A lawsuit alleges that a youth pastor sexually abused a teenage girl for three years – and that the church and its senior minister tried to cover it up.
The lawsuit is about Word of Life Ministries and Schools in Wichita. Yet it makes mention of the “sexual abuse scandals that emerged from the Catholic Church,” where people entrusted to care for children have used that role to take advantage of them.
It is just one of several recent allegations of abuse against evangelical church leaders across the nation. Some are part of a movement that has followed closely on the heels of the #MeToo movement, which is intended to show the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.
Some say it’s a day of reckoning for evangelical churches, much as the Catholic Church was forced to deal with revelations of clergy sex abuse.
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They’re calling it #ChurchToo.
In November 2017, spoken word poet and yoga teacher Emily Joy tweeted about how she was groomed for abuse at 16 years old by a youth leader in her evangelical megachurch.
Other women began to share their stories and soon she, along with her friend Hannah Paasch, settled on #ChurchToo as a way to compile the stories.
The hashtag took off and was quickly followed by another, #SilenceIsNotSpiritual.
With #SilenceIsNotSpiritual came a statement signed by more than 140 Christian women calling on evangelical churches “to end the silence and stop all participation in violence against women.”
The church is experiencing “a window of opportunity to bring healing in the world and in the church,” they wrote. “The rise of the recent #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have compelled us to examine our own beliefs and actions concerning the state of women.”
Violence against women is violence against God, they wrote.
Signees included prominent authors and speakers — among them Beth Moore, Nish Weiseth, Rachel Held Evans, Lisa Sharon Harper and Jen Hatmaker. It also included the creators of #ChurchToo.
The movement gained prominence when Rachael Denhollander, the first victim to speak out about USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, said that speaking about sexual assault had cost her family her church. Later, she told the magazine Christianity Today that she had advocated for victims of sexual assault at Sovereign Grace Churches (formerly Sovereign Grace Ministries).
Sovereign Grace responded by saying that although they were grateful that Denhollander had spoken out about Nassar, “the decisions of Rachael and others to publicly pronounce SGC and its pastors guilty of sexual abuse and conspiracy, on the basis of false allegations and with no direct knowledge of SGC’s history or the facts, have profoundly damaged the reputations and gospel ministries of innocent pastors and churches.”
Denhollander responded on her blog, saying that the call to speak out arose “from the knowledge that evangelical churches are plagued with serious problems related to how we respond to and counsel victims of sexual assault.”
“We need to realize that the reason we are gaining a reputation for handling these situations so poorly is not because people hate the gospel and make up lies about us, but because we have a real problem in how we think about sexual abuse and how we think about our leaders and institutions,” she wrote.
Susie Kilgroe, who attends a nondenominational Wichita church, said she’s surprised that churches don’t have more procedures in place to stop abuse.
Years ago, a church in Kansas City made a policy that the pastor couldn’t be in a counseling session alone with someone — a rule that came after the pastor had an affair, Kilgroe said. Later, a man at a church she was attending sexually abused several boys he was counseling. Those two events showed her that churches need to take measures to prevent abuse.
She hopes the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements will bring about change.
“You have to be very, very careful,” Kilgroe said. “If you have safety measures in place even when you trust people it keeps the situation a lot safer. … Church is a place you should be trusting people to take care of you and (when) they end up being abusive like that, it’s sad, it’s a very sad thing.”
Stories of abuse
Several prominent evangelical women have spoken out about their own stories of abuse. Beth Moore has shared how her abuse caused a “pervasive sense of shame” as a child. Kay Warren, cofounder of Saddleback Church with her husband Rick Warren, has spoken out about how there was a “long journey” of hope and healing after she was molested as a youth.
Stories continually appear in the news of pastors arrested or accused of sexual abuse.
Here are just a few:
- Earlier this year, former youth pastor Brad Tebbutt was placed on administrative leave by the International House of Prayer of Kansas City after being accused of sexually abusing a Washington woman three decades ago when she was 14.
- In early January, Tennessee pastor Andy Savage confessed to Highpoint Church in Memphis that he had a “sexual incident” in 1998 with Jules Woodson, who was then 17. He did so after Woodson wrote about how Savage, then her youth pastor, had pressured her to perform oral sex on him. After confessing to the church and speaking about God’s forgiveness, Savage was given a standing ovation.
- In February, a former Colorado youth pastor was arrested and charged with having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old member of the church’s youth group.
There are many factors that go into how evangelical churches handle allegations of sexual assault, experts say.
Professor and writer Jen Zamzow wrote in Christianity Today that churches often try to handle sexual assault allegations internally, some pointing to 1 Corinthians 6:1-6 for justification. The biblical passage reads, “If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? … Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?”
Looking at context, sexual assault is not one of the “trivial cases” referred to in the passage, Zamzow writes.
“If we want the church to be a safe place of healing, we can’t afford to cover up the truth,” she wrote.
Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, grandson of evangelical preacher Billy Graham, told Vice in August that some Christian groups promote ignorance among women about sex along with the view that men should be in authority, creating a “perfect storm” for abuse. Tchividjian founded GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian environment) in the early 2000s when he became concerned about pastors mishandling sexual abuse.
Often Tchividjian has seen pastors go to court on behalf of the perpetrator, not the victim, he told Vice.
Emily Joy, the #ChurchToo co-founder, wrote on her blog that teachings about gender roles and sexual purity can play a role in creating a space that allows abuse.
Pastors and others in leadership at churches should commit to reading the stories that are being shared, she wrote.
“Predatory men should be shaking in their boots. Victims are naming names and the moment is now.”