For the first time in its history, America’s largest Protestant denomination is addressing the growing epidemic of sexual abuse in churches across the country. At the group’s annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, leaders for the Southern Baptist Convention have voted through two reforms designed to target churches in which sexual abuse occurs.

SBC Officially Addresses Sexual Abuse For First Time

Prominent Southern Baptist Convention leaders have resisted change for decades, choosing to ignore the tide of sexual abuse allegations emerging from churches throughout the nation. But in a major reversal, the SBC opened its annual meeting this week with a commitment to addressing the problem in public. Hundreds of survivors have accused Southern Baptist preachers and volunteers of sexual abuse over the years, but this marks the first time the issue will be taken up by leadership.

Woman Praying Over Bible

“Protecting God’s children is the mission of the church,” said J.D. Greear, president of the denomination, in addressing the meeting on Tuesday morning. “We have to deal with this definitively and decisively.” In a vote on new reforms, SBC pastors chose to enact two reforms aimed at tackling the problem, which has long bedeviled the church, but so far led to no action. A series of reports from the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News revealed widespread sexual abuse within the denomination, including numerous allegations of child molestation on the part of SBC pastors.

New Reforms Seek To Punish Churches For Sex Abuse Coverup

First, the pastors greenlit a measure to create a centralized committee tasked with investigating churches that mishandle sexual abuse cases. “They also approved an amendment to their constitution that would allow such churches to be expelled from the conviction if allegations are substantiated,” the New York Times reports. Delegates gathered from churches across the country to attend the meeting, including pastors representing over 47,000 churches.

Protestors Call For Strict Measures

Outside the auditorium, protestors, including many survivors and their families, gathered together to challenge what they consider inadequate measures. Wielding signs that read “Jesus Never Shamed Women” and “No Second Chances for Abusers,” the protestors called for tougher sanctions on abusive priests and more accountability among churches. “This is about so many victims who have been pushed to the sidelines and ignored, not only by their home churches but by the convention themselves,” said Jules Woodson, a sexual abuse survivor in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Victim Advocates Say Resistance Is Still High

Victims’ advocates say a culture of resistance is still entrenched in the SBC’s leadership. “The heartshift is what we really need to see,” according to Rachael Denhollander, an abuse survivor who serves on the Church’s sexual abuse study group. “There has also been a significant effort by some factions of the SBC to undermine even some of the good things that are underway.” For decades, the Church has resisted calls for reform, including a proposal to create a central database of abusive clergy members. To date, the denomination has no explicit procedures in place to address sexual abuse cases or coverups.

Denhollander says more needs to be done for the Southern Baptist Convention to own up to its problems. Earlier this year, the denomination’s president, Mr. Greear, took what many saw as the first step, calling for 10 churches to be investigated on how they handled sexual misconduct allegations. But Southern Baptist leaders cleared seven of the churches within a matter of days. “Either these officials were ignorant or they were intentionally undermining efforts for reform,” Denhollander says.

SBC President Urges Pastors To Change

In the meeting, Greear urged pastors to set aside concerns over reputational harm in order to foreground efforts for change. “You’ve got to make this a priority,” he said. “The credibility of what we actually believe about the gospel is at stake.”

“May this world know that the Southern Baptist Convention stands against all forms of sexual abuse,” said Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee. Both Floyd and Greear called the vote on new reforms a “defining moment” in the Church’s history.