“My earliest memory of being molested was when I was four years old. It was Sunday school.”
So begins the fourth and final installment of an extraordinary Fort Worth Star-Telegram investigation into child molestation in and around independent Baptist churches. Published yesterday after eight months of information-gathering, the story by journalists Sarah Smith, Shelly Yang, and Neil Nakahodo reveals how a network of churches and schools covered up nationwide sexual abuse — and, in an all-too-familiar pattern, helped relocate the evildoers.
Here are a few gut-wrenching passages.
Even if criminal charges are brought against a church leader, he might be allowed to continue in ministry. Facing charges that he had sex with a 14-year-old, a pastor left his Indiana church for Miami, where he told his new congregation that the girl was “promiscuous.” Though he pleaded guilty to felony stalking in 2009, he didn’t leave the church until 2014. He maintains his innocence. He’s one of nearly four dozen men who were allowed to continue in their ministry after facing sexual abuse allegations — and even convictions, the Star-Telegram found. …
A man convicted of sexual battery in 1999 went on to serve as a youth volunteer in Georgia, where he abused three more girls. He pleaded guilty in 2016 to sexual battery.
A principal at a Christian school affiliated with Bob Jones University was moved out of state when sexual abuse allegations came to the pastor’s attention. The deacons, said one deacon’s wife at the time, convened a secret meeting and then spirited him away, on the advice of Bob Jones University officials.
One victim, Dawn Price, adopted as a child, on abuse and forgiveness:
I was just five years old, looking for somebody to love me and not throw me out. I’d been in the system for three years, so I clung. [My adoptive father] told me he loved me, nobody loved me more. So the molesting began, and quickly it turned into rape. It went on till I was 12 years old. I did try to tell people at the church. There were five different times that I tried, and even CPS came twice, but I was told that I needed to forgive and forget, and that he had repented, and his sins were under the blood. My dad actually admitted to molesting me to a CPS worker, but again nothing was done. …
The pastor knew … that my dad was a pedophile, and he allowed him to stay in the church. Why? Money. My mom and dad gave a lot of money to the church so they were allowed to stay and he was allowed to be around children. Even though the pastor knew, he actually put a girl into my parents’ home and she was molested and raped as well.
The reportorial team on coverups:
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. …
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. … [E]x-members said they believed that if they disobeyed the pastor or left the church, God would kill them or their loved ones.
Rape survivor Amber McMorrow on Baptists circling the wagons:
“I told [a church counselor] that I was raped and how violent it was and how I was terrified it would happen again. She gave me a five-minute counseling session and told me she would have to tell pastor Schaap and the nurse, inform the doctor. And not to tell anyone. Anyway, we had our meeting, and they told me my rape was God’s will because it sent me there.”
By the way, that’s pastor Jack Schaap she’s talking about, now a convicted sex offender. His frenzied, lascivious “polishing the shaft” sermon — in which he simulated masturbation and an orgasm in front of thousands of children — has to be seen to be believed.
On guilting victims and making them pliant:
Rhonda Cox Lee felt special when [pastor Dave] 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.
In this shocking Chicago magazine story from six years ago, you can read more about Dave Hyles and his father Jack, who transformed the First Baptist church in Hammond, Indiana into a religious powerhouse. You’ll need a strong stomach, thanks to descriptions of physical abuse, child rape, alleged torture, and baby murder (and I don’t mean abortion).
It’s mystifying and nauseating that despite these revelations coming out from time to time, the faithful either write off the loathsome acts as outliers, or apply a dose of forgiveness that papers over the seriousness of what occurred. For instance, these days, Dave Hyles runs a ministry for pastors who have “fallen into sin.” His colleague David Baker told the Star-Telegram it’s only right that pious evildoers can ask God for mercy and are then welcomed back into the Baptist fold. For many Christians, criminal behavior, if followed by a show of repentance, becomes a mark of suffering and redemption; they see it as proof of both the Almighty’s magnanimity and their own.
“He [Hyles] is 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.
He refused to discuss the matter further.
It’s easy to sin, and just as easy to be forgiven (Christians think the latter is a feature of their faith, but I’ve long argued it’s actually a bug). All it takes to make a comeback is a dab of remorse, spiced with a bit of humility and a crocodile tear or two, and voilà: the sinner ends up becoming … a better Christian. (Just imagine if that’s how it worked, say, in school — that by flunking a math test, you can automatically claim to have gotten better at math.)
As the Star-Telegram investigation indicates, religion is often a child-abuse breeding ground. I believe this has to do with 10 factors that are part and parcel of the nature of conservative churches:
- The belief that forgiveness is but a confession or a prayer away.
- A patriarchal worldview.
- A feeling of divine empowerment (“I can do anything, because God is on my side”).
- Sexual repression.
- Access to children who accept authority and expect instruction.
- The illogical nature of faith, which, to a child, makes sexual overtures no more bizarre or suspect than baptisms or religious circumcisions, or any number of other out-there rituals.
- The unquestioning trust of the flock in its clergy.
- Congregants’ aversion to learning the distasteful truth about a religious figurehead.
- The attendant reluctance to go to the police / press charges / start a scandal.
- The justification that the church, despite any terrible acts, also “does so much good.”
We’ve seen these same things at work in Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam, all of which have been racked by horrifying sex scandals.
Sadly but predictably, Baptist churches are by no means an exception.
(Image via Shutterstock. A few passages from this post have been published before.)