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Former Southern Baptist Church members blame all-male leadership

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The release earlier this week of a list of sexually abusive ministers in the Southern Baptist Convention has prompted a lot of soul-searching among church members. For some, it's been a time to revisit the chance of ordaining women or installing them in other leadership positions within the male-dominated hierarchy. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville has this report.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: When Jules Woodson's youth pastor coerced her into a sexual act, she reported it to her church within 24 hours. She went to his boss, the associate pastor.

JULES WOODSON: Sitting there in tears. He stops me, and he says, so you're telling me you participated?

FARMER: She was just 17. She was told to keep quiet. The church would handle it. When nothing happened, she told some friends, who told their parents. Eventually, the senior pastor had to deal with it. This was 1998, outside Houston, Texas. The youth pastor was allowed to resign. The public line was that he'd made a mistake. Woodson says he was even thrown a going-away party.

WOODSON: They blamed me. They silenced me. And they failed to report it to the police.

FARMER: Her abuser would go on to another church in Memphis. He resigned in 2018, soon after Woodson went public with her assault. As survivors of abuse in Southern Baptist churches come forward, it's almost always a man who decides how things will go, and that's by design. The denomination's policies reserve the role of pastor for men, citing New Testament scripture. But there was a time when the nation's largest evangelical Protestant denomination was on a path toward ordaining women.

AMY MEARS: I'm the first and last woman who did Ph.D. in preaching from a Southern Baptist school - like, in the world.

FARMER: Amy Mears studied at the flagship Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. But the door she opened quickly shut behind her as conservatives retook control of the denomination bit by bit.

MEARS: It's not a surprise to hardly any of us.

FARMER: Mears now leads Glendale Baptist in Nashville, which dissolved ties with the Southern Baptist Church long ago. She says sexual abuse can happen in any kind of organization, no matter who's in charge. But men are far and away more likely to be the perpetrator.

MEARS: I think systems that are founded on white, heteronormative patriarchy are just sitting ducks for this kind of explosive, heinous sexual abuse scandal that we're now seeing in the Southern Baptist Convention.

FARMER: Southern Baptists will be gathering in Anaheim for their annual meeting in two weeks. This is where church representatives would vote on something like a proposal to revisit the restrictions on women in leadership. Texas Pastor Bart Barber is in the running to be the next church president. He says women could be given authority to handle abuse reports.

BART BARBER: Well, I do think this crisis is a reason for us to make change.

FARMER: But he says there's no need to upend Southern Baptist doctrine on male leadership.

BARBER: I don't think it's a reason for us to make that change.

SUSAN SHAW: They're not going to invite feminists like me in to say, let's talk about how gender works.

BARBER: Professor Susan Shaw teaches gender studies at Oregon State. She trained in a Southern Baptist seminary. She researches and writes about Southern Baptist women, though she's not one anymore.

SHAW: I don't think that this is going to create an opening. I think there will be a lot of hand-wringing. Oh, we didn't know. Oh, we're so sorry. Oh, let's learn.

FARMER: But Shaw says it's hard to imagine the denomination's male leaders giving up power. Those who have more progressive views may find their only option is to leave. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.