By PETER SMITH and HOLLY MEYER
A scathing report on sexual abuse and cover-up within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States
A viral video in which a woman confronts her pastor at an independent Christian church for sexually attacking her when she was a teenager.
A television documentary exposing child sexual abuse in the Amish and Mennonite communities.
You could call it #ChurchToo 2.0.
Survivors of church sex abuse and their advocates have for years been calling on churches to admit the extent of abuse within them and to implement reform. In 2017, this movement acquired the hashtag #ChurchToo, derived from the broader #MeToo movement, which denounced sexual predators in many sectors of society.
In recent weeks, #ChurchToo has seen a particularly intense series of revelations across denominations and ministries, reaching vast audiences in headlines and on screen with a message that activists have long struggled to get across.
“To us, this is just a confirmation of what we’ve been saying for all these years,” said Jimmy Hinton, an advocate for abuse victims and a minister with the Church of Christ in Somerset, Pennsylvania. “There is an absolute epidemic of abuse in the church, in religious spaces.”
Calls for reform will be front and center this week in Anaheim, Calif., when the Southern Baptist Convention holds its annual meeting following an outside report that found its leaders mishandled abuse cases and suffocated the victims.
The May 22 report came out the same day an independent church in Indiana was facing its own judgment.
Moments after her pastor, John B. Lowe II, confessed to years of “adultery,” longtime member Bobi Gephart took to the microphone to tell the rest of the story: She was just 16 years old when it all started, she said.
The video of the confrontation drew nearly a million views on Facebook. Lowe then resigned from New Life Christian Church & World Outreach in Warsaw.
In an interview, Gephart said she was not surprised that so many cases are coming out now. She received words of encouragement from around the world, with people sharing their own “heartbreaking” stories of abuse.
“Things are moving,” Gephart said. “I really feel like God is trying to work things out.”
For many churches, she said, “It’s about covering up, ‘Let’s keep the show going.’ There are people who are suffering, and that is not good. I still don’t think many churches understand that.
Hinton – who has denounced his own father, a former cabinet minister now jailed for aggravated indecent assault – said the viral video demonstrates the power of survivors telling their own stories.
“Survivors have far more power than they ever imagined,” he said on his “Speaking Out on Sex Abuse” podcast.
#ChurchToo revelations have emerged across all kinds of religious groups, including liberal denominations that preach gender equality and portray clergy sexual misconduct as an abuse of power. The Episcopal Church aired survivor stories at its 2018 General Convention, and an Anglican Church of Canada archbishop resigned in April amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
But many recent reckonings are happening in conservative Protestant contexts where a “culture of purity” has dominated in recent decades – emphasizing male authority and female modesty and discouraging dating in favor of traditional dating. leading to marriage.
On May 25, reality TV personality Josh Duggar was sentenced in Arkansas to more than 12 years in prison for receiving child pornography. Duggar was a former lobbyist for a conservative Christian organization and appeared on the since-cancelled TLC show ’19 Kids and Counting,’ featuring a homeschooled family that emphasized chastity and parade. traditional wedding. Prosecutors said Duggar had a “deep, pervasive and violent sexual interest in children.”
On May 26, the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader reported on a series of sexual abuse cases involving workers at Kanakuk Kamps, a major evangelical camp ministry.
Emily Joy Allison, whose abuse story launched the #ChurchToo movement, said the sexual ethics preached in many conservative churches — and the shame and silence it engenders — are part of the problem. She argues that in her book, “#ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing.”
Allison told The Associated Press that tackling abuse requires a change in both church policy and theology. But she knows that the latter is unlikely in the SBC.
“They have to undergo such a drastic transformation that they would be unrecognizable in the end. And that’s not going to happen,” Allison said. Reform work focused on “harm reduction” is a more realistic approach, she said.
Some advocates hope the focus on abuses could lead to lasting reforms — if not in the churches, at least in the law.
Misty Griffin, an advocate for fellow survivors of sexual assault in Amish communities, recently started a petition calling for a “Children’s Rights Act” from Congress. By early June, it had collected more than 5,000 signatures.
This would require all teachers, including those in religious schools and home schools, to be trained in child abuse and neglect and subject to reporting mandates, and would also require age-appropriate instructions on how to prevention of student abuse. Griffin said such legislation is crucial because in authoritarian religious systems, victims often don’t know that help is available or how to get it.
“Without it, nothing will change,” said Griffin, consulting producer for the documentary “Sins of the Amish.”
The two-part documentary, which premiered on Peacock TV in May, examines rampant abuses in Amish and Mennonite communities, claiming they are enabled by a patriarchal authority structure, emphasis on the forgiveness of offenders and reluctance to report wrongdoing to law enforcement.
The Southern Baptist Convention, whose doctrine also calls for male leadership in churches and families, has been particularly shaken by the #ChurchToo movement after years of complaints that leaders failed to care for survivors and hold their perpetrators responsible.
At its annual meeting, the SBC will consider proposals to create a task force that would oversee a list of clergy credibly accused of abuse. But survivors have criticized this proposal and are calling for a more powerful and independent commission to perform this task and also look into allegations of abuse and cover-up. They are also looking for a “survivor restoration fund” and a memorial dedicated to survivors.
Momentum for change has grown as survivors such as Jules Woodson, who in 2018 went public with a sexual assault accusation against his former youth pastor, have been encouraged to tell their stories.
“I thought to myself, ‘Thank God there’s a space where we can tell these stories,'” Woodson said.
Such accounts led to the independent investigation, whose 288-page report detailed how the SBC’s executive committee prioritized the protection of the institution over the welfare of victims and the prevention of harm. abuse.
The committee apologized and released a long secret list of ministers accused of abuse.
Woodson said seeing his attacker’s name on it felt like a double-edged sword.
“It confirmed in some ways that my attacker was there, but it was also devastating to see that they knew and yet no one in the SBC spoke up to warn others,” she said. .
Woodson added that she still awaits meaningful change: ‘They offered minimal words acknowledging the problem, but they offered no reform and real action that would show genuine repentance or care and concern for survivors. or vulnerable people who have not yet been abused.
Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.