Reading Time: 9 minutes

For those of you familiar with fundamentalist movements, particularly the IFB (Independent Fundamental Baptist), you’ll know these movements tend to be rife with sexual abuse and cover-ups. Because the IFB maintains ideologies of separatism and elitism, they tend to deal with their issues “in house.” The trend is: keep it in the church, don’t tell anyone (authorities included), blame the victim, and re-locate the offender to another church in another town (and don’t forget his severance package).

Well, in a shocking turn of events, one IFB mega-pastor took a public stand against these actions, and those of us who have come out of that culture, many being survivors of abuse ourselves, aren’t quite sure what to think.

The Facts

Friday, May 11 – The victim outed Cameron Giovanelli for sexually abusing her when he was pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Dundalk, MD and she was a 16-year old student in their private school. Current pastor of Calvary Baptist, Stacey Shiflett, began an investigation.

Monday, May 14 – Shiflett and deacons reached a unanimous decision that the victim was “credible.” They presented their findings to Pastor Jack Trieber at North Valley Baptist Church in Santa Clara, CA where Giovanelli has been serving as president of Golden State Bible College.

Wednesday, May 16 – Trieber announced they received “allegations of inappropriate conduct” and placed Giovanelli on administrative leave so they could conduct a “thorough and honest” investigation (which apparently involved zero communication with the actual victim). Giovanelli submitted his resignation. The rest of Trieber’s statement went something like this: the church and related ministries are blameless, and please pray for our church and the rapist. (No mention of the victim though … Giovanelli is the “real” victim here!)

By this point, two other victims had come forward claiming Giovanelli did the same thing to them, but no one yet had any intention of contacting law enforcement.

Thursday, May 17 – The victim was so upset by Trieber’s statements that she decided to file an official police report instead of just letting the church handle it.

Friday, May 18 – Shiflett posted a YouTube video calling out the abuse, outing himself as a survivor as well, admitting fundamentalism has a problem with cover-ups, and challenging church leaders to deal with it.“It’s been a policy, 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.”(The video has since been removed, but can be found here.)

When I watched this video, I almost couldn’t believe it.

Not only does he defend the victim and publicly advocate for her, but he comes forward about his own previous victimization and experience with church cover-ups!

The honesty, the integrity, the empathy and compassion…gasp… is this really happening? Am I imagining things? Could this virtually unprecedented stance be the start of a revolution in fundamentalism? We sure as hell hope so!

Here I am, an out and proud atheist, feminist, liberal, humanist, activist for religious equality, gay rights, science and sex education, pretty much all the things this guy spends his days condemning … and I’m sitting here watching his preaching videos on YouTube … and getting excited!

“Amen brother!” as I wave my metaphorical hanky in approval. (Old habits die hard, y’all.)

Word spread quickly. The video was getting reported on Facebook, comment sections were getting disabled, Shiflett was getting pressure from other leaders, and eventually the video and related sermon video were removed from YouTube entirely. (Don’t worry, we saved them.)

Basically Shiflett was all like, #MeToo, and everyone else was like, “Shun the nonbelievers!”

Welcome to my world.

What Shiflett did was incredibly brave, incredibly necessary, and I have to commend him for it. This should serve as an example to others, like Dr. Bob Gray Sr., a fellow Hyles-Anderson alumni (Hey, buddy!), who blasted Shiflett in multiple posts and tweets. Gray says it’s the man of God’s “duty” to “respond in defense of the accused.”

After watching the original video, I was so excited, I Googled to see if this had shown up in any mainstream sources yet. Instead, all I found was Shiflett’s Twitter feed.

And there we have it …

The Catch 22

Perhaps the fact that this video is so uncharacteristic of fundamentalism is what makes it so noteworthy. Here, Shiflett takes on a big name IFB leader and megachurch to defend a rape victim, yet the rest of his social media tells a whole other story: from shaming and vilifying shooting survivors and victim families (which really is just sick), to jokes about waterboarding and torture. He brags about using politics to ruin the lives of non-believers and spreads out-right lies about Planned Parenthood. I saw homophobia, racism, ethnic slurs, and the usual lack of empathy you would expect from the conservative fundamentalist stereotype.

Most relevant to this issue is his enthusiastic embrace of toxic masculinity.”

On one hand, Shiflett calls for a “cultural revolution” to stop defending abusers, even saying that leaders need to resign if “politics and self-preservation are more important to you.” He speaks of “exposing wolves” and “cowardice to confront sin.” Yet in the same breath that he defends this one victim, he makes a pro-Trump jab. He regularly praises known rape apologists and accused rapists like Trump and Hannity. So when it comes to “politics and the self-preservation” of his personal agenda, he does indeed defend abusers.

How do you reconcile that?

If you want to lead a revolution against rape culture, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

As another former fundy put it, we’re “conflicted for all the right reasons.” Is this a step in the right direction? Is this cause to be hopeful that the church will finally start taking sexual abuse seriously, or is this just a fluke, a one-off, while the victim-blaming and harboring abusers continues?

What He’s Doing Right

He Recognizes “Good Guy”  Abusers

I really appreciate that Shiflett acknowledged the positive relationship he had with the accused and the church that defended him. He also talked about the positive relationship he had with his own previous abuser who groomed him early in his ministry. All of these instances involved men with impeccable reputations, admiration, and good standing. This is so important and, quite frankly, could have saved so many of us so much pain had we been aware early on that abusers aren’t just strangers or “bad guys.” They’re more often than not our friends, our family members, our mentors, and those we trust and look up to.

He Calls Out Cowardice

After it all went down, Shiflett tweeted:

Hallelujah! Thank you, Bro. Shiflett! I don’t think I have ever been prouder of a fundamentalist preacher in all my life.

As often happens when taking a stand for what’s right when it’s not the popular thing to do, droves of people reach out in private to show support… but in public, it’s just crickets. I’ve had people flat out tell me they support what I’m doing but don’t want others in the community to know that they’re secretly friends with me. I get that there are repercussions when you speak out on any given issue, but there are also repercussions when you don’t. You have to ask yourself what your priorities are — the safety and well-being of victims or your popularity and social status? Nothing will ever get better as long as people stay silent. How many more will be victimized by fundamentalism because those who hope for change just continue to silently ride along on the coat-tails of the few, or in this instance the one brave pastor who finally takes a stand?

Most Importantly, He Listens!

“We believe her.”

These are powerful words.

Probably for many of us watching that video, this was an emotional part. Having spent the majority of my life, heart and soul, deep in the IFB, I know full well how unheard of this kind of victim advocacy is. Really, that applies to society in general, not just fundamentalism. When I came out of religion altogether and found the secular crowd, I thought I had finally “arrived.” I had found sanctuary from all this stuff. It turns out, all I did was trade one racist, misogynistic disaster for another one.

Victim blaming is a cultural issue that we all have to face and deal with. This is how we do that: “I believe you.”

And He Calls Abuse Illegal

Shiflett acknowledged the behavior was illegal. He used what he calls “legal jargon” to describe his investigation like “cross-examine,” “gather facts,” and “evidence.” His team believes “the allegations are credible” and have “corroborated her story.”  Trieber also stated he would “investigate.”

Which makes my next point all the worse…

What He’s Doing Wrong

Not Reporting a Crime

Even though multiple victims had come forward, still no one contacted law enforcement. The goal was to get an apology and the accused fired from the church, “so he doesn’t do it to anyone else.” The end.

Shiflett said he was giving Trieber a chance to “control the narrative.”

“The ball is in your court now, you have to deal with it. If not, this woman could go to the police … could subject our church to a lot of unnecessary legal and media scrutiny. Please don’t let this happen. Handle this the right way.”

Don’t get me wrong, I am stoked at what he’s doing, all things considered, but the fact is that we’re talking about a crime, not just a “sin.” As such, reporting to local authorities is the only “right way” to handle it, especially when we’re talking about a serial pedophile. Preachers are not qualified to investigate sexual abuse, nor should they be making decisions or giving advice on the topic. The problem starts with pastors thinking it’s their divine right to be judge and jury. It’s not. “Legal scrutiny” absolutely is necessary when you uncover criminal activity.

It Doesn’t Prevent Future Abuse

Fact: calling someone out and removing them from church leadership does not prevent them from assaulting anyone else in the future, and it’s pretty much a given that they will.

While fundamentalist pastors may feel like they have authority, they do not and their judgments don’t mean anything outside of their small circle. Dealing with abusers in-house is no better than telling someone, “I don’t like the way you treated me so you can’t hang out with me anymore.” It’s meaningless in the grand scheme of things. This is why we have mandatory reporting laws.

Trying to Minimize Damage, But to Whom?

When the victim finally went to the police, Shiflett said:

“I was so aggravated that all of my efforts to try and get this thing handled, to minimize the damage to the cause of Christ, the word in the community, to minimize the collateral damage that always happens with something like that. My efforts were completely wasted.”

First of all, that’s what you were legally required to do in the first place, but no, your efforts were not wasted, not by a long shot. You listened to the victim, took her seriously, and dealt with the situation as best you knew you how. Regardless of other people’s actions, you supported her and empowered her to stand up for herself. It is virtually unheard of to have an IFB pastor, his deacon board, and entire church supporting a victim in a situation like this. That is by far the most important thing you could have done.

Secondly, and please hear me on this, it doesn’t take a Christian to recognize that concealing crime does not “minimize damage to the cause of Christ.” As someone who has a pretty negative view of fundamentalism, due largely to the behavior I have witnessed and experienced during my time in it, I can tell you that the best way to restore trust in those who have been hurt by the church is to stop hiding these things. This stuff will happen in any group, without fail, but it’s how you deal with it that matters most. Secrecy does not inspire trust, honesty and integrity do. Even though there are some gaping holes in your message, I can tell you that for the first time in almost ten years, I have this small twinge of faith and hope in IFB leadership. Do not take that lightly!

Silencing the Victim

Shiflett says he tried to keep the victim from going public:

“I knew about it before it went on the internet. I tried not to get it on the internet. I wanted to deal with it straight with him and straight with the ministry. My exact words were, ‘I prefer a surgical strike rather than a nuclear bomb.’ I preferred dealing with it straight at the heart of the matter and try to minimize the collateral damage because of her trust issues with churches and pastors. …My verse in the whole thing is Prov. 25:2, ‘It is the glory of god to conceal a thing, but the honor of kings is to search out a matter.’ In other words, be discrete, don’t go nuclear.”

Again, I’m torn. On one hand, he defended the victim and said he’ll stand behind her, but on the other hand, he apparently tried to silence her by counseling her not to post about it on Facebook. You do not get to tell a victim how or when or where to talk about their experience. To be frank, using a scripture out of context to try and influence a victim’s behavior is a form of manipulation and emotional abuse. Human beings are more important than reputations.

FYI, sexual assault is “nuclear.” (Also, you’re not a king.)

Being Discrete Comes at a Price

If you don’t own your problems, your problems will own you. This is exactly why the IFB has such a negative reputation, for decades of dealing with sex crimes in-house, in secret, and without the proper authorities. Josh Duggar is a good example of this. If you don’t deal with it properly, it will come back to bite you in the end eventually. You can’t put a band-aid over a tumor and think the cancer is going to go away.

To my knowledge, Shiflett is the only pastor in the whole history of the IFB who had the integrity to come out publicly and get in front of this kind of thing. Those who hide and deny are the ones who end up looking like the Pharisees they are when it finally does come out.

Luke 8:17 “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad.” (Hey, I gotta get some use out of that Bible degree somehow.)

Regarding his own victimization, Shiflett says, “I was a victim because people knew and never said anything.” When someone comes forward as he and the victim did, this inspires other victims to come forward as well; hence, we now know that Giovanelli had at least 3 victims, not just one. Shiflett says that since he posted his video he “has been flooded from all over the world… pastors, laymen, parents, Bible college students, staff members, people that are not even in church, people that are not even saved,” reaching out to disclose their own experiences, ask for help, and thank him for speaking up.

The truth is, none of this would be happening if everyone had kept it “discrete.”

He asked for a revolution and now he’s getting one!

So here’s hoping that this video and the bravery of the victim and of Pastor Shiflett does indeed start a revolution within fundamentalism to hold abusers accountable. Now that more and more victims are coming forward, let’s see the follow up. Prove it!

Dear Pastor Shiflett and IFB leaders,

From myself and a handful of other unofficial members of the “trail of broken hearts and broken lives” the IFB has left behind, we want you to know that we’re hoping and we’re watching. It’s never too late to do better.

Thank You.

[Image Source: YouTube]

Avatar photo

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...