As the Roman Catholic church struggles with a new wave of clergy abuse cases, several prominent evangelical institutions have been rocked in recent weeks by their own sexual misconduct allegations against pastors and church leaders who exploited the trust they had gained from faithful churchgoers.
In many ways, the phenomenon at evangelical denominations is an offshoot of the #MeToo movement, as evidenced by the #ChurchToo hashtag accompanying accounts of church-related abuse that have been shared on Twitter.
The victims are coming forward to expose abuse in the Protestant evangelical world where some say the misdeeds have been just as pervasive, though less publicized, as the acts committed by Catholic clergy.
“I really believe churches need to enter into a season of lament, acknowledging decades of failure to understand, address and confront these horrors,” said Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of evangelist Billy Graham who heads GRACE, a ministry working to combat sexual abuse in churches.
The turmoil in evangelical ranks coincides with new disclosures about abuse by Catholic clergy in the U.S., including multiple allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and a scathing grand jury report about rampant abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses. However, the Catholic Church has been grappling publicly with its clergy abuse problem for more than two decades. For many American evangelicals, the #ChurchToo angst of recent weeks has been a painfully new experience.
In late July, the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. — announced plans to create a high-level study group to develop strategies for combatting sexual abusers and ministering to their victims. The move followed a series of revelations about sexual misconduct cases involving Southern Baptist churches and seminaries, including allegations that led to the ouster of powerful leader Paige Patterson as president of a seminary in Texas.
“Sexual assault and sexual abuse are Satanic to the core,” said the Rev. Russell Moore, a high-ranking Southern Baptist Convention leader. “Churches should be the ones leading the way when it comes to protecting the vulnerable from predators.”
The issues have spread beyond the Southern Baptists.
Last week, sexual misconduct allegations against one of the country’s highest-profile evangelicals, Bill Hybels, led to wrenching changes at Willow Creek Community Church, the Chicago-area megachurch he founded. The church’s board of elders and lead pastor, before announcing plans to resign, said they would form an advisory council of Christian leaders from across the U.S. to oversee an investigation of the allegations lodged by several women against Hybels.
Hybels retired in April after some allegations were publicized, although at the time the elders belittled the women who spoke up. Announcement of the independent inquiry came a day after The New York Times quoted Hybels’ former executive assistant, Pat Baranowksi, as saying the pastor repeatedly groped and harassed her in the 1980s.
The elders, in a statement , apologized to Baranowski and the other women who alleged abuse ranging from suggestive comments to unwanted kissing and hugging.
“The church should always follow in Jesus’ footsteps to help the wounded find healing, and we are sorry we added to your pain,” the elders said. “We are sorry that our initial statements were so insensitive, defensive, and reflexively protective of Bill.”
In the Chicago case and others like it, the abuse was carried out by ministers who wield tremendous influence over their congregations, leading to situations where victims are silenced and blamed themselves for the abuse.
“The pastor is someone who has authority, power, influence, and the victim usually is someone who doesn’t,” Tchividjian said. “The abusers walk away in great confidence that the victim will not speak out.”
The recent public disclosures of abuse — and the unprecedented apologies — result largely from victims’ newfound willingness to share their stories on social media in the #MeToo era, said psychologist Diane Langberg, an expert on sexual abuse and other traumas occurring in the context of Christian churches.
“Social media has given them a place to go with their stories other than to those in power,” said Langberg, who runs a clinic near Philadelphia. “That has opened a door for voices that have never been heard or welcomed. And because there are so many who are coming forward, it lends a greater credibility.”
Given the Southern Baptist Convention’s prominence, the work of its sexual abuse study group over the next year will be closely watched, particularly by those who question the denomination’s insistence on male leadership in the home and the church. Under SBC doctrine, a wife “is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”
Advocates for abuse victims are cautiously hopeful that the SBC’s new president, North Carolina megachurch pastor J.D. Greear, is committed to curtailing abuse, but they want assurances that the group will include experts from outside the SBC, as well as abuse survivors.
“The group needs to be 50 percent women,” said Ashley Easter, a writer and activist based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “If this is another good old boys club meeting, nothing is going to change.”
Easter and several other activists have recommended 14 people as potential participants in the SBC study group. The list includes Jules Woodson, who wrote a blog post in December about being sexually assaulted by her youth pastor when she was 17. The man she accused, Andy Savage, issued an apology in front of his congregation and subsequently resigned as a pastor of the church.
Also on the list is author/activist Crista Brown, who has written about being abused by a married Southern Baptist minister when she was an adolescent.
Brown, in a recent blog post, noted that most evangelical faith groups believe in the autonomy of local churches, and said that can work against accountability in regard to alleged sexual misconduct. She says evangelicals should create a new organization, operating independently of local churches, to assess reports about sexual abuse committed by church officials.
The reforms being considered by the Southern Baptist Convention come as the SBC’s International Mission Board, which sends Baptist missionaries overseas, commissioned an independent investigation of its handling of past sexual abuse allegations.
The investigation was announced after the July 3 arrest in Texas of former Southern Baptist official Mark Aderholt for alleged sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl in 1997, when he was a 25-year-old seminary student. The Mission Board has acknowledged it was told of the alleged abuse in 2007 but did not report the case to law enforcement.
The board’s president, David Platt, apologized to Aderholt’s accuser, Anne Marie Miller.
“I am committed to doing all that I can so that her courage, and the courage of others like her, will prevent hurt and pain among others in the future,” Platt said in a statement.