Opinion

We’ll never know the whole truth of Southern Baptists’ sex abuse crisis

Photo by Sergio Ibanez/Creative Commons

(RNS) — When I was a child, church was one of the only safe spaces I knew. At home, violence hid behind closed doors. Meanwhile, the church’s doors were open to me.

That’s how I ended up 23, married almost a year, newly pregnant and training to be a counselor for the youth summer camp at my new church, Providence Baptist in Raleigh, N.C.

Many of the other counselors knew each other, so I could have felt like an outsider. I didn’t, though. Church was routine. Church was predictable. Church was imperfect but felt mostly safe.

That sense of peace and security wouldn’t last.

A young counselor named Doug struck me as immature, but I didn’t see any red flags. He was a seminary student in a church culture that privileged manhood and education. I want to be able to say I saw something back then, that I expected what would happen. I didn’t.

At the time, our church leaders said they saw no signs either. We all were shocked when Doug was caught by law enforcement, with a boy in his car, in the dark, at a park within walking distance from my house. He was arrested, the news broke, and cameras and reporters descended on the church just as vacation Bible school was starting for our younger children.

I was there, welcoming second-graders into my class that week. I had to step out of the classroom often because my first trimester of pregnancy wasn’t treating me well. While I walked around the building, seeking quiet spaces to rest, I overheard conversations I wasn’t meant to hear. As I heard one pastor say that he was certain this was an isolated case, my stomach sank with more than morning sickness.

I knew that most sex crimes are perpetrated by serial offenders. I knew what a 2014 study by Sojourners and IMA World Health would later show, that 3 out of 4 pastors underestimated rates of domestic and sexual violence in their congregations. If they didn’t think it happened in members’ homes, why would they imagine Doug was abusing others in church? I hoped I was wrong, but I suspected this boy wouldn’t be the only one.

Children and adults regularly interact at churches. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

I didn’t just know it from statistics, though. I knew it in my soul. A 24-year-old church leader took me on a date when I was in high school, kissing me at the end of the night with one hand finding my chest while the other went under my skirt. I was 16, and I pushed him away, but he was stronger than me. I thought it was my fault because I liked his attention until that moment. I thought it was a relationship gone wrong.

Only in recent years have I realized that it was a crime for which he had groomed me. I knew from his comments that I hadn’t been the first.

Sexual predators look for vulnerabilities, both in victims and in locations. I was a vulnerable victim — an abused child who sought adult affirmation. Churches — spheres of trust where children and adults mix constantly and few are trained to recognize abuse — are vulnerable places.

As the investigation into Doug’s actions moved forward, officers discovered more cases, according to an email issued from church a month after the arrest. Doug is now serving a 13-year sentence for sex crimes against seven of the boys he violated.

When Doug was arrested, our pastors cooperated with police. They met with many of us. They stressed, again and again, that they never had any indication that Doug would do anything like this. I believed them.

Ten years later, I left that church and the Southern Baptist Convention altogether for a variety of reasons, none related to sexual abuse in the church. I worked with a nonprofit where I trained churches to be safe places, but I thought Providence had taken every action possible to protect children.

Then emails and messages and calls started coming from people that I knew who had left our church before me. As they shared their stories, the pieces started coming together. Providence leaders weren’t completely honest. The worst part was that another boy had made allegations about Doug’s suspicious sexual behavior a year prior to his arrest, but he was allowed to continue working with youth, according to an internal report made available only on request.

I was heartbroken. I had trusted them, and they lied instead of humbly acknowledging that they should have acted differently. I’m worried that same sort of arrogance will lead churches now to present themselves as unblemished simply because they aren’t on the list of the worst offenders.

Providence’s story looked like one that was handled properly. Church officials cooperated with law enforcement. Doug was convicted.

Yet they ignored signs. If Doug had left and offended at a different church, would we question Providence’s pastors’ lack of response to the earlier red flags? I think we would.

Churches need to not only report abuse when it happens but also know how to spot warning signs. I hope the Southern Baptist curriculum announced this week will help with that, but I would trust the process even more if it had been proactive, rather than coming after a newspaper’s exposé.

While recent Houston Chronicle stories were troubling, the whole story of church abuse is larger than the more than 700 victims and 280 offenders of credible sexual assault allegations at Southern Baptist Convention churches.

Yes, Doug’s name is on that list. The man who assaulted me as a high schooler in 1998 in Florida wouldn’t be on it, though; I never reported it. I’m not counted among the 700, even though the incident fell in the 20-year window. My assault was never documented.

I was 16 and unsuspecting when it happened to me.

I was 23 and trusting when it happened at another church.

Now I’m 36 and rethinking where and if I belong in the church anymore.

I know one thing for sure, though: Church no longer feels like a safe place to me.

(Shannon Dingle is a Christian writer and activist. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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Shannon Dingle

18 Comments

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  • The truth of the matter is that the “all-boys club” model of religious hierarchy doesn’t work very well, regardless of the organized religion involved. Scapegoating and victim-blaming simply make everyone more vulnerable to more problems. Organized religion in general, and not just this one, need to look at what they preach, how they preach, and how they can be more inclusive. All of these issues can be resolved with some foresight and transparency. But people have to want to come out of the shadows.

  • While it is wrong what happened to you Shannon, and I would not wish that on anyone, there are still people accused who did no wrong but to offend someone in some manner. I refer you to:

    Makes me think of some scripture that I’ve been reading recently – it’s a bit long, but it makes a valid point:

    “17 For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

    21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s[e] head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.”..

    Sometimes people get beheaded for doing right. I am not saying that child abuse is “doing something right,” but I am saying things aren’t always what they seem, particularly with an evil adult and the church.

    Verify before accusing. Times haven’t changed that much.

  • “[T]he whole story of church abuse is larger than the more than 700 victims and 280 offenders of credible sexual assault allegations at Southern Baptist Convention churches.

    Yes, Doug’s name is on that list. The man who assaulted me as a high schooler in 1998 in Florida wouldn’t be on it, though; I never reported it. I’m not counted among the 700, even though the incident fell in the 20-year window. My assault was never documented.”

    This is excellent analysis. It precisely parallels what those of us tracking the abuse horror show have found:

    1. Such data as have been released by church officials have usually been released under duress and not willingly.

    2. There’s abundant reason to think that, even now, the lists of credibly accused priests being released by dioceses and religious communities contain selective information and omit many names. Over and over, survivors and others tracking the abuse situation are finding names omitted from these lists across the U.S.

    3. There appears to be a determined effort to pretend that the abuse horror show has ended and living clerics have not abused anyone or are not abusing anyone: there’s ample reason to think this is not correct.

    4. As Rachel Donadio points out in an article in The Atlantic today, studies suggesting that the abuse horror show in the Catholic church is due to gay priests depend on such data as church officials have chosen to release — and no one other than those officials has access to all the data. She also notes that many survivors, including women, never come forward to report their abuse.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/02/pope-francis-hosts-catholic-church-meeting-sex-abuse/583129/

    5. There’s increasing evidence that the picture that has been painted for us up to now of this abuse horror show suppresses information about the many women and girls, including nuns, who are and continue to be abused by Catholic clerics. Women survivors addressed this problem just yesterday in a media conference in Rome, noting that women are often invisible to church officials (and others, especially those determined to read the abuse crisis as all about gay priests) when the abuse situation is discussed.

    Bottom line: entrenched, recalcitrant, closed all-male hierarchies do not intend to be transparent and accountable for as long as they can resist transparency nd accountability. This is at the very center of the problems in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic church.

  • Thanks for sharing. We have always been told that evil lurks in the darkness. The church should always be open minded and investigate carefully allegations of abuse. This article brings things into the light. I am glad that you shared your personal experience and statistics.
    We all know things do happen even in safe places but they shouldn’t. It is good to have checks and balances in churches. Leaders made up of women and men need to willing to: seek God; do the hard work of protecting the innocent; and see that any abuse is addressed. In this case the abuser went on to be convicted but maybe some victims could have been spared if Doug was investigated sooner.

  • All female organizations do not fare better.

    Then again, if you’re looking for answers rather than grinding an axe against heterosexuals “entrenched, recalcitrant, closed all-male hierarchies do not intend to be transparent and accountable” would not have appeared in the comment.

  • “Now I’m 36 and rethinking where and if I belong in the church anymore.”

    This is an excellent question for anyone who is 36, even if not carrying the hurts and disappointments from experiences as described above. The reasons for staying or not staying are not a matter of whether any church can institute enough procedures going forward to keep sexual predators off of staff. They can do that—–with sleuthing, surveillance, and an absolute police-state-inside-our-walls mentality—–and many of them are headed there ASAP. The reasons for staying or not staying are matters of whether your church is telling you and everyone else observable truth on tangible issues. Does your church consider itself scripturally “conservative”? Does it demand from you a reverence for scriptures you know are questionable? Do most of the members think that way? If so, leave. There is no need to subject yourself to mental conflicts in order to be part of a group. Go home and look your pet or livestock (if you have any) in the eyes. Then ask yourself whether animal sacrifice was ever anything but poppycock. Then ask yourself whether your church holds onto that kind of stuff as ever being a valid ask from God in any age. If it does, show yourself out and spend your time where you can grow your mind, your empathy, your spirit.

  • You raise some excellent points. I would encourage the author to visit some churches which belong to denominations with clergy that are not all white male. Episcopal, Methodist, Minnesota Synod Lutheran, Presbyterian, Church of Christ come to mind. That’s not an all inclusive list as I’ve probably missed others.

  • Years ago, I had the sad occasion of attending the funeral of one of my students. The pastor of the church was a woman and she gave a very moving eulogy of the young man who had died in a single-car crash on his way to work. As a mother herself and a thoughtful pastor, she said exactly what a grieving mother needed to hear at that moment. By then, I had been to the funerals of my parents and those of my now ex-wife. I knew all about grief from the inside out and that was one of the kindest, gentlest farewells to someone gone before their time that I ever heard.

  • Actually, if you’re a pastor, in most jurisdictions what you’re saying would be against the law. If you suspect that someone MIGHT be abusing, you have a legal obligation to report that, even if it has not been verified. Verification is up to law enforcement, not up to the church.

  • I’m the author, Stan, and I do have an excellent female pastor now at the church my family attends regularly and I attend from time to time. The compassion you describe, RidingTheLine, is present, while the sexism I’ve experienced at best from male pastors is not. She is a black woman, but clergy in each of the denominations you named, Stan, are almost all white. (She’s Methodist, but definitely the exception rather than the norm in our denomination.)

  • Yes predominately white male clergy, but women and people of color priests are out there and it sounds like you found one. That’s very good. BTW, I had a female Episcopal priest conduct the funeral mass for my wife of 37 years.

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