TEXAS – The Southern Baptist Convention is the second-largest Christian denomination in the U.S., with over 47,000 churches each year sending millions of meals to disaster zones, thousands of missionaries and trained volunteers around the country and world. Despite all the good the SBC spreads globally, however, a darkness has tainted the church.
Victims who said they suffered abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) say church leaders often responded with silence, shame and cover-up, compounding and enabling further abuse.
An investigative report from the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News revealed 380 SBC ministers and volunteers have faced credible accusations from more than 700 victims over the past 20 years.
The revelation of the scale of alleged abuse within SBC churches forced the leaders of the convention to grapple with the broken policies, beliefs and negligence that enabled the crisis, but some victims say worse than initial physical and sexual abuse they suffered were the ineffective and, at times, callous responses from their church leaders when they first told their local ministers of their plight.
While churches in the SBC vary wildly in local church structure, policy and theological focus, due largely to the denomination’s belief in local church autonomy, victims who spoke with The Daily Caller News Foundation recounted SBC abuse cases from various parts of the country that stretched over decades and bore striking similarities with one another concerning their church leaders’ responses to their allegations.
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Those responses included outright disregard for their accusations, attempts to silence victims and conceal the cases from the rest of the congregation and a form of biblical counseling offered by church leaders with no qualifications as state-licensed counselors who, in some cases, blamed the victims for their fear and anger.
Here are some of their stories.
If You Want To Be Faithful, You’ll Be Silent
Kenny Stubblefield was 16 years old when Chris Carwile, associate youth pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, allegedly sexually assaulted him at a sleepover in 1998.
Stubblefield was one of five boys who would eventually report they had been abused by Carwile. He said he initially blocked the incident out of his memory, as is common among young sexual abuse victims, until a year later when his best friend Brooks Hansen confessed to him that he too had been abused by Carwile when he was 15, close to when Stubblefield said he’d been assaulted. Brooks’s brother, Michael, also claimed Carwile abused him.
“And when he told me his story, it was like kind of that white hot feeling of memories kind of rushing back to you and going … I remember laying back in the grass in his front yard and going, ‘Oh my God, dude, that same thing happened to me,’” Stubblefield told TheDCNF.
Stubblefield told his father about the alleged abuse shortly thereafter, and the two called the head youth pastor, Nolan Bobbitt. Stubblefield said Church leaders silenced Stubblefield.
“In my opinion, the pain of the actual abuse pales in comparison to the pain and hurt caused by the dismissive and even active cover-up by our church leaders,” Stubblefield wrote in 2016, when he first shared his story with the public. “Our youth pastor’s initial reaction was anger towards the abused for bringing this out because of the damage that would happen to his youth ministry.”
The head pastor, Dr. Scott Payne, offered to meet with Stubblefield, but according to Stubblefield never followed through on promises to meet with parents of the allegedly abused and refused to meet with the victims as a group.
Stubblefield said Payne did meet with him, however, and allegedly said “word for word, ‘If you want to be faithful, you’ll stay quiet.’”
“And so I did,” Stubblefield told TheDCNF. “So even though everything in me was telling me to scream it, scream it out and tell everybody, I was told if you want to be faithful, you’ll be quiet.”
Covering Up A Cover-Up
Payne’s alleged demand for silence might sound severe, but it is not an uncommon response from SBC church leaders, according to Darlene “Dee” Parsons.
For the past 10 years, Parsons has chronicled abuse cases, aided victims, worked to expose abusers, and tried to hold church leaders accountable for abuse cover-ups through her blog The Wartburg Watch.
When asked whether SBC church leaders’ demands for silence were common in abuse cases, Parsons replied: “They always say that. Oh, absolutely.”
Parsons’s career of facing down abuse cases and church leaders who try to silence accusations began in 2006, when she was attending Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Brian “Doug” Goodrich Jr., a seminarian at Southeastern and a volunteer youth minister at the church, was convicted of sexually abusing several young teenage boys in the congregation between 2005 and 2006.
The pastors of Providence asked the congregation to respect the privacy of the victims and their families when authorities arrested and convicted Goodrich after finding him in a car with a 13-year-old boy, according to Parsons. The pastors assured the congregation that church leaders had no knowledge of the abuse prior to Goodrich’s arrest.
“And the problem with it is, on the surface it sounds really good,” Parsons said of church leaders’ request for silence.
Parsons, who had worked as a public health nurse years in Salem, Massachusetts and had firsthand experience providing aftercare for abuse victims, said the alleged request to not contact the victims and their families out of respect for their privacy initially made sense. The young victims had been through so much already. They needed time to heal, she thought.
Then, Parsons claimed, she found out church leadership had been warned about Goodrich a year earlier in 2005.
The family of one of the victims allegedly reported Goodrich to church leadership when their son claimed Goodrich had walked around nude in his cabin at church camp and encouraged the boys to expose themselves to one another, according to Parsons.
“The church told him and his parents that there was something wrong with them for not understanding that this is just plain locker room humor,” Parsons told TheDCNF.
The family approached Parsons and her friends after Horner asked the congregation not to contact the victims’ families, and Parsons said she decided to confront Horner and the rest of church leadership with her friends to find out who was responsible for the possible cover-up. Church leaders branded them troublemakers for their efforts, according to Parsons, who said she and others left the church.
She’s been unearthing abuse ever since.
What Happens In Church Stays In Church
In some abuse cases, church leaders did not report abusers because child victims did not report the full extent of their abuser’s crimes, fearing at the time that they also were somehow responsible. In others, church leaders informed of abuse failed to comply with mandatory reporting laws, and chose instead to handle the matter internally in what victims allege were attempts to protect their churches from public outcry and litigation.
Stubblefield claimed that his former pastor did the latter. Payne even admitted to reporters that he did not report the allegations of Stubblefield or the Hansen brothers’ allegations to the authorities, despite Tennessee law requiring pastors to report alleged abuse to law enforcement since 1985.
“After we took the immediate action that we did, it was like the remedy had come,” Payne said of firing Carwile, according to Local Memphis.
Payne claimed that he was unaware at the time that he was required to report the abuse allegations against Carwile to the police. Stubblefield and other alleged abuse victims from Immanuel, like Karen Trotter, found little relief in Payne’s claim of ignorance.
“The cover-up of the way the leadership of our church handled our situation created long-lasting pain,” Stubblefield said.
Trotter claimed that a Sunday School teacher at Immanuel “forcibly raped” her when she was 15-years-old. Her father allegedly reported the abuse to Payne several years later. He did nothing in response, according to Trotter.
“He did not take responsibility, he created no accountability, he had no accountability himself,” Trotter told Local Memphis.
The same cycle of abuse, silencing victims and the alienation of those who speak out has played out repeatedly to varying degrees in SBC churches throughout the country, exemplified in the case of Jules Woodson. Woodson’s testimony of abuse led to the 2018 resignation of then-pastor Andy Savagefrom Highpoint Church in Memphis. She said church leaders at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church initially ordered her to remain silent about Savage’s alleged molestation of her.
Associate Pastor Larry Cotton assured the then-17-year-old Woodson “the church would be handling the situation,” according to Woodson’s testimony. Woodson chose to speak out about the abuse she allegedly suffered after several days passed with no discernible action taken against Savage. Church leaders arranged a going away reception for Savage shortly thereafter, during which Savage admitted to making a “poor decision” and said he would move on to another church.
Woodson said she felt ostracized at the time by her fellow church members, some of whom blamed her for Savage’s departure.
Blame, like silence and disregard, is also a common facet of the stories of SBC ministers’ response to victims. In some cases, church leaders not only minimized victims’ allegations, but accused them of causing whatever abuse they suffered, according to victims advocate Carolyn Deevers.
Ministers Condoned Abuse Inside And Outside The Church
Deevers is a victims advocate who volunteers her time to help women and children in abusive relationships. Deevers became an advocate for abuse victims after leaving her ex-husband, Steven Paul Butler, who while serving as a pastor displayed abusive behavior toward her and her daughter, and who was later arrested and convicted for aggravated criminal sodomy of a child under 14 years old.
Of the 36 abuse cases in which Deevers is currently assisting victims, approximately 20 of those cases involve victims from SBC churches. Of those 20, two cases involved sexual abuse of children.
“So with the cases that I’m referring to, these women had gone to the church really for at least two decades and they were very active in their churches. The husbands were not so active in the church, didn’t always attend with them,” Deevers told TheDCNF.
“But when the woman finally decided to come forward after years of realizing that he wasn’t going to change and he was very emotionally, verbally, financially, sometimes physically abusive in the home, with two of them, there was sexual abuse going on with the children,” she added.
Most of the women who reported their abuse to church leaders, including the two whose children were allegedly sexually abused, faced both blame for the abuses they endured and counsel to stay with their husbands.
One of the women reportedly had documentation from a doctor proving that her child had been sexually abused. Church leaders told her that she was “probably blowing it out of proportion,” according to Deevers. Church leaders also counseled her to stay with her husband and to pray for him until he stopped the abuse.
“They felt that she was probably doing something to contribute to the abuse. That perhaps she was complaining too much. That perhaps she wasn’t respecting him enough; That perhaps she wasn’t giving him enough sex in the bedroom,” Deevers told TheDCNF.
Megan Cox, a Southeastern Seminary student who also reportedly faced abuse at the hands of her now ex-husband, said she received similar counsel when she asked Dr. Frank Catanzaro for help. Cox asserted that Catanzaro, the current Hope for the Heart Chair of Biblical Counseling at Southwestern Seminary, told her to “Be more active in bed.Submit more. Pray for him.”
Catanzaro did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment.
Paige Patterson, a formerly prominent SBC president and former president of Southwestern Seminary, boasted in a sermon in 2000 of counseling a woman to stay with her physically abusive husband and pray for him. More than 2,000 women demanded Patterson’s resignation from the seminary in 2018 over those comments, and the ensuing outcry led to an investigation that confirmed Patterson’s mishandling of two alleged rape cases and prompted the board of the seminary to fire him.
SBC ministers have also reportedly counseled victims in some instances to forgive their abusers, arguing that it is a sin to do otherwise and to hold anger toward the person who violated them. Stubblefield said his former church leaders often chastised him for the anger he felt toward Carwile for allegedly molesting him.
Stubblefield said he “was very soundly rebuked numerous times over the next year or when I got angry that Chris was coming back around to the church and that he, that nothing had ever happened to him, that the police hadn’t been called, that nothing had happened. And I was just, I was rebuked by the leadership of my church for even feeling any kind of anger, that it was wrong for me to feel anger towards Chris for what he had done.”
Urging victims to accept responsibility for their own abuse and to placate their abusers by submitting to them in the cases of wives abused by their husbands, or to forgive their abusers is common in, but not particular to, the SBC in Deevers’s experience. She said pastors give that response not necessarily because they are taught to do so, but because they have no training in how to deal with abuse.
“It’s been a common response in charismatic churches, in Presbyterian churches, in Christian churches, and churches of Christ, and in Southern Baptist churches. So it’s pretty across the board. I just think they don’t know what else to do,” Deevers said.
Lack of training might well explain, in part, church leaders’ initial response to Woodson, who recounted Cotton implied she was at fault for being coerced into oral sex with Savage at age 17 because she complied with her youth pastor’s demand.
Victim-turned-advocate Ashley Easter, founder of The Courage Conference and co-founder of the Such A Time As This rally, argued instead that such counsel is an attempt by church leaders to control whether alleged victims go to the public with their claims, especially when ministers refer alleged victims to biblical or nouthetic counselors within their church instead of state licensed counselors. Stubblefield echoed her claim, calling it ministers’ attempt to “control the narrative.”
Nouthetic counselors often eschew modern therapy and psychology, including cognitive behavioral therapy, and rely solely on Christian scripture as their source for counseling and dealing with trauma. While they call themselves counselors, and may even have certification in Biblical counseling from an accredited seminary, nouthetic counselors are often not state-licensed counselors, and will usually frame a victims’ abuse, trauma, and resulting fear and anger as sin problems, according to Easter.
Easter said nouthetic counselors, in her experience, frame trauma as something for which “the victim is at fault, and this is a spiritual issue. If they pray more, read more scripture that they’ll be healed, and it’s really devastating to somebody who’s experiencing mental anguish that survivors go through.”
Not every SBC church refers victims to nouthetic counselors, but those who do sometimes seek to minimize outside scrutiny of their ministry that could result from victims going public with their allegations, according to Easter.
“Some Southern Baptist churches will refer people to licensed therapists, but many, many will try to counsel a person within the church and it actually serves two purposes,” Easter told TheDCNF. “One, when a church has an abuse scandal and they’re able to say that they are qualified to counsel the victim, they’re able to control what the victim’s next steps are.”
“You are able to control, you know, whether or not that person goes public with their story or if they get, you know, justice through police or legal means. So it can be a control mechanism,” she added.
The second purpose, Easter says, is to keep the treatment of victims within the local church, insulated from outside counsel and resources.
Local churches are not solely responsible for the blame, silencing of, and negligence toward victims of abuse in the SBC. Such responses, including the defense of ministers who cover up and enable abuse, have also come from seminary presidents, prominent convention committee members, and even convention presidents, as in the case of Sovereign Grace Ministries.
And while the majority of SBC abuse victims who reported their abuse faced inadequate responses from their church leaders, a few remarkable SBC churches did work to hold abusers accountable. Read all this and more in part two of this series on the Southern Baptist Convention abuse crisis.