MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The Southern Baptist Convention's annual national meeting began today in Birmingham, Ala. This year's meeting opened with a discussion about the problem of sex abuse by church leaders. Earlier this year, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News had reported that nearly 400 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers had been accused of sexual misconduct over the past two decades. Those accusations involve more than 700 victims. Robert Downen was on the Chronicle's reporting team that broke that story. He joins us now from the national meeting in Birmingham. Hello there.
ROBERT DOWNEN: Hi.
KELLY: Hi - good to have you back with us. So this meeting kicked off with a big vote on an amendment to the SBC constitution that would allow it to remove churches that don't take abuse claims seriously. And I know when we spoke to you earlier today, you were not sure how this vote was going to go. What happened?
DOWNEN: Sure. So I - you know, as I said earlier, I never wanted to guess how a few thousand people are voting, but it did pass pretty overwhelmingly. Really there were two things that they did today, which - one was a constitutional change that would require two thirds of the votes of what are called messengers. They're delegates from the - you know, some of the 47,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. And that language would really just plainly state that churches that don't take abuse seriously or conceal it or, you know, what have you are out of line with the convention's broader stances on it.
And then they also passed another thing that actually goes into effect immediately, which is the expansion of this committee that would be empowered to make inquiries into churches' handling of abuse as well as some other things. Those - that committee could then refer their inquiries and responses to the executive committee, which then could decide whether or not the - or the church is in what's called friendly cooperation with the broader conventions.
KELLY: OK, so two fairly significant-sounding changes - and when you say they passed overwhelmingly, give me some sense of the numbers.
DOWNEN: At least two-thirds of the people there.
KELLY: What was the reaction like in the room as people understood that that's what was happening, that these changes were being voted through?
DOWNEN: You know, there were a handful of people who did voice displeasure with some of the proposals mainly because of what they felt like was ambiguity in the language. But generally I think that there was a sense of relief a little bit within the room but also an acknowledgment that what they put forward today and what they're working on is by no means a final solution to this problem.
I mean, the leaders acknowledged that. They also briefly kind of acknowledged the fears and skepticism of this group of survivors and activists who have been calling for more drastic action for more than a decade now. So while there was relief and, I think, a little bit of a feeling of accomplishment, I think there are many people in the room who know that this issue is far from over, and they're going to have to do more.
KELLY: And what about outside the convention center? I gather there have been demonstrations going on. Have you been able to get out and speak to anybody outside?
DOWNEN: Yeah, so there's a group of survivors, activists, and they're really - they've been - they're kind of the core group of people who for decades now have been asking for reforms and really warning about this issue. And so while they kind of acknowledge that this is a good step in the direction, there really are some - they - you know, they view it as a systemic and institutional issue that isn't going to be fixed with a few pronouncements and resolutions and new committees.
So I think the SBC's big challenge moving forward really is how to reconcile those past failures and also, you know, adopt prevention - preventive measures that would stop this kind of abuse but also show that they are acting in good faith and really prove to people who feel that they were neglected or ignored over the many, many years that came before this vote today.
KELLY: All right, that is Robert Downen, reporter for the Houston Chronicle, speaking to us live there from the Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Ala. Thanks for your reporting in the lead-up to this and then for filling us in on what's going on there today.
DOWNEN: Well, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.