Religion

Southern Baptist officials knew of sexual abuse allegations 11 years before leader’s arrest

Allegedly abused by a minister as a teen, a woman confronts him after 20 years

Anne Marie Miller speaks about her relationship with a youth pastor she now describes as a pedophile
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Anne Marie Miller speaks about her relationship with a youth pastor she now describes as a pedophile

The missionary arm of the Southern Baptist Convention knew about allegations against Southern Baptist leader Mark Aderholt more than 10 years before he was arrested July 3 on charges that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl, according to police records, emails and an internal investigation from the organization.

In 2007, the International Mission Board conducted an investigation into allegations that Aderholt had a sexual relationship with the girl while he was a 25-year-old student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. At the time of the investigation, Aderholt was one of the more prolific missionaries with the Mission Board, which has sent Southern Baptists around the globe for more than a century.

The International Mission Board did not report the allegations to authorities.

The Mission Board conducted a two-day interview with his accuser, Anne Marie Miller — the same woman who brought criminal charges against Aderholt more than a decade later in Texas in October 2007. Miller supplied the Star-Telegram with a transcript of the interviews. Miller, then 27, got the results of the investigation a month later.

Aderholt, the assessment team determined, had “more likely than not” engaged in an “inappropriate sexual relationship” with Miller from 1996 to 1997. As for Aderholt, the the team found he was “not truthful” about the “full extent of the relationship.”

Aderholt did not appeal the findings; instead, he resigned in January 2008.

“I felt validated,” said Miller. “I felt like the truth had been spoken, and it had been believed.”

Despite the investigation, Aderholt went on to serve as an assistant pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark. He rose up to be the associate director and chief strategist of the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 2016.

Julie McGowan, the Mission Board spokeswoman, declined to answer specific questions about whether it shared its findings with other Southern Baptist churches. In an email she said responding to such questions “could subject IMB to possible lawsuits under tortious interference with contract laws.”

It wasn’t until Miller brought her allegations to the police in Arlington, almost 11 years after the International Mission Board internal investigation, that something more was done.

Aderholt was arrested on July 3 on charges of sexual assault against a child under 17 and two counts of indecency with a child — sexual contact.

Mark Aderholt
Provided by Richland County.

“The IMB has zero tolerance for child abuse, and our actions in this matter reflect that,” McGowan wrote in an emailed statement. “Any implication that IMB was trying to hide this issue is unfounded. When we heard about the allegations, we chose to investigate the matter immediately. We didn’t ignore it. IMB took action by conducting a thorough, objective investigation that included interviews with multiple players.”

The Southern Baptist Convention is grappling with its own #MeToo movement, spurred by the firing of the leader of its Fort Worth seminary over the mishandling of sexual assault reports. The treatment of women was the theme at this year’s annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas — as was the responsibility of reporting abuse and the question of how churches can best prevent alleged abusers from continuing to serve in the ministry.

In response to a list of 36 questions from the Star-Telegram, Aderholt’s attorney, Justin Sparks, wrote, “Mark is innocent and this case will be tried in court and not in the newspaper.”

‘I know this is wrong’

Miller moved with her parents from Abilene to Arlington when she was 16, the end of the summer in 1996. She wasn’t happy about it.

She’d been a preacher’s daughter since she was 5, moving towns and churches as her father did around West Texas. The family had spent four years in Abilene before her father resigned over a disagreement and packed up for Arlington when her mother got a job with the school district, according to her mother.

For Miller, the move meant transitioning from a smaller school with a sizable Christian population to Arlington’s Bowie High School, where she knew no one and couldn’t find any Bible study groups. The family, disillusioned with church after her father was forced out, wasn’t going to church at the time.

She first found Aderholt on AOL, looking for someone to help her start a See You at the Pole group — an event for high school students to gather at the flagpole and pray. She messaged him using the screen name AnneSR1997, and he offered to meet her.

The two first met at a McDonald’s in what’s now a Walmart, Miller said, in September of 1996. Miller’s mother drove her and then went into the store. Aderholt was a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at the time, according to the seminary’s spokeswoman, and would graduate in May 2000 with a master’s degree in divinity. He wore a baseball hat and khakis, Miller said, his usual uniform for the time she knew him.

Aderholt briefly met Miller’s mother in the department store. He gave Miller some materials for See You at the Pole and they parted.

“I felt that I could talk to him pretty openly about the kind of faith crisis I was starting to experience,” Miller said. “And just some of those fears of being a new girl and just not feeling like I fit in anywhere, had a place to fit in. I felt like he listened to me. I felt heard. I didn’t get any weird vibes from him.”

They started chatting over email about how Miller’s See You at the Pole event had gone (no one showed) and how she was adjusting to her new school (badly). In September, according to the Arlington arrest warrant affidavit, he asked her to his apartment.

When Miller arrived, according to the affidavit, she saw pillows and blankets spread on the floor. (Aderholt had said his couch, Miller told the Star-Telegram, was uncomfortable.) The lights, she said, were already dimmed. They ordered pizza and watched a movie. His arm, she said, leaned against hers. Then, she said, Aderholt put his arm around her and held her hand.

“To have this older guy interested in me, I felt like I was worth something,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this man of God who is stable, who is moving forward in ministry, and who cares about others and wants to serve God, is interested in me. Wow.’ ”

They spoke on the phone after, she said, but mainly as a means of communication to get together. The second time they were together, according to the affidavit, Aderholt kissed her.

As they were kissing, according to the affidavit, Aderholt asked Miller if she were a virgin. She was, she said. Aderholt told her that he lost his virginity at 13, according to the affidavit. He continued to kiss her.

“In my memory, it’s like I’m just watching it,” Miller said. “I’m not there. I’m just watching it from floating above.”

At that point, the contact moved beyond kissing and progressed to further sexual contact above and below the waist.

To Miller, who had been raised in a conservative church culture, Aderholt kissing her meant he loved her. They were exclusive, boyfriend and girlfriend.

The two rarely went out in public. Once, she said, they went to a Kroger to pick up ice cream — chocolate for her, her favorite flavor. Once, she remembers them going to the restaurant Razzoo’s in Fort Worth’s downtown Sundance Square. Another time, she said, they met at a park in Fort Worth and were kissing when a car flashed its lights at them. Aderholt suggested they “make things weird” and started kissing her dramatically. But mostly, she parked at his bottom-floor Arlington apartment, in the very back of the apartment complex.

She tried to wear her Girbaud jeans — Aderholt had said they were his favorite, she remembers.

At one point, according to the affidavit, Aderholt said, “I know this is wrong.”

And: “I have kids in my youth group that are older than you.”

Miller didn’t tell her parents that she was going to meet Aderholt. They trusted her and didn’t ask.

“I just thought he’s going to help her meet some of the youth of the church where he was and they would be — she would be with the group, the youth group, which was fine,” said Miller’s mother, Beverly, 68. “I met him that one time. I didn’t have any concerns about him helping her.”

In April of 1997, Miller said, Aderholt ended things. He told her he was getting engaged to the woman who is now his wife. (According to Miller’s 2007 transcript from the International Mission Board investigation, the investigation found Aderholt did not get engaged until October 1997; Miller said she remembers Aderholt telling her of the engagement in April).

Miller was devastated. But when she thought about it going forward, she thought it was just a relationship that had gone bad.

“She told me she’d been sexually active with someone and he was a Southwestern Seminary student,” said a man Miller dated in the summer of 1997, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his family’s privacy. “She refused to tell me who he was, which was fine.”

The 2007 investigation

By 2005, Miller had moved to Kansas and was the communications director and a volunteer at the student ministry at Westside Family Church in the Kansas City suburb of Lenexa, when one of the male staff members turned 25. She was sitting next to a 16-year-old girl when she realized: That was the same age difference as she and Aderholt.

It was the first moment she began to recognize that what happened was inappropriate and even an abuse of power. Not long after, when she had a Thursday off, she was cleaning the house and watching “Oprah.” The episode was about pedophiles.

As she heard about the grooming process that pedophiles use with their victims, she began to feel sick.

“It was exactly what happened with Mark,” she said. The man on “Oprah” described how a predator seeks out the new, lonely, vulnerable person. The predator gets to know that person and learns what her struggles are. Then, once the victim trusts the predator, the predator takes advantage.

Miller walked into the bathroom, looked in the mirror and splashed water in her face.

“I knew that at that moment, my identity of who I always thought I was had changed because now that invisible tag, the label of ‘victim of sexual abuse’ got stuck on my shirt,” she said. “That was a horrifying moment to recognize that someone had taken advantage of me in such an intimate way.”

The next day, Miller told her friend at church, Crystal Renaud. Miller had told her back in 2004 when they traveled for work about a “creepy youth pastor” she’d had a close relationship with, but this was the first Renaud heard of any abuse, Renaud said.

Renaud remembered Miller coming to her right after the “Oprah” show in 2005. Miller, she said, told her what happened almost 10 years before with Aderholt.

“These are not acts of a lonely teenaged girl looking to get involved with youth groups and prayer rallies,” Renaud said. “This is coercion by a predatory man who sought out a victim in Anne.”

Miller looked Aderholt up and found he was a missionary with the International Mission Board.

Aderholt had been with the International Mission Board since March 2000, according to McGowan, the Mission Board spokeswoman. An October 2004 article from Aderholt’s alma mater, Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, cites him as doing missionary work in Hungary. At the time, according to a 2006 update from an Illinois Baptist group, he was the International Mission Board’s regional strategy associate for the Central Europe Field.

Miller moved back to Texas in late 2006 and worked at Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall doing graphic design. While there, she wrote an article on forgiveness that alluded to her situation. It caught the attention of one of the pastors’ daughters, who asked her what happened. The daughter told her father, Rod Vestal, and he asked Miller for permission to go to the International Mission Board.

Miller said yes.

“I don’t want to make any public comments that could give any perception of compromising my office as a pastor,” Vestal said. Miller had given him permission to speak to the Star-Telegram.

During the course of the two-month investigation, Miller said, she shut down. She had flashbacks of being with Aderholt. Getting out of bed was a struggle. She was terrified she wouldn’t remember details, and no one would believe her.

“I started spinning in my head,” she said. “It was just a time of real chaos and anxiety and stress.”

Miller provided the Star-Telegram with her 300-page transcript from the Mission Board interview, conducted on Oct. 22 and 23, 2007. In response to specific questions from the Star-Telegram about the interview and the investigation process, the Mission Board, through McGowan, declined to comment, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

The International Mission Board also reached out to friends and family of Miller’s, including her mother and her boyfriend from the summer of 1997. The ex-boyfriend, now 47 and a teacher with his own family who had asked for anonymity, said they asked him how long he’d known her, what their relationship was and what she told him about Aderholt.

“They also asked me how she dressed,” he said. “I thought they were almost insinuating she asked for it, or she could have been more complicit in the interaction than what she claimed.”

Over the course of two days, at Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall and in Room 313 of the Homewood Suites in Grapevine, Miller sat with Derek Gaubatz, the International Mission Board’s general counsel. Also in the room were two more members of the Mission Board, a member of a Southern Baptist church and a court reporter. She went over what had happened with Aderholt. At Gaubatz’s request, she walked the board through her religious journey with Christ.

Gaubatz asked about her sexual relationships before and after Aderholt. “Was it less physical, more physical with [your boyfriend after Aderholt]?” he asked once, asking for more explicit detail in the next question.

In late November, Gaubatz emailed Miller the findings and results. Aderholt, she learned, was no longer with the International Mission Board. Miller felt validated, she said. For all the problems, she said, she had appreciated the thoroughness of the investigation.

The investigation came to three conclusions: It was “more likely than not” that Aderholt had engaged in an “inappropriate sexual relationship” with Miller, that she was still emotionally affected by it and that Aderholt was “not truthful” with International Mission Board personnel about it.

The results of the investigation, McGowan said, were on the agenda for the next trustee meeting. (The only way to terminate a missionary at that time, she said). Before the meeting, Aderholt resigned.

During the interview, Gaubatz asked Miller if she was going to press charges.

Thinking about her depression, her suicidal thoughts, she said she couldn’t imagine going through the process.

She said no.

“I told myself, if I can’t handle this informal internal interview, there is no way I can face this man in court. There is no way I can do this on a larger scale,” she said. “I will not survive if I do that. I was terrified. I was far too terrified to do it because I honestly thought I could not survive it. I don’t mean that dramatically. I mean that quite literally.”

In response to the Star-Telegram’s question about why no one from the International Mission Board alerted police, the board responded:

“In 2007, IMB specifically inquired if Ms. Miller (who was 25 at that time) intended to file charges, and she said no. We were more than willing to support such action at that time. To our knowledge, neither her parents, her husband at the time, two counselors or several other friends reported the matter to police, including several individuals who actually live in Texas where the alleged events took place. We can only assume they approached this matter in the same fashion we did: that this was Ms. Miller’s story to share with local authorities when she was ready. We fully support her taking this step now, and we are cooperating with authorities.”

While Texas does have a strong mandatory reporting law in place for suspected cases of child abuse — anyone who suspects a child is in danger is a mandatory reporter — it’s less clear with cases involving childhood victims who are now adults.

F. Scott McCown, the director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, said he hasn’t heard of a situation in which someone had been prosecuted in Texas for failing to report alleged child abuse when the victim is now an adult.

Scott Fredricks, a Fort Worth lawyer who’s worked child abuse cases, said the laws have changed over the years. He said they would have been looser in 2007 regarding reporting requirements, especially in the case of an adult. The statute in place now, he said, has language about disclosure if the information is necessary to protect another child, which could apply if the alleged perpetrator were still working with children.

“For practical purposes,” he said, “I would always counsel someone to make the report.”

A ‘systemic epidemic’

Miller spent the next years writing books and blogs and speaking to churches, gaining prominence on the church circuit. In her writing, Miller disguised the details of the alleged abuse and never referred to the International Mission Board or Aderholt by name.

At the same time, Aderholt had risen through the Southern Baptist ranks. He was on staff at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., from December 2009 to July 2016 and served as the associate pastor of missions/evangelism, according to the church’s records. He became the associate director and chief strategist of the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 2016. Posts from social media accounts show that he continued to work with children.

“I am deeply honored that you have invited me to come alongside you, and look forward to doing so for many years to come,” Aderholt wrote in his chief strategists’ report to the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 2016.

Over the years, Miller emailed back and forth with Gaubatz, the International Mission Board lawyer.

Just after the investigation concluded, Miller asked if Aderholt had confessed to anything during his interview.

“At this point, I would advise you to let it go,” Gaubatz wrote in a Dec. 3, 2007, email. “Forgiveness is up to you alone — it involves a decision by you to forgive the other person of the wrongs done to you, just as Christ has forgiven you.”

Miller thanked him for the reply and his advice.

On Feb. 13, 2011, she sent another email to Gaubatz.

“How can Mark still pastor inside SBC churches like he is?” she wrote. “Isn’t there some checks and balances with something as serious as what he was terminated for?”

Gaubatz, she said, never wrote her back. Neither he nor McGowan, the International Mission Board spokeswoman, answered the Star-Telegram’s question about whether he’d received the email and why he hadn’t replied.

“Periodically Anne would mention that Mark is now on staff at this church or that church,” said Renaud, Miller’s friend. “I could tell it re-traumatized her to think that others could be getting abused or that he could still be abusing his role as a pastor. But it also grieved her heart to know that any actions she made would impact Mark’s wife and children.”

In February 2018, Miller was asked to a speak at a church about sex and her abuse. Something nagged at the back of her mind, spurred by the #MeToo movement and her own years of alluding to the alleged abuse and always getting asked what happened to the man she said abused her. She didn’t want to say she couldn’t do anything anymore, because she actually didn’t know if the statute of limitations had expired.

“I realized I could no longer in good conscience say, ‘I can’t do anything’ because I can,” she said. “Now that I have a daughter of my own, I need to do something about this, and I don’t know what that looks like.”

She found Fredricks, the Fort Worth lawyer, through his work on other abuse cases. She told him the outline of what happened. “He said, ‘You’re actually right, there’s no statute. And now that I know about it you get to report it and I need to because it is serious.’”

Fredricks declined to go over the specifics of his conversation with Miller but said they had spoken.

Miller took her story to the Arlington Police Department. Aderholt was arrested July 3 in South Carolina and booked into the Tarrant County Jail in Texas on July 9. He was charged with sexual assault of a child under 17 — punishable by up to 20 years in prison. He was released on $10,000 bond.

When Aderholt was arrested, the International Mission Board released a statement to the Baptist Press saying that it had learned about the charges through the Star-Telegram’s article. In response to a question from the Star-Telegram noting that the organization had known about allegations against Aderholt since 2007 and had been contacted by authorities before his arrest, McGowan responded that the statement meant “criminal charges.”

Aderholt had resigned from the South Carolina Baptist Convention on June 19. The statement announcing his resignation from Gary Hollingsworth, the convention’s executive director, did not mention a reason but said Hollingsworth accepted the resignation with a “heavy heart.”

Doug Pigg, the pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church, had been there only three months when news of Aderholt’s arrest broke. He said he looked through Aderholt’s file and couldn’t find any allegations against him from his time at the church.

Hollingsworth had been pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church, where he and Aderholt worked before going to the South Carolina Baptist Convention. In response to 29 questions about Aderholt — including the hiring process at Immanuel and the South Carolina Baptist Convention and whether anyone had known of the Mission Board’s investigation — the South Carolina Baptist Convention deferred comment to its employment law attorney, Stephen Savitz of Columbia, S.C.

“Our longstanding advice to the South Carolina Baptist Convention and to our other clients is that as to former employees, they should only give a neutral reference which would be dates of employment, position held and salary,” Savitz wrote in an email. “I do not recommend his responding to additional questions.”

The International Mission Board updated its process for firing missionaries in 2008, after Aderholt’s resignation: It now is able to terminate missionaries without bringing the matter before the board of trustees. Its current reference policy allows employers to request information on a former International Mission Board employee — if the employee in question signs a release.

The International Mission Board did not respond to questions sent to McGowan about whether anyone had contacted the organization for a reference on Aderholt or whether it had warned any other Southern Baptist churches about Aderholt.

At June’s Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Dallas, the underlying theme was abuse and the denomination’s treatment of women. The overwhelming consensus, from the speakers at the convention, was to report any suspicions of allegations of abuse to authorities.

But the denomination is still working to balance the autonomy of local churches — a key tenant of the Southern Baptist Convention — with responding to abuse allegations and being proactive. A proposal to create a database of Southern Baptist abusers in 2007 died, but was revived this year. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission — the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm — is studying its viability.

“I’m incredibly hopeful that because so many women are finding the courage and people believe them now that this systemic epidemic of coverup within the Southern Baptist Convention — that there’s such a spotlight on it now,” Miller said. “I’m hopeful that this truly is a turning point.”

Deanna Boyd contributed reporting. Anyone with further information should contact reporter Sarah Smith at ssmith@star-telegram.com
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