Recent investigative reporting by the Houston Chronicle has revealed long-standing abuses of women belonging to Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches.
The Chronicle says that, in 2007, victims of sexual abuse at the hands of SBC church leaders requested that a database be created with names of any current or former church leaders who had been convicted of this type of crime or had been credibly accused of same.
The database was never created. In 2018, advocates for the victims made an appeal for such a registry. Houston Chronicle reporters began their own investigation, combing news archives, websites and databases (emphases mine):
We found complaints made against hundreds of pastors, church officials and volunteers at Southern Baptist churches nationwide.
We focused our search on the 10 years preceding the victims’ first call for a registry and on the 10-plus years since. And we concentrated on individuals who had a documented connection to a church listed in an SBC directory published by a state or national association.
We verified details in hundreds of accounts of abuse by examining federal and state court databases, prison records and official documents from more than 20 states and by searching sex offender registries nationwide. In Texas, we visited more than a dozen county courthouses. We interviewed district attorneys and police in more than 40 Texas counties. We filed dozens of public records requests in Texas and nationwide.
Ultimately, we compiled information on 380 credibly accused officials in Southern Baptist churches, including pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers and volunteers.
We verified that about 220 had been convicted of sex crimes or received deferred prosecutions in plea deals and sent letters to all of them soliciting their responses to summaries we compiled. We received written responses from more than 30 and interviewed three in Texas prisons. Of the 220, more than 90 remain in prison and another 100 are still registered sex offenders.
Find our records that relate to those convicted or forced to register as sex offenders at HoustonChronicle.com/AbuseofFaith.
Some of the registered sex offenders are still allowed to preach:
Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit. Others remain there, including a Houston preacher who sexually assaulted a teenager and now is the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations, federal records show. Its name: Touching the Future Today Inc.
Most of the abused were teenagers at the time. However, adults seeking pastoral guidance were also victims.
The Chronicle‘s expose is in three parts:
Part 1: Abuse of Faith
Part 2: Southern Baptist churches hired ministers accused of past sex offenses
Part 3: All too often, Southern Baptist youth pastors take advantage of children
A few excerpts follow from the first instalment.
The sections about children were particularly revolting, considering that Southern Baptists in positions of authority portray themselves as being very holy:
Many of the victims were adolescents who were molested, sent explicit photos or texts, exposed to pornography, photographed nude, or repeatedly raped by youth pastors. Some victims as young as 3 were molested or raped inside pastors’ studies and Sunday school classrooms.
Here is one girl’s story:
Heather Schneider was 14 when she was molested in a choir room at Houston’s Second Baptist Church, according to criminal and civil court records. Her mother, Gwen Casados, said church leaders waited months to fire the attacker, who later pleaded no contest. In response to her lawsuit, church leaders also denied responsibility.
Schneider slit her wrists the day after that attack in 1994, Casados said. She survived, but she died 14 years later from a drug overdose that her mother blames on the trauma.
“I never got her back,” Casados said.
Here is one man’s story of his molestation as a boy:
David Pittman was 12, he says, when a youth minister from his Georgia church first molested him in 1981. Two other former members of the man’s churches said in interviews that they also were abused by him. But by the time Pittman spoke out in 2006, it was too late to press criminal charges.
The minister still works at an SBC church.
Pittman won’t soon forgive those who have offered prayers but taken no action. He only recently stopped hating God.
“That is the greatest tragedy of all,” he said. “So many people’s faith is murdered. I mean, their faith is slaughtered by these predators.”
The Chronicle says that the reason for rampant sexual abuse is the fact that SBC churches are largely autonomous:
At the core of Southern Baptist doctrine is local church autonomy, the idea that each church is independent and self-governing. It’s one of the main reasons that [August “Augie”] Boto [interim president of the SBC’s Executive Committee] said most of the proposals a decade ago were viewed as flawed by the executive committee because the committee doesn’t have the authority to force churches to report sexual abuse to a central registry …
SBC churches and organizations share resources and materials, and together they fund missionary trips and seminaries. Most pastors are ordained locally after they’ve convinced a small group of church elders that they’ve been called to service by God. There is no central database that tracks ordinations, or sexual abuse convictions or allegations.
I’m not a Southern Baptist, but if the SBC allows sharing of funding, resources, trips and seminaries, surely, it can allow central records to be kept.
A Catholic priest, the Revd Thomas Doyle, thinks so, too.
Doyle was one of the earliest whistleblowers on similar abuse in the Catholic Church, a hierarchical church. He is also a retired lawyer. He contacted SBC leaders in 2007, urging them to act:
“I saw the same type of behavior going on with the Southern Baptists,” he said.
The responses were predictable, Doyle said. In one, Frank Page, then the SBC president, wrote that they were “taking this issue seriously” but that local church autonomy presented “serious limitations.” In March, Page resigned as president and CEO of the SBC’s Executive Committee for “a morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past,” according to the executive committee.
Details have not been disclosed, but SBC officials said they had “no reason to suspect any legal impropriety.” Page declined to be interviewed.
Wade Burleson, a former president of Oklahoma’s Southern Baptist convention, requested in 2007 and again in 2018, that the SBC take action on this issue, but to no avail:
Leaders pushed back both times, he said. Some cited local church autonomy; others feared lawsuits if the reforms didn’t prevent abuse.
Burleson couldn’t help but wonder if there have been “ulterior motives” at play.
“There’s a known problem, but it’s too messy to deal with,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s not that we can’t do it as much as we don’t want to do it. … To me, that’s a problem. You must want to do it, to do it.”
Doyle, the Catholic priest, agrees:
“I understand the fear, because it’s going to make the leadership look bad,” he said. “Well, they are bad, and they should look bad. Because they have ignored this issue. They have demonized the victims.”
Similar abuses have also taken place in Evangelical churches and institutions, which are also independent.
I saw this tweet the other day:
Linda Kay Klein grew up in Evangelical churches and wrote the book Pure, about the toxicity surrounding women’s purity culture.
In an article she wrote for NBC News, ‘Southern Baptist Convention report on sex abuse shines a light on evangelical culture’, she says:
As an adult, I went on to spend more than a decade researching sexuality and the evangelical church and heard story after story of minimized and unreported abuse. To be sure, sexual violence extends well beyond the church, yet I have found that religious authoritarianism and purity culture — hallmarks of both Catholicism and evangelicalism, among other groups — can enable it.
Purity culture teaches that there are two types of people: those who are sexually “pure,” and those who are “impure.” Some teach one can lose their purity by having sexual thoughts or feelings or making sexual choices outside of a heterosexual marriage. Some even teach you can lose it by inspiring sexual expression in others.
Include purity in an authoritarian local church structure and a fear of secular reaction to scandal and it makes for one unholy trinity of toxicity:
Many parishioners see their pastor as the conduit to a higher power and will go to great lengths to protect them even if it means ignoring, blaming and ultimately hurting survivors.
In America, a contributing factor is a strong culture of collective victimhood in the evangelical community. My interviewees and I were taught growing up that evangelicals were the real victims — that the world hated us so much they’d do anything to make us look bad. So, it was our job to represent our community in the best light possible for more people to join us and enter into heaven. The underlying message was clear: a good Christian keeps their mouth shut.
She describes how this works in practice:
Women and girls, in particular, can be silenced in hierarchic churches that teach “complementarianism” — the belief that God ordains male authority especially in the church and the home. Having been conditioned not to question men, some women struggle to stand up to male misconduct when they see it, and when they do are often dismissed. For example, when my youth pastor was applying for the position, he was given a kind of audition: lead a youth retreat. Our head pastor asked us to report back on his performance. I did. As did at least one other girl. Each of us told the head pastor that the man applying for the position made us uncomfortable. Soon afterward, it was announced that he was our new youth pastor.
Meanwhile, when women and girls come forward as survivors, purity culture — which focuses largely on them — can be used against them. Many of my interviewees and I were taught that men are weak when faced with the temptation of the female flesh and it was therefore our responsibility to protect men from the threat that our bodies posed to them. We had to walk, talk and dress just right to ensure the alleged purity of our entire community, safeguarding against all sexual expression outside of marriage — the implication being that anything that did happen, even sexual violence, was our fault.
Klein’s opinion piece has a video recently broadcast on NBC’s Today show about women who were sexually abused as children in an Evangelical organisation, New Tribes Mission (now Ethnos360).
There is also another Today show article which summarises the video of the New Tribes Mission survivors: ‘Ungodly abuse: The lasting torment of the New Tribes missionary kids’.
The girls’ parents were missionaries at the time, and each mission had a boarding school for the children of New Tribes employees. These missions were in foreign countries, in the back of the beyond. Each dormitory had a ‘dorm dad’ and a ‘dorm mom’. It was not unknown for dorm dads to molest little girls.
In 2009, Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian — one of Billy Graham’s grandsons, who is a law professor and a former prosecutor on sexual abuse cases — began investigating sexual abuse cases at the behest of New Tribes Mission (as was). He told NBC News:
“I feel that in so many ways justice has failed,” said Boz Tchividjian, a former sex crimes prosecutor who leads Grace (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), the organization that investigated the New Tribes school in Senegal and that focuses on rooting out abuse in Christian organizations.
“You have individuals who physically and sexually abused children who have gone on to live quote-unquote ‘normal lives.’ You have an organization that had to deal with some press and people talking about it but in large part has moved on and continues to do their work around the world.”
“And then,” added Tchividjian, who is a grandson of the evangelist Billy Graham, “you’ve got the scores and scores of missionary kids. So many of them are struggling to get by in life, struggling to comprehend, why is this man who sexually abused me not in jail, not in prison? Why is this man serving in church, living what appears to be a normal life?“
The article recaps the experiences of the victims who appeared on Today. This is one woman’s story. Her dorm dad was David Brooks, the most prolific perpetrator, and an occasional preacher in the Georgia town where he currently lives:
Bonnie Cheshire was just 2 when she arrived in Senegal with her parents, both New Tribes missionaries, in 1981. She grew up in a river village surrounded by forest and miles away from a major city.
“It was an amazing life. It was absolute freedom,” Cheshire said. “Outside all day, in trees all day.”
By age 6, she was living with other children of New Tribes missionaries at the Fanda school where boys and girls were split into separate rooms. There was a “big girls” room and a “little girls” room, each one accommodating about six to eight girls.
Like all of the New Tribe boarding schools, American missionaries who were not sent out in the field were assigned to take care of the children and lead them in Bible study and prayer.
Brooks and his wife held the role of Fanda dorm parents in the mid-1980s, according to the Grace report.
Cheshire said Brooks would sometimes play the “seashell game” when he was alone with the children outside, hiding a shell in his bathing suit and urging the girls to find it.
Soon he was also showing up in her room late at night, Cheshire said. “You need to find a way to relax to go to sleep,” she recalls him telling her.
Brooks would then start touching her, Cheshire said, noting that she was 7 when the abuse started. It seemed innocent at first, she said, but became anything but.
“I knew that it was not right,” Cheshire said.
One woman was abused by her own father when she was a little girl — in the girls’ dorm! He also abused her roommates at the Aritao school in the Philippines:
Escaping the abuse was nearly impossible for Kelly Emory. Les Emory is her father.
Kelly says her dad raped and molested her for three years starting at age 6. She says she was also forced to endure the horror of being in the same room as her father sexually abused her roommates inside the Aritao dorm.
“I had to pretend I was sleeping,” Kelly said. “It was a hell I still live with.”
Kelly said nothing about her father’s attacks until she was 15. In March 1993, with Kelly struggling in school and wrestling with thoughts of suicide, she says she told her dorm mother.
The woman reported the allegations, Kelly said, and days later three New Tribes field leaders showed up at the school to question her.
“They asked me to describe what had happened, and I told them,” Kelly said. “And they told me to not say anything. It was my duty to protect my family, to protect my dad, and if I did say anything, if I did tell anybody anything, my dad would be thrown in a Filipino jail.”
Within a week, Kelly said, her family was shipped out of the Philippines and flown to Missouri to attend therapy sessions with a mission counselor.
“After two weeks we were pronounced healed and whole,” Kelly said. “Those were their words.”
Emory was ordered to leave the mission, Kelly said, but the real reason for the family’s sudden relocation was kept secret from all but a few in the organization.
“You try to do the right thing,” Kelly said. “We got shushed and rushed out of the country. They made us all stay quiet. They silenced us.“
In 2009, Bonnie Cheshire and Kari Mikitson, another New Tribes abuse survivor launched a website, New Tribes Mission Abuse. (They have an active forum and an inactive blog.)
Before long, the site attracted a lot of views and New Tribes Mission invited Mikitson to speak with them at their Florida headquarters. It was after that when the mission asked “Boz” Tchividjian’s GRACE organisation to launch an investigation.
GRACE’s investigation took a year, and uncovered widespread sexual abuse of youngsters in the missions. New Tribes Mission then hired another independent organisation, IHART, to continue the work. IHART appears to have done very little.
Today tracked down David Brooks, who refused to speak to camera, and Les Emory who gave a telephone interview.
Emory admitted to what he did and said that he should have been ‘decapitated’.
New Tribes changed its name to Ethnos 360 in May 2017.
In closing, imagine that what actually makes the news in terms of church-related sexual abuse is probably just the tip of the iceberg.
I hope that more will be revealed, for the victims’ sakes as well as for the future health of the Church as a whole.
Finally, all churches — Catholic and Protestant — must take resolute action to ensure these abuses are stopped once and for all.