Wade Burleson

Emmanuel Enid lead pastor Wade Burleson speaks at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention Tuesday morning.

ENID, Okla. — Emmanuel Enid pastor Wade Burleson submitted a motion Tuesday morning to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Ala., to formally adopt a report critical of how the church has handled reports of sexual abuse.

In an opening session that focused heavily on the church's response to sexual abuse, Burleson's made the motion to add the full text of an examination into abuse within the church's International Mission Board (IMB) to the IMB's annual report.

The IMB, which oversees more than 3,600 field personnel in more than 40,000 overseas churches with more than 372,000 members, commissioned the law firm of Gray Plant Mooty (GPM) in 2018 to examine past allegations of sexual abuse and its current practices for responding to abuse.

In a May 22, 2019, post published by the IMB, the law firm noted "a number of significant concerns with IMB’s handling of past cases."

"Even with the improvements that have been made over time, IMB’s current policies and procedures fall short of contemporary best practice standards," the law firm noted.

The release of the summary of GPM's findings and recommendations came shortly before a May 31, 2019, Houston Chronicle article that found the IMB's practice of handling sexual abuse among its overseas missionaries "has been for years to keep misconduct reports inside the hierarchy of the organization."

In its reporting, the Chronicle identified five men with the IMB who were credibly accused or convicted of abusing about 24 people, mostly children.

"The missionary cases followed a similar pattern," the Chronicle reported. "Leaders were informed of alleged abuse but made no public statement to immediately alert others and often delayed or took no action to remove an accused offender."

GPM's report stated the law firm was charged to "go above and beyond what is legally required and strive to meet the highest standards for keeping children safe," and the firm made three recommendations for improving IMB's response to sexual abuse allegations:

• Create a new full-time position within the IMB to oversee prevention and response efforts;

• When IMB receives a report of child abuse or sexual assault or harassment, involve outside legal counsel with expertise in this area to provide advice throughout the process;

• Continue the IMB's current practice of using a forensic psychologist with expertise in interviewing children to conduct investigation interviews of children.

The same day the GPM report was released, IMB president Paul Chitwood released a statement acknowledging the GPM findings and promising to adopt the law firm's recommendations.

"I recognize that some people were harmed by the way IMB has responded to these situations throughout our 174-year history and for that, on behalf of the IMB, I apologize," Chitwood wrote. "I commit to you today that we will do better in the future — and, in fact, IMB’s trustees and senior leaders already are at work to implement the recommendations from Gray Plant Mooty."

Burleson's motion Tuesday would add the full text of the GPM examination report — not just the publicly-released summary — to the official record of the IMB's annual report to the convention. In an interview Friday, June 7, 2019, with the News & Eagle, Burleson said consideration of the full text will give the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) "an occasion as a denomination to make a statement about sexual abuse."

The motion is expected to come to a vote Wednesday.

The opening of business to new motions on Tuesday came shortly after Ronnie Floyd, newly-elected president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, urged Baptist Messengers to pass amendments to the denomination's constitution to specify sexual abuse and racism as grounds for declaring a church as "not in friendly cooperation" with the SBC.

"The Southern Baptist Convention does stand against all forms and actions of sexual abuse, seeing it as a horrific evil," Floyd told the Messengers Tuesday morning.

"Unquestionably, undoubtedly, we must make a clear, compassionate, convictional and compelling statement about this issue in every way we can," Floyd said.

According to Baptist Press, the proposed amendment would change the composition of the SBC's Credentials Committee to create a nine-member board that would "field claims against churches in regard to sexual abuse and discrimination based on ethnicity as well as matters such as homosexuality that would call their relationship with the SBC into question."

Floyd told Messengers Tuesday the amendment would balance the autonomy of local churches with the need of the SBC to choose which churches it includes within the denomination and "deal with any challenges to our credibility and our witness."

Passage of the amendment would require a two-thirds vote of all Messengers at two consecutive annual meetings.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com. He can be reached at jneal@enidnews.com.

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