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What's next for Southern Baptists after sex abuse scandal

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Devastating, heartbreaking, infuriating - that is how our Albert Mohler describes the 300-page, third-party report about decades of sexual abuse and cover up in the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC, which is the largest evangelical denomination in the country, commissioned this investigation and report. And as the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mohler is a leader in the church. He joins us now to talk about the report and what comes next. Welcome.

ALBERT MOHLER: Ailsa, thank you - good to be with you.

CHANG: Well, thank you for making the time to be with us. So the words that I quoted from you, they're from an opinion piece that you published yesterday, and in it you also said, quote, "the faithful Southern Baptist laypeople, pastors and denominational leaders will do the right thing once they know what the right thing is." So let me ask you, what do you think is the right thing to do at this moment?

MOHLER: Well, right thing is to begin with lament and concern for those whose lives have obviously been so wounded and to recognize a demand of years, indeed many years, of people who've been coming forward and been quite frustrated. So what do we do next?

CHANG: Yes.

MOHLER: It has to be answered, first, theologically and biblically, just in terms of our Christian response. And then that has to lead to action, which will include structural action.

CHANG: You speak of structural changes. How would the organization and church oversight need to change to ensure that women are not victimized in this way again?

MOHLER: Every single institution has to have, every congregation has to have a mechanism whereby people - who not only are victimized, but who see a possibility of someone being victimized, a vulnerability - can come forward and say, this needs to be remedied. And the people in authority, wherever they are in the congregation, in the institution, the organization, they had better respond, and they better respond because they care.

CHANG: But how do you maintain that in a system so decentralized as the SBC?

MOHLER: Well, that's an issue, of course, because of our polity, you know, and our doctrine means there is no Southern Baptist Church or Southern Baptist churches. So you're right, it is very decentralized. And that's why you introduced me as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. That's true. But that means I'm president of this institution. I'm not president of churches, nor is it the president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

CHANG: Right. So again, in a decentralized SBC, how do you ensure that women are safe?

MOHLER: Well, first of all, there is - wherever you find a congregation, there is authority. There is responsibility. Wherever you find an institution, there is authority. There is responsibility. You're going to find elders, deacons. You're going to find a governing board. Somebody is going to be responsible. They better take up this responsibility. But, Ailsa, there's one thing that many people don't see, and that is that the convention, at every level, has the power to define its own membership.

And so I think what you're going to see - and by the way, in 2019, there was a start, but it's clearly going to have to go much further - churches that are not doing the right thing can no longer be a part of the Southern Baptist Convention. Somehow that's going to have to take place, and we have a mechanism for doing that and concrete steps have been taken. But, you know, we're just getting started at this. That's to our shame.

CHANG: What about the survivors? What about the survivors? What would justice look like for these women?

MOHLER: I think that has to be taken case by case, but it has to be taken fully case by case. And so some of this, eventually, I'm certain, will be an issue of litigation. I think some of this will be something that will be a part of conversation between churches and Christian organizations and ministries and people who've been hurt and victimized or made vulnerable.

CHANG: Ultimately, what effect do you think this revelation of abuse and cover up will have on the SBC's ability to speak publicly on any moral issue going forward? What do you think?

MOHLER: Well, it certainly is a challenge to Southern Baptists. It's mostly - right now it challenges to what we do before a watching world. One of the thing I'd mention, just given some of the things that have been raised here, the vast majority of the people mentioned in this report have been, in one way or another, severed from the SBC. You look at that and you say, the SBC was very slow. SBC entities, policies were very slow. Well, we're going to have to speed everything up. That's clearly the demand, the moral urgency of the time.

CHANG: Our Albert Mohler is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Thank you very much.

MOHLER: Good to be with you - sobering days but, I hope, hopeful days, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.