Rachael Denhollander’s college-aged abuser began grooming her when she was 7. Each week, as Denhollander left Sunday school at Westwood Baptist Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he was there to walk her to her parents’ Bible-study classroom on the other side of the building. He brought Denhollander gifts and asked her parents for her clothing size so he could buy her dresses. He was always a little too eager with a hug. The Denhollanders led one of the church’s ministries out of their home, which meant the man would visit their house regularly, often encouraging Rachael to sit on his lap, they recalled.
The man’s behavior caught the attention of a fellow congregant, who informed Sandy Burdick, a licensed counselor who led the church’s sexual-abuse support group. Burdick says she warned Denhollander’s parents that the man was showing classic signs of grooming behavior. They were worried, but they also feared misreading the situation and falsely accusing an innocent student, according to Camille Moxon, Denhollander’s mom. So they turned to their closest friends, their Bible-study group, for support.
The overwhelming response was: You’re overreacting. One family even told them that their kids could no longer play together, because they didn’t want to be accused next, Moxon says. Hearing this, Denhollander’s parents decided that, unless the college student committed an aggressive, sexual act, there was nothing they could do. No one knew that, months earlier, he already had.
One night, while sitting in the family’s living room, surrounded by people, the college student masturbated while Denhollander sat on his lap, she recalls. It wasn’t until two years later that she was able to articulate to her parents what had happened. By that point, the student had left the church. Moxon was furious that her church community hadn’t listened. But she never told anyone what had happened to Rachael. “We had already tried once and weren’t believed,” Moxon says. “What was the point?”
Today, Denhollander can see how her church, which has since shut down, failed to protect her. But as a child, all she knew from her parents was that her abuse had made their church mad and that she wasn’t able to play with some of her friends. She blamed herself – and resolved that, if anyone else ever abused her, she wouldn’t mention it.
And so when Larry Nassar used his prestige as a doctor for the USA Gymnastics program to sexually assault Denhollander, she held to her vow. She wouldn’t put her family through something like that again. Her church had made it clear: No one believes victims.
Across the United States, evangelical churches are failing to protect victims of sexual abuse among their members. As the #MeToo movement has swept into communities of faith, several high-profile leaders have fallen: Paige Patterson, the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was forced into early retirement this month after reports that he’d told a rape victim to forgive her assailant rather than call the police. Illinois megachurch pastor Bill Hybels similarly retired early after several women said he’d dispensed lewd comments, unwanted kisses and invitations to hotel rooms.
So many Christian churches in the United States do so much good – nourishing the soul, comforting the sick, providing services, counseling congregants, teaching Jesus’s example, and even working to fight sexual abuse and harassment. But like in any community of faith, there is also sin – often silenced, ignored and denied – and it is much more common than many want to believe. It has often led to failures by evangelicals to report sexual abuse, respond appropriately to victims and change the institutional cultures that enabled the abuse in the first place.
Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates – especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. “Sexual abuse is the most underreported thing – both in and outside the church – that exists,” says Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and a former Florida assistant state attorney.
As a prosecutor, Tchividjian saw dozens of sexual abuse victims harmed by a church’s response to them. (In one case, a pastor did not report a sexual offender in his church because the man had repented. The offender was arrested only after he had abused five more children.) In 2004, Tchividjian founded the nonprofit organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), which trains Christian institutions in how to prevent sexual abuse and performs independent investigations when churches face an abuse crisis. Tchividjian says sexual abuse in evangelicalism rivals the Catholic Church scandal of the early 2000s.
Diagnosing the scope of the problem isn’t easy, because there’s no hard data. The most commonly referenced study shows how difficult it is to find accurate statistics. In that 2007 report, the three largest insurers of churches and Christian nonprofits said they received about 260 claims of sexual abuse against a minor each year. Those figures, though, exclude groups covered by other insurers, victims older than 18, people whose cases weren’t disclosed to insurance companies and the many who, like Denhollander, never came forward. In other words, the research doesn’t include what is certainly the vast majority of sexual abuse. The sex advice columnist and LGBT rights advocate Dan Savage, tired of what he called the hypocrisy of conservatives who believe that gays molest children, compiled his own list that documents more than 100 instances of youth pastors around the country who, between 2008 and 2016, were accused of, arrested for or convicted of sexually abusing minors in a religious setting.
The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches. This means researchers attempting to study this issue have to comb through publicly available documents.
That’s what Wade Mullen, the director of the M.Div. program at Capital Seminary & Graduate School, did as a part of his PhD dissertation. He collected reports of evangelical pastors or ministers charged with a crime in order to understand how evangelical organizations respond to crisis. Over 2016 and 2017, Mullen found 192 instances of a leader from an influential church or evangelical institution being publicly charged with sexual crimes involving a minor, including rape, molestation, battery and child pornography. (This data did not include sexual crimes against an adult or crimes committed by someone other than a leader.)
His findings help explain a 2014 GRACE report on Bob Jones University, one of the most visible evangelical colleges in the country. The study showed that 56 percent of the 381 respondents who reported having knowledge of the school’s handling of abuse (a group that included current and former students, as well as employees) believed that BJU conveyed a “blaming and disparaging” attitude toward victims. Of the 166 people who said they had been victims of sexual abuse before or during their time at BJU, half said school officials had actively discouraged them from going to the police. According to one anonymous respondent, after he finally told the police about years of sexual abuse by his grandfather, a BJU official admonished him that “[you] tore your family apart, and that’s your fault,” and “you love yourself more than you love God.” BJU officials declined to comment for this article.
That same year, 18 volunteers, staff members and interns at the Institute in Basic Life Principles (including many underage girls) accused its founder, Bill Gothard, of sexual harassment, molestation and assault. Gothard had enormous sway over a small but tight-knit collection of evangelical home-schooling families around the country. One of those families was the Duggars, stars of a TLC reality television show. Josh Duggar, the eldest of 19 kids and former executive director of the conservative Family Research Council’s political action group FRC Action, lost his job after reports that he molested four of his siblings and a babysitter as a teenager. For years Duggar’s abuse stayed hidden as his parents and an Arkansas state trooper – now in prison himself on charges of child pornography – declined to disclose the crimes. (The suit against Gothard was dropped. Duggar’s actions are now outside the statute of limitations. Neither responded to requests for comment.
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