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Southern Baptists respond to the widespread silencing of sexual abuse victims

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Southern Baptists are gathering for their annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., and the sex abuse revelations in the church are looming large - in particular, the widespread silencing of victims. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: The nation's largest Protestant Christian denomination has acknowledged sexual abuse by ministers for years, but not like this. Outgoing President Ed Litton opened with an apology to victims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ED LITTON: Many of them have suffered much, and we honor them and we honor their pain and suffering.

FARMER: Some victims are in attendance this week. Last year, Southern Baptist Church representatives demanded an outside investigation into how leaders have handled sexual abuse claims. That investigation revealed, in striking detail, that the denomination was keeping track of known abusers, even while saying it didn't have the ability to help churches keep from hiring a pastor who'd been credibly accused.

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BRAD EUBANK: I'm a sex abuse survivor, and I'm a pastor. I'm mentioned in the report.

FARMER: Brad Eubank of Petal, Miss., was abused as a child by a minister of music.

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EUBANK: I plead with you, on behalf of survivors who love our convention and love our churches, please, let's start the healing process today.

FARMER: The abuse report contained two starter recommendations. One creates an organization to oversee reforms across the denomination. The second creates a public database, much like the one the denomination was keeping in secret.

Several representatives spoke against the idea. Mark Coppenger, with a church in Franklin, Tenn., says he's not convinced the hundreds of accused ministers are all that big a deal in a denomination that still claims more than 13 million members.

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MARK COPPENGER: It strikes me that the burden of proof is upon those who say that we have a dreadful problem that needs to be met.

FARMER: But the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the proposals, and other resolutions are being debated today. They ask state legislatures to increase criminal penalties for abuse by pastors and to shield churches from liability. They say that would make churches more likely to share what they know about abusive pastors.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DEAD TEXAN SONG, "THE STRUGGLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Blake Farmer