Churches must take action to end abuse

Introducing the Star-Telegram’s ‘Spirit of Fear’ series

Star-Telegram executive editor Steve Coffman and investigative reporter Sarah Smith discuss the new series, Spirit of Fear, about allegations of sexual abuse in independent fundamental Baptist churches.
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Star-Telegram executive editor Steve Coffman and investigative reporter Sarah Smith discuss the new series, Spirit of Fear, about allegations of sexual abuse in independent fundamental Baptist churches.

Revelations of shameless sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men in entertainment, politics and the Roman Catholic Church rocked the nation the past few years.

In truth, such abuse may be just as pronounced, pervasive and pernicious among a loose-knit network of independent fundamental Baptist churches and universities, an eight-month Star-Telegram investigation has found.

The newspaper uncovered over 400 allegations of sexual misconduct in nearly 200 of the churches and affiliated institutions across 40 states and stretching into Canada.

Yet there appears to be even less accountability among these churches than in other areas of society.

Whereas public shame has been heaped upon Hollywood and Washington, causing some powerful heads to roll, the “#MeToo” victims’ rights movement has yet to set foot strongly inside this sanctuary of sexism.

Women have been ignored, intimidated and shamed into both compliance and silence, while perpetrators have been shuttled between and, in some cases, even supported and promoted by the diffuse, disconnected churches.

All within church communities that should shelter the vulnerable, not victimize them.

Thankfully, some courageous women have come forward to give their testimonies, in some cases about repeated sexual abuse that occurred in their teens at the hands of a church leader professing to speak and act for God. But in the case of victims too frightened or traumatized to speak up for themselves, too often there was no one in leadership to take up their cause. In fact, some of the church leaders have been known to dissuade victims from reporting their assaults to police.

Making accountability even more difficult is the fact that, unlike with mainstream denominations, there is no central authority for what is essentially a loose confederation of autonomous churches.

Nor do the victims or perpetrators in these church attacks attract the attention that those in Hollywood, Washington and the Catholic Church do.

We’ve recently seen paranoia toward the prospect of Shariah break out among some in the Tarrant County Republican Party. Well, this subjugation and aggression is a clear and present danger to women across the country. That includes Texas, with nine of the alleged offending churches, such as in Mesquite where two functionaries were arrested on allegations of abuse of children and the pastor is accused of failing to report it.

You’ve heard of homegrown terror. This is homegrown horror.

Let’s be clear about this, too: This isn’t about religion, anymore than the misdeeds in Hollywood were about film or the depravity in Washington was about global warming policy. Just as in politics and entertainment, this predation is all about power. This loose conglomeration of predators and enablers may be cloaking themselves in the frocks of faith, but their actions speak for no one else, and certainly no religion or denomination.

This investigative report isn’t about attacking a faith — it’s about shining a light on those who attack women and children under the pretext of faith.

Victims of abuse are counting on churches, and the whole of society, to put an end to this unholy disgrace. For starters:

  • Churches must implement procedures to embrace victims and report abusers to law enforcement.

  • Any institutions having influence over pastors and pastors-to-be should do their own networking, starting with a database of known offenders.

  • Such academic institutions should also teach courses on pastoral abuse — and reinforce the inherent worth of all individuals.

  • Church leaders must make it unmistakably clear that women and children are not only empowered to speak up about abuse, but strongly encouraged to.
  • Having taken steps to protect abuse victims, pastors must take to the pulpit and preach what they practice.

This can and must be the start of a new movement for the protection of our most vulnerable.

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