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At annual meeting, Southern Baptist leaders make commitments to address sexual abuse

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Southern Baptist Convention made some modest commitments to address sexual abuse. This came at their closely watched annual meeting this week in Anaheim, Calif. Even the pastor who oversaw the initiatives called them the bare minimum. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports the country's largest Protestant denomination is trying to make amends for decades of downplaying abuse by ministers without further dividing its members.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention is a peculiar thing. It's two days of bickering over hot-button religious topics - this year, it's ordaining women and denouncing the LGBT movement - interspersed with 15-minute blocks of worship.

UNIDIENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

FARMER: Leaders tried to unify church representatives around the idea of repentance. There is much to repent for following the bombshell third-party investigation authorized at last year's meeting. The report revealed widespread silencing of abuse victims. The denomination even kept tabs on hundreds of credibly accused ministers but allowed them to move to other churches without sharing that information. Pastor Bruce Frank of North Carolina made a forceful plea to the nearly 8,000 voting representatives in attendance.

BRUCE FRANK: Today we will choose between humility or hubris. We will choose between genuine repentance or continually being passive in our approach to sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.

FARMER: The representatives voted overwhelmingly to create a database where churches are supposed to share information about ministers who've been credibly accused of abuse. And if they don't participate, churches risk being ousted from the denomination. Attorney Rachael Denhollander, who was one of the first to accuse U.S. gymnastics coach Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, helped guide Southern Baptist leaders through the year-long investigation.

RACHAEL DENHOLLANDER: What I hope history looks at is every survivor looking back and goes, that's me being believed, and that's the impact my voice can have.

FARMER: Many leaders want to do more, but they found even the predator database was a tough sell. Some local church representatives warned it would lead to false accusations or open the denomination to massive legal liability. The newly elected Southern Baptist president wants state legislatures to shield churches from civil liability to make them more willing to share information. But beyond new laws and policies, Pastor Marshall Blalock says church leaders need a change of heart.

MARSHALL BLALOCK: I think our instincts sometimes are about protection of the institution.

FARMER: Blalock leads First Baptist of Charleston, S.C. He says his first instinct had been to call an attorney. Now, he says, he's learned the first move is to care for abuse survivors.

BLALOCK: It wasn't that I didn't care. It wasn't that I didn't want to do the right thing. I didn't know. I didn't know the right thing.

FARMER: Some prominent survivors attended this week's meeting. Many more watched from afar. Kimberly Osment of Tulsa, Okla., fell prey to a leader in the Southern Baptist publishing arm who confessed to serial affairs. She says preachers know how to say the right thing.

KIMBERLY OSMENT: They are people who major in persuasive speaking. And that is 100% of what they're doing every moment they breathe.

FARMER: So she's waiting to see if the Southern Baptist reforms are more than just words.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.