The Southern Baptist Convention has voted to make it easier to expel churches that mishandle claims of sexual abuse.
Delegates representing some 47,000 Southern Baptist churches gathered at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex in Birmingham, Ala., approved an amendment allowing individual churches to be expelled from the Convention if they mishandle or cover up sexual abuse cases. Delegates also established a special committee to evaluate abuse claims against churches.
The Rev. J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., called the move a "defining moment."
"Protecting God's children is the mission of the church," he said.
Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC's executive committee, echoed Greear's remarks, describing the vote as "a very, very significant moment in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention."
"May this world know that the Southern Baptist Convention stands against all forms of sexual abuse," Floyd said.
The vote comes as U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meet in Baltimore to address issues of accountability in the Catholic Church's own long-running abuse scandal.
However, the Southern Baptists have long sought to dismiss similar allegations in their midst. The change in the Convention's constitution follows reports in recent months of widespread abuse by Southern Baptist clergy and staff published in The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News.
The vote also tightens the reins somewhat on Southern Baptists congregations, who make up the largest U.S. Protestant denomination and have traditionally enjoyed considerable independence.
As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, "Dozens of Southern Baptist women in recent years have come forward with stories of clergy misconduct and of church officials failing to respond."
"A report by the Southern Baptists' own research organization recently found that about one out of three church members surveyed believe there are more accounts of sex abuse by pastors still to come," Gjelten writes.
Ahead of the vote on Tuesday, dozens of protesters rallied outside the meeting calling for decisive action, AL.com reports.
"This is about so many victims who have been pushed to the sidelines and ignored not only by their home churches but by the convention themselves," Jules Woodson, a survivor of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist church, was quoted by AL.com as saying.
In 1995, Southern Baptists apologized for their past defense of slavery and in 2017, denounced white supremacy.