Faith

Sexual Abuse Exposed in Fundamental Baptist Churches

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In a scathing and disturbing article published over the weekend, Fort Worth’s Star-Telegram pulled the covers off the secret world of sexual abuse coursing through many independent fundamental Baptist churches.

Putting hard numbers on the problem, Sarah Smith writes, “The Star-Telegram discovered at least 412 allegations of sexual misconduct in 187 independent fundamental Baptist churches and their affiliated institutions, spanning 40 states and Canada.”

Reading the reports of sexual abuse and assault is heartbreaking, including the story of rape that opens the long article:

Joy Evans Ryder was 15 years old when she says her church youth director pinned her to his office floor and raped her.

“It’s OK. It’s OK,” he told her. “You don’t have to be afraid of anything.”

He straddled her with his knees, and she looked off into the corner, crying and thinking, “This isn’t how my mom said it was supposed to be.”

The youth director, Dave Hyles, was the son of the charismatic pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, considered at the time the flagship for thousands of loosely affiliated independent fundamental Baptist churches and universities.

Having been born and raised within the independent fundamental Baptist movement (IFB, for short) and having kept up with a variety of IFB blogs (both pro and con) over the years, many of the article’s stories are not new to me. Nor are the names of the preachers sprinkled throughout. However, my personal experience during my time within the IFB sits outside the article’s concern for how sexual abuse is covered up in IFB circles.

When I was in high school, a deacon’s son who was a year older than me molested a young girl in the church where my dad served as pastor. Instead of covering it up, my dad turned the matter over to the police.

That’s not to say that the stories in the article aren’t true. The tragic cases that I was already familiar with are true. Nor does my personal experience undermine the concern for lack of oversight within the IFB world. In fact, my youthful naivety actually underscores the article’s point. You see, years later, as an adult, I heard stories from friends and classmates about the abuse they experienced at the hands of teachers and pastors. For me, my experience was limited to the correct response I saw from my dad. I had no way of knowing that the IFB system allowed for predators to move in the circle around me without any accountability.

Without outside accountability, sexually violent predators are allowed to navigate the IFB’s good ‘ol boy network, often completely unfettered, moving from church to church. As the article reveals:

More than 200 people — current or former church members, across generations — shared their stories of rape, assault, humiliation and fear in churches where male leadership cannot be questioned.

“It’s a philosophy — it’s flawed,” said Stacey Shiflett, an independent fundamental Baptist pastor in Dundalk, Maryland. “The philosophy is you don’t air your dirty laundry in front of everyone. Pastors think if they keep it on the down-low, it won’t impact anyone. And then the other philosophy is it’s wrong to say anything bad about another preacher.”

Predictably, critics of the article are calling “foul” over the perceived broad brush strokes. Yet, it’s that very unwillingness to hold pastors and others within the IFB accountable that allows for articles like the one published by the Star-Telegram to be written. Likewise, having a “cat with its head in a bag” mentality is a poor response. Just because you are personally unaware of it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. And the numbers point to the sad reality that sexual abuse happens far more often than most of us are willing to admit.

It’s past time for those within the IFB movement to defend and protect the weak and vulnerable. And that may very well mean publicly acknowledging that your favorite preacher is a sexual predator. It also means acknowledging that for all that’s right about the IFB, the notion of the autonomous, authoritarian pastor is a sickness that leads to violence enacted on others.