Southern Baptists to set up task force to probe sexual abuse claims


June 16 (Reuters) - Southern Baptist Convention members voted on Wednesday to set up an independent task force to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by pastors and volunteers, including the response to accusations by the religious body's executive committee.

The vote by delegates to the annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, of the largest Protestant denomination, capped a two-day convention at which a pragmatic wing of the conservative group prevailed in several decisions over a faction that sought to move it farther to the right politically.

In a powerful speech, outgoing President J.D. Greear, a pastor from North Carolina decried racism and urged the body to distance itself from politics. The convention beat back calls to denounce critical race theory, a framework of ideas developed by academics of color for understanding the history of systemic racism, which has become a flashpoint for the far right.

Delegates, called messengers, also narrowly elected a new president, Alabama pastor Ed Litton, who is closely allied with racial reconciliation efforts. The denomination initially supported slavery and in 1845 split from northern Baptist groups which opposed it during the lead-up to the U.S. Civil War.

Front and center at the meeting was the church's handling of sexual abuse allegations. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reported that more than 700 victims had been abused by pastors, leaders and volunteers in Southern Baptist congregations.

In recent weeks, the denomination was roiled by the release of letters and recordings of discussions by its executive committee members about the accusations. On Tuesday, the executive board decided not to expand an investigation into the allegations, leading to calls for a floor vote that would overturn the board's move.

That led to Wednesday's vote to set up a task force to look into the executive board's actions and other related topics. The group had earlier voted to ban anyone who commits sexual abuse while in a position of authority or trust from being a pastor.

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Richard Chang

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