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#MeToo cases in the spotlight as Southern Baptists convene

DALLAS (AP) — The Southern Baptist Convention opened its annual national meeting Tuesday in an anxious mood as the denomination's all-male leadership grappled with the fallout of multiple sexual misconduct cases.

With virtually no opposition, delegates at the meeting adopted resolutions condemning any sexual misconduct by SBC ministers, urging more action to prevent "all forms of abuse," and encouraging abuse victims to contact civil authorities to seek protection and support.

In a late addition to the program, the SBC announced that Vice President Mike Pence would address the meeting Wednesday. In Tuesday's opening session, a delegate from Virginia, Garrett Kell, sought to cancel Pence's address and replace it with a time of prayer, but the motion was defeated.

"Many of our minority brothers and sisters will be especially hurt by this invitation," said Kell, who warned the SBC against associating with any particular administration holding power in Washington.

The agenda in Dallas did not include any reconsideration of the SBC's doctrine of "complementarianism," which espouses male leadership in the home and in the church and says a wife "is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband."

However, the pastor elected Tuesday as the SBC's new president — J.D. Greear — is among numerous SBC leaders saying the doctrine needs to be observed in a way that's respectful of women and encourages them to play an active role in church affairs.

In a recent video posted on Facebook, Greear said the church has hurt itself by excluding women from top leadership posts. Complementarianism "is biblical and we need to honor that ... but at the same time recognize that God has gifted women with spiritual gifts," he said. "We need to be as committed to raising them up in leadership and ministries as we are to our sons."

Greear, 45, a megachurch pastor from North Carolina who sometimes preaches in jeans and shirts with no sport coat, won about 69 percent of the votes in his election victory over former seminary president Ken Hemphill, 70.

Greear narrowly lost the election for president in 2016 and has been viewed by many Southern Baptists as the inevitable winner this time. Hemphill was nominated by some veteran SBC leaders who view him as less likely to propose potentially divisive changes.

As the two-day meeting began, about two dozen protesters gathered across the street from the convention center, drawing attention to abuse against women. The protesters called for the creation of a database identifying pastors accused of sexual abuse and misconduct. They also want pastors and seminarians to receive training on how to respond to sexual abuse and domestic violence.

"We are not against the Southern Baptist Convention, but we believe it can be better," said Ashley Easter, a writer and speaker from Raleigh, North Carolina, who is an advocate for victims of abuse and an organizer of the protest.

Paige Patterson, the central figure in the most prominent of the SBC's #MeToo cases, had been scheduled to deliver the featured sermon at the national meeting. However, he withdrew from that role Friday, heeding a request from other SBC leaders.

Patterson was recently dismissed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas because of his response to two rape allegations made years apart by students. He also was accused of making improper remarks about a teenage girl's body and contending that women who are in abusive relationships should almost always stay with their husbands.

SBC leaders say there are many more cases — adding up to a humiliating debacle for the 15.2 million-member denomination. "The avalanche of sexual misconduct that has come to light in recent weeks is almost too much to bear," the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in a recent blog post.

In addition to its debates over gender roles, the SBC has struggled to overcome its history as a denomination formed in defense of slaveholders. On Monday, SBC leaders announced they would expel the Raleigh White Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, because of racial discrimination.

According to Baptist Press, the SBC's official news service, the Raleigh White congregation agreed three years ago to share its space with a predominantly black congregation, but conflicts arose. In March, when some of the black worshippers arrived at the church unexpectedly, a black female was told to use the restroom at a nearby convenience store, rather than the restroom in the church.

SBC spokesman Sing Oldham said he believed it was the first time the SBC had expelled a church on racism-related grounds.

Crary reported from New York.

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