Hundreds of sex abuse allegations found in fundamental Baptist churches across U.S.
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.
At least three other teen girls would accuse Hyles of sexual misconduct, but he never faced charges or even sat for a police interview related to the accusations. When he got in trouble, Hyles was able to simply move on, from one church assignment to the next.
Hyles’ flight to safety has become a well-worn path for ministers in the independent fundamental Baptist movement.
For decades, women and children have faced rampant sexual abuse while worshiping at independent fundamental Baptist churches around the country. The network of churches and schools has often covered up the crimes and helped relocate the offenders, an eight-month Star-Telegram investigation has found.
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.”
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.
Twenty-one abuse allegations were uncovered exclusively by the Star-Telegram, and others were documented in criminal cases, lawsuits and news reports. But victims said the number of abused is far greater because few victims ever come forward.
One hundred and sixty-eight church leaders were accused or convicted of committing sexual crimes against children, the investigation found. At least 45 of the alleged abusers continued in ministry after accusations came to the attention of church authorities or law enforcement.
Compounding the problem is the legal statute of limitations. For many alleged offenders, the statutes on the crimes have expired.
Many of the allegations involve men whose misconduct has long been suspected in the independent fundamental Baptist community. But most of their victims have not publicly come forward, on the record, until now. Even pastors have for the first time — in interviews with the Star-Telegram — acknowledged they moved alleged abusers out of their churches rather than call law enforcement.
From Connecticut to California, the stories are tragically similar:
A music minister molested a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina and moved to another church in Florida. Another girl’s parents stood in front of their Connecticut congregation to acknowledge their daughter’s “sin” after she was abused by her youth pastor, beginning at 16. This year, four women accused a pastor in California of covering up sexual misconduct and shielding the abusers over almost 25 years.
To understand how this systemic, widespread abuse could happen again and again, some former members say it is necessary to understand the cult-like power of many independent fundamental Baptist churches and the constant pressure not to question pastors — or ever leave the church.
“We didn’t have a compound like those other places, but it may as well have been,” said one former member who says she was abused. She requested anonymity because, like many others, she is still intimidated by the church.
“Our mind was the compound.”
‘Men of God’
Current and formers members say many independent fundamental Baptist churches rule by fear.
Pastor Jim Vineyard was an expert in the tactic.
Vineyard had a tattoo snaking around his forearm and liked to talk about the days he said he was a Green Beret. He began his preaching career under Dave Hyles’ father, Jack, in Indiana and left to begin his own church, Windsor Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
Former members in Oklahoma City remember the story about a photo of a dead man Vineyard kept in his desk. It was a favorite of Vineyard’s to tell from the pulpit.
In one version of the story, the picture was of a man who voted against Vineyard coming into the church to pastor. The man subsequently got into a car crash and broke his neck.
Or there was this version: The photo was of the son of a Windsor Hills family who told Vineyard they were going to leave the church. Vineyard warned them: If they did, God would punish them. They left, and the son died in a car crash.
Defy Jim Vineyard, the message went, and God would punish you.
To go against the advice of the pastor of an independent fundamental Baptist church is almost unthinkable. The “man of God” is chosen by God and is the church’s direct link to him. To question the pastor is to question God.
“I see a culture where pastoral authority is taken to a level that’s beyond what the Scripture teaches,” said Tim Heck, who was a deacon at Faith Baptist Church in Wildomar, California, and whose daughter said she had been abused by the youth pastor there. “I think the independent fundamental Baptists have lost their way.”
Many pastors build authority through fear and interpretation of Bible verses. Children learn the story of Elisha and the she-bears: As the prophet Elisha walks up the path toward Bethel, a group of children surrounds him and makes fun of his baldness. Two she-bears emerge from the woods and maul 42 of the children. The lesson: Don’t challenge the man of God.
Even if they leave, some ex-members wonder for years whether bad events in their lives were caused by an angry God. Jennifer McCune, who came forward this year to allege that Dave Hyles raped her when she was a 14-year-old in Texas, still wonders 36 years later if God punished her by giving her late husband cancer.
Other ex-members said they believed that if they disobeyed the pastor or left the church, God would kill them or their loved ones.
The authority of the men of God extends far beyond the church. Pastors often have a heavy hand in who church members can date. Pastors are asked by members for their advice on where to vacation or whether to take a new job. When one congregant wanted to buy a new house, he had the pastor drive by first and approve it.
Independent fundamental Baptist churches preach separation: Stay separate from the world, separate from non-believers and separate from Christians who do not believe as they do. That includes Southern Baptists, who are deemed by the strict sect as too liberal.
Members instinctively go to the pastor first with problems, including those of a criminal nature.
“Any issues, even legal issues, go to the pastor first, not the police. Especially about another member of the church,” said Josh Elliott, a former member of Vineyard’s Oklahoma City church. “The person should go to the pastor, and the pastor will talk to the offender. You don’t report to police because the pastor is the ultimate authority, not the government.”
Stuart Hardy was a youth and music pastor at an independent fundamental Baptist church in Michigan. He witnessed the same authoritarian approach.
“You can’t question your leaders,” Hardy said. “And when you can’t question your leaders, we’ve seen it in politics, you know what happens. It’s not a good thing.”
Hardy left in 2014 and now describes the experience using one four-letter word.
“Those of us that have gotten out definitely know it as a cult,” he said.
The independent fundamental Baptist movement began to grow in the 1950s and ’60s as the churches positioned themselves as the true way to Christ in contrast to less conservative churches and a godless secular world.
While there’s no official count, an online directory assembled by a pastor in Maine lists more than 6,000 independent fundamental Baptist churches in the United States, as well as churches in countries from Germany to Nicaragua.
The churches operate independently. But many pastors are linked by the church-affiliated colleges they attended: Bob Jones University, Hyles-Anderson College, Pensacola Christian College and Golden State Baptist College, to name a few. Friendships are forged at preaching conferences — and, just as often, alliances are rearranged when there’s a rift.
Pastors use their connections in this informal network to help abusers find new churches, the Star-Telegram found.
Many of the churches identified by the Star-Telegram that have faced abuse allegations are in the Southeast and Midwest, with the most being in North Carolina (17) and Ohio (12).
Nine of the churches are in Texas, including Open Door Baptist Church in Mesquite. In April, police arrested pastor Bob Ross on charges that he failed to report the alleged sexual abuse of a minor. A month earlier, one of his ministers and a youth volunteer were jailed on suspicion of sexually abusing children at the church.
While many abusers in the ministry are never caught, there’s a collection of church officials in prison for their crimes. Carlton Hammonds, who pastored Willows Baptist Church in Willows, California, served three years for molesting four girls from his congregation in the mid-2000s. In 2012, Joshua Gardner was sentenced to six years for sexually abusing two boys at his parents’ church on an American base in Okinawa, Japan. (His Minnesota church stood behind him.) Two officials at Kettle Moraine Baptist Church in Wisconsin were sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting children at the church’s Camp Joy. One of the Camp Joy workers already had a sexual offense conviction.
Jim Vineyard would also face misconduct allegations when his leadership-by-fear style was finally challenged in 2004.
Multiple women say the Oklahoma City pastor made sexual comments to them from the 1990s to 2000s when they were teenagers during one-on-one counseling sessions. The allegations went public when the brother of one of the girls put together a packet of letters and sworn affidavits describing the comments and sent it to the church’s deacons.
Vineyard, who died in October 2017, denied he’d done anything wrong and led Windsor Hills until 2007.
Vineyard’s son Tom took his place as head of the church. Ross, the pastor from Mesquite who was arrested in April, had worked for Jim Vineyard in Oklahoma before coming to Texas, and has found refuge back in Vineyard’s church as he awaits trial.
Tom Vineyard and Ross did not respond to requests for comment.
Ex-members of Windsor Hills say they’ve been contacted by Mesquite officers as part of the investigation into Ross. They said police also asked them about allegations that Ross had failed to report abuse when he worked at Windsor Hills.
‘He does that with everyone’
In Joy Evans Ryder’s mid-1970s church-driven world, skirts had to go past knees, men and women had to be separated by six inches, and a good daughter’s gift to her father was to save her first kiss for the altar.
A father himself, Jack Hyles was nicknamed the “Baptist Pope” for the sway he held over the nationwide independent fundamental Baptist movement from his power base in small-town Indiana.
His son Dave was tall, skinny and already balding by his mid-20s. He had his father’s eyes that pulled down at the corners. No one would have called him traditionally handsome, but he had his father’s ability to make you feel a part of the in-crowd with a compliment or sarcastic joke. And he could just as easily push you out with a cutting insult.
Dave Hyles had taken an interest in Ryder when she was 14, and it scared her.
One Sunday morning after service, she stood in line to speak to Jack Hyles — the most important person in her world — about his son’s repeated calls to her house. The attention made her uncomfortable, she said.
The pastor sat at his desk and took her in for a moment.
“Joy, you’re not special,” he said. “He does that with everyone. So don’t think he’s trying to do anything with you.”
Not long after, she was raped by Dave Hyles. It continued for two years.
Reached by phone, Dave Hyles declined to comment. The Star-Telegram followed up by sending him a list of written questions. He did not respond. Jack Hyles died in 2001.
At 16, Ryder thought about suicide, fearing she might be pregnant with Dave Hyles’ child. She imagined ramming her car into a telephone pole or a tree, killing her and the baby.
She didn’t think about going to police.
“I went to somebody I thought would be my protector,” Ryder said. “Not my dad, because this shows you how we were taught to think about our pastor, Dr. Hyles.”
Dave Hyles had warned her to stay quiet or he’d get her parents fired. Her father was president of Hyles-Anderson College, a school started by and run from First Baptist Church. Her mother was the school’s dean of women.
To her friends, Ryder looked happy. She was popular, secure in her social status, and had a spot in the church school’s coveted choir, called Strength and Beauty. She liked to run off to the mall with friends every chance she got and had her light-brown hair feathered, Farrah Fawcett-style.
But she was also angry and ready to rebel against the system that entrapped her. She sneaked to movies, wore pants and swiped cigarette packs, all verboten in the church.
At 17, Ryder snapped. She called her parents from a payphone at the church school and told them to meet her at home. She told them everything.
The next time she met Hyles, her father would follow.
He drove behind her to a Holiday Inn, and waited in his car as he watched Ryder walk into a first-floor room and shut the door.
“I’m leaving,” Ryder told Hyles.
He asked what she meant.
“I’m leaving,” she repeated. “I told my parents, and my dad is outside.”
Hyles pulled back the curtain and saw her father’s car. She says he shoved her against the wall, his forearm pressed on her throat.
“What have you done to me? You’ve ruined my ministry. How could you do this to me?’”
He let her go and paced the room. Ryder walked out, got in her car and drove home. Her father followed her. He didn’t confront Hyles.
He did, however, go to Jack Hyles, who dismissed the report about his son because Ryder’s father didn’t record Dave Hyles’ license plate number.
Her father dropped the subject.
Ryder’s father, Wendell Evans, wished he could do it over, he said 35 years later in a notarized statement provided to the Star-Telegram, taken because Ryder was seeking evidence to take to the church.
At the time of the abuse, Evans’ career was blossoming in the church. Pushing Hyles, his boss, on the allegations would have been difficult, he said.
“I mean, Hyles and I were still good friends,” he said. “We marveled sometimes that our friendship survived this situation.”
But in an interview with the Star-Telegram, Evans was not so forgiving of Dave Hyles. He regrets not calling the police on him.
“I think it’s remarkable that in 40 years, Dave didn’t find time to ask forgiveness from his victims and their parents,” said Evans, now 83.
It was not the first time Jack Hyles heard allegations against his son, nor would it be the last. One woman alleged Dave Hyles raped her at 14 when she attended the church’s high school, years before Ryder. The woman’s 10th-grade teacher also confronted Jack Hyles about his son, only to be brushed off.
Dave Hyles’ ministry wasn’t ruined. Instead, he got promoted.
A few months after Evans and Jack Hyles spoke about the encounter at the Holiday Inn, Dave Hyles became the pastor at Miller Road Baptist Church in Garland, Texas — the church his father led before moving to Indiana. Jack Hyles would later say he never recommended his son to any church, but deacons and staffers at Miller Road said their search committee called Jack Hyles about Dave. No one heard any warnings.
Two more women would accuse Dave Hyles of molesting them in Texas. One woman, who went to Hyles-Anderson for college, said she tried to tell Jack Hyles what had happened. He told her not to tell anyone else.
Then, she said, he kicked her out of his office.
‘The M.O. in fundamentalism’
It was a Friday in May 2018 when one of Stacey Shiflett’s associate pastors pulled him aside after a staff meeting and said they needed to talk — and that it was urgent.
Shiflett, a native Georgian with close-cropped hair who hasn’t lost his Southern accent or his penchant for the Bulldogs, was in his fourth year of pastoring Calvary Baptist Church in Dundalk, Maryland. His predecessor, Cameron Giovanelli, had recommended him for the post and was president of the prestigious Golden State Baptist College in Santa Clara, California, where Shiflett’s daughter attended.
Shiflett liked Giovanelli. He was a funny man with a young family. He’d beaten cancer and written a book about how his faith — and family — got him through it.
But it was Cameron Giovanelli whom the associate pastor had come to talk to Shiflett about. Giovanelli had allegedly molested the associate pastor’s granddaughter, Sarah Jackson, when she was 16, in 2006.
Shiflett called Sarah Jackson, now 29. Jackson told him of kisses in Giovanelli’s office, the secret phone he bought for her on the church plan so they could text, of gifts of diamond hoop earrings (he didn’t like studs) and how Giovanelli said his wife would never give him oral sex, so it was something special for the two of them.
A few hours after her conversation with Shiflett, Sarah Jackson posted her story on Facebook, naming Giovanelli. She logged off immediately, shaking. But she felt free. For the first time in years, she wouldn’t have to lie.
“I was raised in a way where you respect your elders and your leaders,” she wrote on Facebook. “Your Pastor in the Baptist faith, is pretty much right under God. You trust him. With everything.”
She then accused Giovanelli of abusing his power to instigate a physical and emotional relationship with her. “Why now? Well, now I am a mother. I will do whatever I can in my power to not allow something to happen to my son that happened to me as a 16-year-old girl. So this is my story, and with this, I let go.”
Stacey Shiflett, a 45-year-old with 25 years of ministry behind him, hoped the allegations weren’t true. But the more he investigated, the more credible Jackson’s story became.
When Giovanelli resigned from Golden State Baptist College after the abuse allegation went viral, the chancellor of the college and the pastor of its affiliated church asked the congregation to pray for the church, the college, and the Giovanelli family.
The pastor, Jack Trieber, dressed in a yellow tie and matching pocket square, reached into his pocket to put on his glasses before reading a statement that “allegations of inappropriate conduct” had been made against Giovanelli.
Trieber took his glasses off. The video posted on the church website ends. Then, say people who were in attendance, he proceeded to praise Giovanelli.
Trieber did not respond to interview requests. Reached by phone, Giovanelli said he had no comment and hung up. He did not respond to specific questions that were sent to him.
Jackson filed a police report. The investigation is ongoing. Still, Giovanelli found a soft landing at Immanuel Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, where he is an associate pastor and head of the church’s book publication arm. He is supported by the pastor, Greg Neal, and his Twitter feed shows him traveling around the country, welcomed at churches.
Neal has had his own brush with the law.
In 2011, police investigated Neal over allegations that he videotaped unsuspecting women as they changed their clothes in his church office a decade earlier. By then, the one-year statute of limitations on the allegations had run out.
Neal did not respond to requests for comment.
Stacey Shiflett saw the video by Jack Trieber, the chancellor of Golden State Baptist College. He decided to speak out because he felt Trieber downplayed the allegations against Giovanelli. He put up an 18-minute YouTube video, recorded in his office — the same office in which Sarah Jackson said Cameron Giovanelli molested her.
For Shiflett, the issue was personal. He’d twice been a victim of attempted sexual misconduct in the church world. Both times, people knew about his would-be abusers’ behavior and did nothing to stop it. One alleged abuser went on to serve as an administrator in a Christian school in a different state, even after Shiflett warned the school’s pastor.
“It’s been the M.O. in fundamentalism for pastors and churches and ministries to just gloss over and sweep under the rug things of absolute epic proportion,” he said in the video. “The reason why I’m so fervent, so passionate about it this morning is because I relived all of those feelings of what it’s like to be abused — and the one that does the abuse is the one that always comes out the other side smelling like a rose and goes down the road to another church so he can do it again to somebody else.”
The reaction in the movement was predictable, not that Shiflett cares.
The father of the man who pastors the Jacksonville church that took Giovanelli in retaliated by publishing a piece on his personal website titled “An Expose on Stacey Shiflett” that called him “self-aggrandizing” and a “little man” and accused him of automatically taking Sarah Jackson’s side.
As for Jackson, he wrote, he studied her “sordid FB page” and found her to be “godless, narcissistic and self-promoting.”
At Calvary Baptist Church, Shiflett said, he’s been open with the congregation. They haven’t lost a single member since Jackson went public with her allegations, he said. She even went to a church service once with her husband and baby boy. Everyone lined up to give her a hug.
“It bothers me that men of God will stand up in the pulpit all over this country who say, ‘We’re going to stand up for the truth and stand for what’s right,’ they duck and they run and they hide when stuff like this comes out,” Shiflett said in the video, holding up his Bible.
“And that’s why people have given independent Baptists a bad name. It happens all the time. But it’s not going to happen this time.”
On July 4, Cameron Giovanelli put up a YouTube video (now deleted) denying Sarah Jackson’s accusations that he began a sexual relationship with her when she was 16 in her Maryland church. He stood in a red Georgia Bulldogs polo in front of palm leaves with his wife. Birds chirped in the background.
“With these false allegations, God has now brought us to Jacksonville, Florida,” he said. “Who’d have ever thought? Jacksonville, Florida.”
He resigned from Golden State for the good of the college, he said, and was excited to start down the new path God set out for him.
Giovanelli’s wife stood behind him in a striped T-shirt, eyes on her husband through the three-minute video, nodding. She said nothing.
A forced apology
Consequences are rare for pastors who cover up abusive behavior. In some cases, the abused are even forced to apologize in front of the congregation.
Lisa Meister’s pastor listened when she told him that her youth pastor, Mark Chappell, had abused her in Wallingford, Connecticut, in the 1980s.
Then he let Chappell move to another church.
Mark Chappell’s alleged misconduct has long been a topic of speculation in the independent fundamental Baptist community. Ex-fundamentalist message boards had stories about him, but were posted anonymously.
Meister, 48 now and speaking publicly for the first time, met Chappell when she was 15. He was stocky and handsome, with yellow-red hair and a mustache. He complimented her lip gloss, her dresses, her perfume — and at the time, she liked the attention.
When she was 16, she said, he took her to his apartment and kissed her. Eventually, they did everything but penetrative sex, she said, and she cried after. He told her that if she told anyone, she would ruin his life.
At 17, feeling like she had no other way to get out of the situation, Lisa Meister tried to kill herself.
Sitting in the hospital room, she told her pastor, Stephen Baker, why she did it.
Ultimately, Meister’s parents and Chappell were asked to appear before the church to repent for their sins.
“It wasn’t said, ‘This man preyed on this girl,’ ‘This man violated this girl,’” Meister said. “It was put out before the church as two people who sinned together. Like I was just as guilty as he was in the eyes of the church.”
When Chappell moved to a new church, Baker said he made the leadership in the new church aware of the allegations.
“I worked very closely with our leadership, and we felt we had tried to do what was in the very best interest of really, two situations,” Baker said. “The church and both parties.”
Nothing in his schooling had prepared Baker for the situation with Meister and Chappell. He’d never heard the term “mandatory reporter,” referring to laws that require people in certain professions to report suspected abuse to authorities. In retrospect, he said, he should have taken more time to decide what to do and let Lisa Meister’s parents know that there were options besides church discipline.
Chappell now pastors Freeway Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona. He is part of one of the most prominent families in the movement: His brother, Paul Chappell, is a pastor and is the president of West Coast Baptist College in Lancaster, California. Mark Chappell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Meister is married to a Southern Baptist pastor. She’s in treatment for depression and has had thoughts of suicide since her first attempt. She wishes she had talked more to her parents about what happened before they died. For a while she hated religion, but after hearing sermons, she realized it wasn’t God who hurt her, it was a man.
“It made me very distrustful of men,” she said. “It made me very distrustful of the pastor.”
‘Continue to pray’
Dave Hyles left victims across the country. They are still in recovery.
In the 1970s and ’80s, with his dad’s church among the biggest in the country, Hyles cut a celebrity-like figure in the movement — and took advantage of it.
Rhonda Cox Lee felt special when Hyles noticed her out of the hundreds of kids who attended his dad’s church.
The first time anything sexual happened, she said, they were in his office. He sat at his desk, she sat across from him on a chair. He walked around the desk and placed her hand on his groin.
“Do you feel that?” he asked.
At first she thought it was some sort of spiritual test. He was a man of God, after all, and even though it felt wrong, he wouldn’t ask her to do anything wrong. Several meetings later, their clothing came off. She was 14. It felt wrong, she said, but she knew it had to be what God wanted.
“He compared himself to David in the Bible and how he was anointed, and said this is what I was supposed to do,” Lee said. “I was supposed to take care of him because he was the man of God.”
Hyles, she said, alternately promised her that they would be together once she turned 18 and warned her not to tell anyone in the church because if she did, the church would split, America would go to hell, and the blood of the unsaved would be on her hands.
Brandy Eckright went to Hyles for counseling at his church in Garland, Texas, when she was 18, after being molested as a child. She said he soon took advantage of her, and they had sex for the first time in 1982.
“Dave, I thought he was a God,” said Eckright, who like Lee had never gone public with her allegations against Hyles. “I thought if I got pregnant by Dave Hyles, it would be like having God’s baby.”
At 54, Eckright can barely talk about what happened. She’s survived three suicide attempts. She works as a cashier and said she can barely hold down the job.
In 1984, Hyles left Miller Road Baptist Church in Garland after a janitor found a briefcase stashed with pornography featuring Hyles and married female members of the congregation, ex-members said. He and his new wife went back to live near First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, and then moved again.
Dave Hyles has managed to stay out of handcuffs.
Today, he runs a ministry for pastors who have fallen into sin, supported by Family Baptist Church in Columbia, Tennessee, pastored by David Baker.
In 2017, Joy Evans Ryder’s brother emailed Baker, outlining Hyles’ alleged crimes against his sister. Baker took five words to reply: “Thank you for your concern.”
Baker, a Hyles-Anderson College graduate and a military veteran, said he thinks Dave Hyles has been unfairly blamed. Hyles, Baker said, is a good man, with a strong marriage who has helped many people through his ministry.
“He’s someone who made mistakes years ago, and through that brokenness and God restoring him, wants to use what he’s been through to help others,” Baker said. “I’m not going to debate anybody about those issues.”
Dave Hyles, with gray hair and a beard, is pictured on his Facebook page in a red polo shirt and square-rimmed glasses similar to the ones his father so iconically wore. He sends posts in his private Facebook group, Fallen in Grace Ministries, contemplating the nature of sin and restoration.
In a September missive forwarded to the Star-Telegram, Hyles wrote that he had enemies, people who harassed him and slandered him. “In fact, I have come to realize that there is nothing we could do to satisfy them. The more we tried the less we would satisfy them,” he wrote. “So, what exactly do they want?”
Joy Evans Ryder just wants acknowledgment.
In March 2014, Ryder approached the new pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, and asked for an independent investigation into alleged abuses at the church. John Wilkerson had become the pastor the year before, after Jack Hyles’ successor and son-in-law went to federal prison for sexual abuse of a 16-year-old congregant.
Wilkerson is a tall man with a long face and gray hair parted neatly to the side. His sermons are more even in tone than either of his predecessors, who preferred to pace and shout.
Ryder and Wilkerson spoke on Friday, March 7, 2014. Ryder told him everything that had happened with Dave Hyles, and said she knew stories of other women.
Wilkerson suggested Ryder line them up to tell their stories. The next day, he texted Ryder to thank her.
“Your spirit was Christlike but your pain obviously deep,” he wrote. “I am also saddened by the way Jesus’ name has been shamed. Please continue to pray that The Lord gives direction.”
Ryder hasn’t heard from the church in four years. Wilkerson, the church’s pastor, did not respond to requests for comment.
Ryder started Out of the Shadows with other church abuse victims in 2013. It’s a nonprofit dedicated to helping sexual abuse survivors, particularly from the independent fundamental Baptist movement.
Out of the Shadows has no physical headquarters, but one day Ryder hopes it will. She spends hours talking to people on Facebook and email, mostly women, who are still in the church or have just left.
Ryder is undaunted. She swears and drinks, and every photo of her on social media shows her smiling, wavy hair in place to frame high cheekbones.
Thirty-nine years after that day at the Holiday Inn, Ryder and her father have a good relationship. She’s tried to make it that way and to enjoy her father for who he is. He learned in October he has beginning-stage Alzheimer’s. They don’t talk much about what happened.
She lives in Indiana still, after years of missionary work in Papua New Guinea and raising three children. Ryder has found the anger she couldn’t access when she was a teenager about what happened to her, and about how Hyles was allowed to move across the country.
“Like, how could I ever let myself feel special about that? That’s another bit of blame you heap on yourself,” she said. “And then it’s a whole other amount of shame. Because if they can shuffle them on and not help you, again, that reinforces that you are not worth it.”