her SBC church, has been pressing the SBC since 2006 to create a publicly accessible database of known abusers. She was heartened by Tuesday’s announcement that the secret list would be made public.

“I hope that will happen in the very near future. I’ll be watching and waiting,” she told The Associated Press. “It boggles my mind to try to imagine how they could have rationalized keeping this list secret for so many years - since 2007. It suggests a level of moral bankruptcy that I find incomprehensible.”

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.


About the Authors:

Brie Isom joined the News4JAX team in January 2021 after spending three years covering news in South Bend, Indiana.