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Beyond #ChurchToo: A Path Forward for Evangelicals

A 16-year-old girl was groomed and manipulated into an abusive “relationship” by the youth pastor of her evangelical church. When the truth came to light, she was shamed, blamed and silenced. The pastor continued in ministry.

This is the story of Emily Joy, co-creator of the #ChurchToo Twitter hashtag.

It’s also my story.

And it’s the story of thousands of others who have recounted similar church-based traumas under the still-exploding #ChurchToo hashtag.

Inspired by the #MeToo movement, Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch launched #ChurchToo as a way to provide a space for long-silenced people to share their stories of sexual abuse in evangelical churches.

And the stories have indeed flooded forth, not only from women but also from men, telling of the abuse they suffered as church kids.

Such an outpouring stands as a collective testament to a chilling reality. For decades, evangelical clergy have been sexually abusing women and children, and all the while, other religious leaders have known and turned a blind eye. This has been the status quo.

Many people have tried to shine a light on this systemic problem, but with International Women’s Day (March 8) approaching, my heart is filled with particular gratitude for all the strong women, past and present, who have been sisters-in-arms in what has been a multigenerational effort to try to bring change.

But will change ever get here?

Thanks in large measure to #ChurchToo, a great many more survivors are now finding their voices.

And many more journalists are working to amplify those voices. For example, a joint investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News documented 20 years of widespread sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram uncovered the sexual abuse and cover-ups in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches.

This is great progress, but what about institutional change?

The #ChurchToo stories have come from people of all ages, but whether they were abused in the far past or near past, their stories bear similar patterns.

They tell not only of pastors who sexually abused, assaulted and harassed women and children, but also of the misogyny, hypocrisy and cruelty embedded in evangelical cultures and structures that enable such horrors.

Church and denominational leaders have treated women as though they were seductresses at fault for their own victimization, and they have treated underage teens – children – as though they were adult women.

Behind almost every abuser is seen an entourage of enablers – other pastors, deacons and denominational officials – who chose silence and complicity rather than ministering to the wounded and protecting others.

And behind both the abusers and the enablers are buck-stops-nowhere evangelical institutions that have lacked the moral fiber to do something about the problem, despite repeated pleas from survivors and advocates.

To this day, the largest evangelical faith group, the Southern Baptist Convention, doesn’t even have a denominational system for record-keeping on clergy sex abusers or for informing congregations about serial church-hopping predators.

Nor does it offer any safe place office to which victims can report abuse and instead insists that victims must go to the church of the accused pastor – a system that almost always inflicts grievous additional wounds and that will never work.

But now the dam has broken, and there is hope in that.

So far, Southern Baptist officials have reacted to #ChurchToo with resolutions, platitudes, purported outrage, face-saving press statements, in-house studies, weekend workshops and “independent investigations” that aren’t really independent. These are not sufficient.

Superficial image-polishing maneuvers will no longer fool people, as evidenced by the widespread criticism of evangelicals’ “Wheaton GC2” summit on sexual abuse.

So how can Southern Baptists and other evangelicals do better?

After all, the #ChurchToo movement is not only against abusers, but it is also for the future of faith communities that are safer for women and children.

Evangelical faith groups need to create institutional structures that (1) support survivors in their efforts to report abusive clergy, (2) promote accountability for both abusers and cover-uppers even when allegations cannot be criminally prosecuted and (3) facilitate centralized record-keeping and information-sharing on convicted, admitted and credibly accused clergy so as to prevent them from church-hopping.

The use of an outside independent organization to professionally assess survivors’ abuse reports and to maintain a denominational database could fulfill all three of these critical needs.

And far from being an intrusion on local church autonomy, as Southern Baptist officials have wrongly claimed, the availability of such an outside resource would help local churches to exercise their autonomy more responsibly.

This is the path forward for Southern Baptists and other evangelical faith groups.

But to start on this path, denominational officials must first stop hiding behind “the false wall of local church autonomy.” In the face of widespread clergy sex abuse, the autonomy excuse fools few and disgusts many.

Polity does not give license for impunity.

Christa Brown

Christa Brown, a retired appellate attorney, is the author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang.”