The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, on Tuesday expelled one of its churches for employing a pastor who is a registered sex offender.
The move is the first significant action from the Southern Baptists after recent promises to improve the handling of sexual abuse allegations in churches.
Church leaders voted at a meeting in Nashville to remove Ranchland Heights Baptist Church in Midland, Texas, from the denomination “because of its employment of a lifetime registered sex offender as pastor,” a spokesman for the denomination’s executive committee, Jon Wilke, said in an email.
The pastor, Phillip Rutledge, was convicted in 2003 of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 11 and 12, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s website, which lists him as registered for life as a sex offender.
Local church officials told a CBS News affiliate in 2016 that they knew Mr. Rutledge was a registered sex offender before he was hired. A church deacon said at the time that the church believed that God had forgiven him.
Mr. Rutledge declined to comment on his church’s removal.
The decision to dismiss a single church from the denomination comes months after leaders vowed action and instituted new protocols.
“We have spoken against matters of sexual abuse, and we have taken some major, demonstrative steps as a convention of churches,” Ronnie Floyd, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive leadership committee, said in a statement.
But victims’ advocates said the denomination is still not doing enough to prevent abuse and hold leaders accountable.
“I’m grateful to see this step being taken,” Rachael Denhollander, who advises the denomination in its sex abuse study group, said of Tuesday’s decision. “At the same time, this is only the smallest of first steps and the beginning of what is needed to make our churches places of safety and refuge.”
A year ago this month, an investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News found that about 400 Southern Baptist leaders had been accused of sexual misconduct or crimes against more than 700 victims since 1998. Offenders included pastors, youth pastors and volunteers.
After that report, the denomination’s president, J.D. Greear, called for 10 churches to be reviewed for how they handled abuse allegations. Top leaders cleared seven of the churches within days.
Asked whether or not it is a requirement that churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention not employ sex offenders, Mr. Wilke said the denomination does not have the ability to enforce employment standards for its member churches because it does not hire or fire pastors.
National church leaders first received a request to examine the Ranchland Heights case last June, said Stacy Bramlett, who leads the committee responsible for reviewing churches. The church cooperated with the review process, she said, but she declined to share specifics about the interactions.
The review committee has also decided to not disclose the total number of complaints or requests for review of churches that it has received, Ms. Bramlett said, citing victims’ privacy.
Ranchland Heights can appeal the decision to the full Southern Baptist Convention when the group meets this summer in Orlando.
Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have also not publicly addressed an allegation at one of the denomination’s most prominent megachurches, the Village Church in Texas. A woman who said she was sexually abused as a child by a pastor there sued the church last summer, accusing it of gross negligence and seeking more than $1 million in damages.
The decision to remove Ranchland Heights Baptist on Tuesday was the first test of the denomination’s new protocols established last summer to review allegations of misconduct. Victims can petition church leaders online to reconsider a church’s association with the denomination, which will begin a review process followed by a decision from the church’s executive leadership.
In a speech to fellow church leaders on Monday night, Mr. Greear acknowledged the limits of the current process.
“From the beginning, I’ve said that the issues of sex abuse in our churches is not something addressed by the appointing of a task force or the adoption of a resolution or a change of bylaws, as important as those things are,” he said.
The current review process, he said, can “help us as a convention hold one another accountable to the standards that we have set for how we relate to each other.”
Many victims’ advocates raised concerns about the system for reporting abuse. Southern Baptist leaders can request information from the involved parties, they say, but the denomination does not conduct independent, thorough investigations.
“The reporting system is confusing at best and misleading at worst,” Boz Tchividjian, a lawyer who represents victims, said. “It certainly doesn’t approach the issue from the perspective of a reported victim.”
Southern Baptist leaders have argued that their religious structure prevents them from intervening in a church’s local governance because each church is autonomous. The act of removing a church from the denominational body is the most severe action denominational leaders say they have the authority to take.
The Southern Baptists have occasionally removed churches for other reasons in the past. A church in Georgia was removed in 2018 after allegations of racism. A California church was removed in 2014 for supporting same-sex marriage.
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