The Star-Telegram began its investigation into abuse at independent fundamental Baptist churches after two men were arrested in February and March on sexual abuse charges at a Mesquite, Texas, church.
Then the church’s pastor, Bob Ross, was arrested in April on a charge of failure to report child abuse. People who had known Ross from his days as youth director at Windsor Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma said he’d ignored their own abuse allegations and worked for a pastor who wielded absolute control over his congregation by telling members that they would die if they left the church or disobeyed him.
As more and more ex-members of the independent fundamental Baptist movement came forward to the Star-Telegram, a pattern emerged: Despite their use of the word independent, many of the churches were connected with other independent fundamental Baptist churches through colleges and pastoral friendships. And those connections, as well as the church culture, allowed abuse to flourish and abusers to move around the country without consequence.
Ex-members connected reporter Sarah Smith to other members on Facebook and through text messages. The Star-Telegram started a Facebook group of ex-members for informal Q&As and for the ex-members to bring up questions and concerns of their own. The newspaper invited former members to submit videos detailing their experiences in their own words.
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A team of four (Katie Bernard, Jenna Farhat, Cortlynn Stark and Sorayah Zahir) searched news reports and court filings from across the country for cases of abuse. Star-Telegram reporter Kaley Johnson put in dozens of records requests for police reports and court cases.
The Star-Telegram also reviewed court documents, emails, notarized statements, text messages, notes from contemporaneous conversations, Bible college class material and books written by independent fundamental Baptist pastors.
The Star-Telegram counted 187 independent fundamental Baptist churches and affiliated institutions that had been affected by sexual abuse allegations. The Star-Telegram included in its count churches where alleged abusers had served before or after alleged abuse occurred because the allegations could affect the congregants.
Each institution was counted only once, even if it had multiple abusers.
The Star-Telegram found 412 sexual misconduct allegations. Some of the alleged abusers have only one allegation against them; others have accusers in the double-digits. Forty-five alleged abusers were permitted to continue serving in the ministry after allegations were brought to church officials, even sometimes law enforcement.
In all, the Star-Telegram interviewed more than 200 people: Pastors, ex-pastors, ex-members, current members, theologians, people who said they’d been abused and people who had been convicted of sex crimes. Many of the ex-members now have no religious affiliation. Just as many still believe in Jesus Christ and consider church — but a different sort of church — an integral part of their lives.
For his part, Bob Ross tried to return as pastor of Open Door Baptist Church after he was arrested and had been voted out. The members of the congregation who hadn’t already left the church voted to keep him out.