Crouching at every door
Sexual abuse is a problem in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches—and here are three environments in which Protestants are especially vulnerable
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Warning: This special report contains disturbing information about alleged ministerial abuse.
We interrupt our regularly scheduled publication plan to bring you a special report on sexual abuse within Protestant churches.
Why now? Last month Pope Francis addressed rampant sexual abuse among Catholic clergy: “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.” When Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò accused Francis of personal involvement in the cover-up, Francis on Aug. 26 did not immediately deny Viganò’s charge.
That flare-up came after a Pennsylvania grand jury report showed more than 300 “predator priests” in that state had raped and molested more than 1,000 victims during a 70-year period. Given the number of destroyed documents and silent victims, the total is probably understated, and the report does not cover one-fourth of Pennsylvania dioceses, including Philadelphia’s—but what it does cover is chilling enough.
For example, Pittsburgh priest George Zirwas for years was the subject of specific allegations by parents and victims. The grand jury report says he was one among a ring of priests who passed children from one priest to another, manufactured child pornography, and “used whips, violence, and sadism in raping their victims.” From 1987 to 1995 supervisors who allegedly knew of Zirwas’ perversions moved him from parish to parish. He finally moved to Havana and was murdered in his apartment in 2001.
Stories like that display a Roman Catholic problem, right? Look at centralized Catholicism’s opportunity to shuffle priests from one parish to another, few questions asked. Look at the Catholic ban on priestly marriage, and the pressures that creates. Look at homosexuality within the priesthood.
But evangelicals should recognize that clerical sex abuse is widespread, and some evangelical and fundamentalist churches do cover up problems and pass them on to others. Although the decentralized nature of Protestantism makes statistics very hard to find, we’ve particularly found opportunities for abuse and cover-ups in three kinds of situations.
(1) Some congregations have dominating pastors with unchecked authority.
(2) Evangelical culture has a conference and lecture circuit with celebrities and quasi-celebrities who come to cities for weekend workshops and one-night lectures that provide opportunities to sin and go, leaving behind casualties.
(3) Megachurch leaders face the ordinary temptations but also extraordinary pressure to cover up problems, knowing that a sniff of scandal will summon packs of critical reporters.
WORLD over the years has paid attention to such misconduct. For example, “Clergy Sexual Abuse: The Protestant Problem,” a March 2002 cover story, named names in several churches. We’ve also seen problems beyond the three problem areas noted above: The cover headline on a September 2010 issue of WORLD read, “Uncovering a Boarding School Sex Abuse Scandal.” But we’ve never in one issue looked at all three of these major opportunities for sin.
We’re also not saying these problems are new. A 1984 Fuller Seminary survey of 1,200 ministers showed 1 in 5 theologically conservative pastors admitted to some sexual contact with a church member outside of marriage. More than two-fifths of “moderate” pastors and half of “liberal” ones acknowledged the same. A 1993 survey showed 6 percent of Southern Baptist pastors acknowledging sexual contact outside of marriage with someone in the congregation.
The turn of the millennium did not bring improvement. In 2002 Roy Woodruff, executive director of the 3,000-member American Association of Pastoral Counselors, estimated 15 percent of pastors “either have [violated] or are violating sexual ethical boundaries.” Churches that financially protect themselves against lawsuits by taking out umbrella policies covering abuse accusations must let insurers know about charges, so here’s another statistic: In 2007, the three largest insurers of Protestant churches and nonprofits in the United States revealed they receive about 260 reports of child sex abuse each year.
So why this special report now? Enough is enough. We do not know how large the problem is in the Protestant world, nor how rates of abuse compare with those of Catholicism, but such comparisons in one sense are beside the point: Sin is crouching at all our doors, and is no respecter of denominational distinctions.
We do not know how large the problem is in the Protestant world, nor how rates of abuse compare with those of Catholicism, but such comparisons in one sense are beside the point: Sin is crouching at all our doors, and is no respecter of denominational distinctions.
Our special section presents well-documented examples of reported and alleged offenses by pastors with complete authority, conference speakers, and megachurch leaders. We are reporters, not judges and juries, so we take seriously the word “alleged”: Stories of suffering are not proof. But stories are helpful in showing how some sexual exploiters work—and knowledge can help us establish protocols and stick with them so opportunity for abuse decreases. We should understand that no system can shut out sin, but we can keep praying and protecting.
What James Madison, trained by evangelical pastor John Witherspoon, said about civil government also applies to church government: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Who shall govern our church governors?
Almost every kid at Faith Baptist Church (FBC) in Wildomar, Calif., 75 miles southeast of Los Angeles, saw Malo “Victor” Monteiro as a cool youth pastor. He knew how to have fun—he jumped into the waves with the kids at the beach, pulled pranks, and joined all the games. Former youth group members say he could also be handsy—he would slap the girls’ backsides, wrestle them to the ground, invite them to cling onto him while he rode a jet ski or dirt bike. One time, he dropped a live lizard down April Avila’s shirt, laughing and watching as she squirmed about, trying to fish the wiggling reptile out from her bra without exposing herself.
Today, Avila is 32 and says she realizes that Monteiro was crossing boundaries. Two decades ago, nobody said anything out loud. The youth pastor was married, with children. When April and other girls felt uncomfortable, they laughed it off, thinking: If what he did was wrong, surely someone would stop him … right? Yet when a few adult members saw Monteiro fooling around with the girls, they castigated the girls for acting “too friendly” with a man of God. Avila said no one ever confronted Monteiro’s behaviors: “It was always the girl’s fault.”
By the time Monteiro’s interactions with April allegedly progressed beyond butt-slaps and shoulder-caresses into more sexual acts, she knew what he was doing was wrong. She was a deacon’s daughter whose life had revolved around FBC, an independent fundamental Baptist church, ever since she was born. She grew up in FBC’s nursery, attended an FBC-affiliated private school, and spent all her social activities with the church.
She watched at a youth group meeting as Monteiro passed around what started out as a pristine white rose. Soon the ivory petals were no longer lovely. Monteiro held up that bruised rose: “Look at this. This is what happens when you don’t keep yourself pure. Will anyone want this flower?”
That haunting image of the drooping, soiled white rose was one reason April kept silent for years about Monteiro. She says he sexually groomed and then abused her for four years starting when she was 14. She confusedly saw him as a man of God who told her how much she turned him on, but would then snarl, as she recalls, “No man will ever want you.” When Monteiro preached about purity and chastity, she always blamed herself. She was wicked and dirty. She hid her pain and confusion and counted the days till she could escape to college.
Other teenagers allegedly replaced April as objects of Monteiro’s attention. One, Rachel Peach, was 15 in 2007 when Monteiro, she says, began texting explicit messages to her. She says that soon progressed to sexual abuse, and claims Monteiro blamed her for his behavior. “It was always YOU did that. YOU asked for that,” Peach said.
In 2013 the ex-boyfriend of another young woman told FBC Pastor Bruce Goddard that his ex-girlfriend had an inappropriate relationship with Monteiro. Goddard quickly announced in church that Monteiro, after 18 years as FBC’s youth pastor, needed a break and a new challenge, so Monteiro would help to plant a new church nearby with a young pastor. Rachel Peach was in church when Goddard sent Monteiro off with praise and began to pray. She walked out and never came back.
This year, as Avila and Peach heard each other’s stories and then heard more stories, they realized that Monteiro could be continuing his practice with other girls. Avila called the police. On July 27, 2018, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department arrested Monteiro, now 45, and charged him on seven felony counts of sexual crimes against minors from 1999 to 2014. On Aug. 16 he pleaded not guilty to all seven. His defense attorney David Grande told me Monteiro has no comments at this time.
Robyn Flores of the Sheriff’s Department told me Monteiro remains in custody on an $80,000 bail. Peach, now 26, also filed a lawsuit against FBC for negligence, claiming that the church knew about other improper relationships between its youth pastors and minors yet did not report them to authorities. Kathy Durbin, now 43 and Monteiro’s sister-in-law, says an earlier FBC youth pastor, Laverne Paul Fox, did to her in 1990 what Monteiro allegedly did to Avila and Peach. Durbin says she eventually told Goddard, who quickly worked it out to move Fox to another independent fundamental Baptist (IFB) church in Indiana. Fox did not respond to WORLD inquiries.
Goddard did not respond to my three requests for interviews. Pat Cook, a member of Monteiro’s youth group at FBC alongside Avila and Peach, is now the pastor of Menifee Baptist Church, the IFB church to which Goddard sent Monteiro. Cook says, “Goddard gave me no reason. … My understanding was 18 years at one place, just looking for a change in scenery.” Cook saw Goddard at a service in May and told him, “This whole scenario is pretty terrible.” Cook says Goddard “was broken, he began to cry. … He said, ‘I can’t believe that Victor did this. I had no idea.’”
FBC isn’t the only IFB church with such scandals. In May, Cameron Giovanelli resigned from his position as president of Golden State Baptist College, an IFB college, after a woman accused him on Facebook of sexually abusing her when she was a 16-year-old attending Calvary Baptist Church, an IFB church that Giovanelli once pastored. That woman, Sarah Jackson, later pressed charges when she realized some IFB pastors might not take her claims seriously.
But the current pastor of Calvary, Stacey Shiflett, did, and investigated. Shiflett says he found evidence that made Jackson’s claims “credible.” He showed me screenshots of text messages and Facebook messages Giovanelli appeared to have sent to Jackson and another college-age girl on separate occasions. These messages were not incriminating, but suggested a friendliness beyond that of a middle-aged pastor and a young woman. Another woman, Donna Hudson, told me she had exchanged explicit text messages and had oral sex with Giovanelli while he was her pastor and marriage counselor at Calvary. She said Giovanelli had told her to take their affair “to our graves.”
Soon after Jackson’s public accusation, North Valley Baptist Church, an IFB megachurch that operates Giovanelli’s college, released a statement saying it had received “allegations of inappropriate conduct” and had conducted a “thorough and honest investigation” until Giovanelli resigned. Shiflett doubts that NVBC did an investigation: He says its leaders had not yet contacted any victims when they released that statement. NVBC Pastor Jack Trieber told me on a brief phone call that he’s “not interested” in talking to a reporter.
When Shiflett went on YouTube to criticize his denomination’s repeated cover-ups of abuse, some fellow IFB pastors wrote blog posts attacking him. “We’ve created a culture where victims cannot even feel comfortable speaking out,” Shiflett said. “It’s almost like going against the mafia.” Giovanelli is still active in ministry in Florida, and is currently teaching the Book of James on a new Bible podcast. He did not respond to my repeated requests for an interview.
The IFB movement has a church culture unusual in the 21st century: Drinking, dancing, and skirts above the knee are taboo. But in other ways it’s similar to other denominations where each church is independent and many long-term pastors wield tremendous power unchecked by other church officers. Many such churches have boards of deacons, but if the pastor has essentially appointed them and may also influence their livelihoods, sins among leaders can readily be covered up. —Sophia Lee
For years, Brenda Wilbee would riffle through the writers’ magazines whenever she was at the doctor’s office. She repeatedly saw his name on advertisements for Christian writers’ conferences: Dennis E. Hensley—a professor in Taylor University’s professional writing program and the award-winning Christian author of more than five dozen books, including The Power of Positive Productivity, Writing for Profit, How to Motivate Yourself and Others, How to Manage Your Time, and How to Manage Your Money.
Each time Wilbee saw his name, she worried. These writers’ conferences attracted mostly young women eager for recognition and help in getting a foot into the publishing world. In Wilbee’s eyes, they were like fresh meat for someone like Hensley—just as she was back in 1983, the year she says Hensley sexually assaulted her at a writers’ conference at Seattle Pacific University.
The writers’ conference world is a niche, female-dominated circle, and women talk. For years, several women warned others about Hensley. They said Hensley can’t keep his hands to himself, that he corners and lunges at women to kiss or grope them. These stories date back more than 30 years, but they were scattered and isolated, with no one gathering these accounts to corroborate them. So conference directors continued inviting Hensley to their events—until it all came to a head on July 12, 2018, when Taylor University released a statement saying Hensley had resigned amid an investigation into some “significant and credible allegations of serious misconduct” against him.
Wilbee and other women who spoke with Taylor officials told me they’re relieved Hensley is no longer working at the university, and they’re glad many writers’ conferences have announced they will no longer invite him. They also say he should and could have been stopped years ago. They say Hensley for more than three decades got away with brazen, inappropriate, and sometimes abusive behavior.
Wilbee was a freshly divorced mother working on her second novel when she first met Hensley at a writers’ conference in Seattle in 1983. She had volunteered to pick up editors at the airport: Hensley was one of them. After she dropped him off at his assigned apartment, Hensley invited her in to continue their conversation about publishing. Wilbee accepted—after all, she had time to kill, and he was a successful writer.
Here’s Wilbee’s account (Hensley turned down my repeated requests for an interview): Hensley sprawled on the sofa, boasted about his accomplishments, and offered to help her become a best-selling author if she slept with him. When she declined and tried to leave, he pinned her against the wall and began kissing her. She managed to push him away and dashed out. She jumped into her car and was about to insert her car keys into the ignition when Hensley climbed into the passenger’s seat next to her. Hensley grabbed her neck and tried to kiss her again. She cringed, twisted away, and pounded the horn. Hensley left, saying, “It’s your fault. You’re wearing that pretty white dress.”
More from Wilbee: She second-guessed herself for the next several days, thinking maybe Hensley was right and it was her fault. He didn’t rape her, she was fine now, so maybe she should just get over it—but the thought of driving Hensley back to the airport alone terrified her, so she told the conference director and assistant director what Hensley had done. They said several women had complained about Hensley, but their concerns were not as serious as hers. The conference director later told Wilbee he had confronted Hensley, who said Wilbee came on to him first and was now retaliating as a “scorned woman.” Hensley threatened the director with a lawsuit and similarly threatened Wilbee for a year. Again, this is all from Wilbee: The conference director is dead, and we could not find the assistant director.
Wilbee avoided Christian writers’ conferences for years after that, but whenever Hensley’s name popped up among certain women in the publishing world, “it was like, ‘Oh yeah, you too?’ I became very aware that this industry knew about him and it didn’t do anything about it.”
Mary Lou Davidson Redding, a retired editor of The Upper Room magazine, says she warned conference directors about Hensley for many years. Here’s her account: In the early 1990s at the Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference at Eastern Carolina State University, Hensley had tried to slip his hands onto her breasts while she was in a dormitory hall, stopping only when someone walked in on them. When Redding later told a friend what happened, that friend rolled her eyes and replied, “Oh, is he still doing that? He was supposed to stop.”
More from Redding: “People knew his behavior, and he was still being invited to conferences.” She decided to warn people about him. When she saw his name on a conference brochure, she called the directors to tell them about her experience with him. No director she warned ever disinvited him: “They overwhelmingly said to me they want their conference to be a success, that people are coming because he’s going to be there.”
One woman who attended a writers’ conference in Texas in 2011 had an experience that eventually led to Hensley’s professional downfall. I agreed not to give her name to protect her privacy, but here’s her account: She was attending her first Christian conference and was upset because one attendee had made fun of her writing. Hensley suggested they go into a room to pray. They entered a dark, empty room. Hensley shut the door, and she extended her hands to his, thinking they were going to pray. Hensley grabbed her hands, shoved her against the wall, kissed her neck, reached his hand down her shirt, and grabbed her breasts. She broke free and ran out.
Last year the woman told her story to Eva Marie Everson, director of the Florida Christian Writers Conference. Everson says she “believed her, but I didn’t know what to do with it”—until this May, when she heard another report of a Hensley incident. She put out the word that she was collecting stories about Hensley and received 13 emailed statements, along with seven more text messages or phone calls. I’ve read those messages, mostly from women Everson didn’t know: They charged Hensley with sexually aggressive acts accompanied by similar wordings: “You don’t understand, my wife has lupus” or “I just need a woman, it’s been so long.” He also tried to silence them, either saying “This will be our little secret” or “I can make or break your career.”
Everson sent these accounts to Taylor University, which investigated: That led to Hensley’s resignation. Taylor spokesperson Jim Garringer said the only sex-related incident involving Hensley that the university previously had in its files came in 2004 at its Fort Wayne campus, now closed. A student told Taylor officials that Hensley had kissed her, and Hensley denied it. Garringer says the administration “was not able to find sufficient corroboration of the allegation.” Taylor administrators forbade Hensley from any further contact with that student and warned him not to interact with students “in any way that could remotely suggest impropriety.” Garringer said Hensley’s record included two more “disciplinary incidents,” but neither involved Taylor students, or harassment, or unwanted advances.
The woman involved in the Fort Wayne incident was Rachel Custer. She says she entered Taylor’s writing program because of Hensley’s long list of accomplishments. She was excited to have him as her adviser. One day at 1 or 2 a.m. she was walking home from a pool hall when someone attacked and raped her. She reported the rape to the police and asked for a week off from work, but decided to keep her first advisory appointment with Hensley: It hadn’t been easy to schedule one with him. That afternoon, as she sat before Hensley, she was so visibly distraught that Hensley asked if something was wrong. Custer broke down into tears and told him what happened.
“I thought I was completely safe with him,” Custer told me. “To me, he was an extension of the clergy. … He was a good Christian man with a good reputation.” Here’s Custer’s account: Hensley leaned forward and grabbed her hands. They decided to reschedule the meeting. Hensley hugged her. As Custer continued weeping, Hensley took off her glasses and his, kissed her tears, and then kissed her on the mouth. Custer pushed away and asked, “Don’t you have a wife?” Hensley replied, “Yes, she has lupus and is in a great deal of pain. I haven’t held a woman in a long time, so maybe we can support each other.” He leaned in to kiss her again. Custer jumped back and stuttered, “I have to go.” Hensley said, “This can be our little secret.”
Custer says she ran out of the room and called her father from her minivan. He told her to go back to the campus and report it to school administrators. A week later Custer and her mother had a second meeting with dean of students Randall Dodge and three other Taylor officials. Dodge told me that he and the officials followed established Taylor University procedures: They interviewed all individuals involved in the accusation, visited Hensley’s office where Custer said the incident happened, and tried to find potential witnesses. The investigation resulted in “conflicting descriptions as to what actually took place,” and Taylor placed a record into Hensley’s file.
Custer was not satisfied. She wanted Hensley to be removed from a position of authority over young women. She felt intimidated: “At no point did I feel like anyone was on my side, or even on the side of righteousness.” She reported the incident to the police, but they told her Hensley had not committed a crime. Custer dropped out of Taylor, went to therapy, and tried to forget about Hensley. She had no idea that many other women had similar tales about him.
Again, we’d like to have Hensley’s account, but he has not responded to my repeated interview requests. He did tell Inside Higher Ed that he embraced Custer but did not kiss her: “She was totally in shock—she doesn’t remember the situation the way it was.” Hensley, now 70, told a local newspaper reporter that allegations against him were a ripple out of the #MeToo movement, and he had decided to “just take the high ground and retire, and just call it quits and let this thing die its own death.”
But Custer’s report is just one among many. Some of the email recollections in Everson’s collection are angry, and others are mournful. Everson says, “I don’t want to forget that Jesus is weeping just as hard for Dennis Hensley’s blackened soul. I grieve for his soul.” —Sophia Lee
When a scandal breaks out at a small local congregation, a couple of local or niche publications might cover it, but The New York Times probably wouldn’t even give it a Twitter blurb. Not so when the subject in question is a megachurch like Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., one of the largest and most influential evangelical congregations in the nation. When the stench of a sex scandal emanates from the celebrity pastor of such an institution, the entire tragedy plays out on a national stage, and the church loses control of its narrative to the mainstream media.
So when allegations of sexual misconduct or sexual crimes arise against their pastors, megachurch leaders may feel pressured to handle them as quietly as possible, or choose to believe the safer narrative. They do that by internally handling a sexual abuse case by themselves even when they’re not qualified to do so, or by turning first to a lawyer whose aim is to protect the client, not the victim.
That’s what happened at Willow Creek, where what would have been a terrible scandal turned into a bigger and sadder one. On April 10, 2018, founding pastor Bill Hybels announced his early retirement after the Chicago Tribune published accounts from several women who accused him of sexual misconduct and harassment.
The Tribune and other national newspapers such as The New York Times wrote that Willow Creek’s elders had conducted an internal investigation and commissioned an outside lawyer to look into these allegations. Both investigations cleared the founding pastor. Hybels still denies any wrongdoing. The day he stepped down, he told his church, “I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.” Some church members groaned in response and cried, “No!”
Later, in August, one woman told the Times Hybels had repeatedly fondled her, forced her to watch porn with him, and participated in oral sex with her. (Hybels denied the claims.) A lead pastor and the entire board of elders announced their resignations soon after the onslaught of media coverage, admitting that they had mishandled these serious allegations by not believing the victims. President of Willow Creek Association Tom De Vries began its annual Global Leadership Summit in August with a confession: “There is no map for the journey that we’ve been on. We’ve had missteps, mistakes, slip-ups, blunders. We are sorry for the places where we could have and should have done better.” Willow Creek recently started a new independent investigation into the allegations.
Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America) in New York City is another influential church with thousands of members and a family of successful ministries such as church-planting City to City (CTC) and poverty-fighting Hope for New York. Early this year it faced an accusation against a CTC leader—a he-said she-said case different from the multiple allegations from multiple women against Hybels. Redeemer and CTC tried to handle the scandal internally, but months later the news came out.
This sad story began in 2001. Jen Willems, a new Christian, was a senior in college. David Kim—27 or 28 and unmarried—had founded the Princeton campus ministry Manna seven years earlier. He became Manna’s executive director, but Manna in 2001 listed him as a “staff worker,” according to a screenshot of a 2001 page from Manna’s website, and he was leading a “large group worship meeting” on Saturday nights. Willems says she “trusted him as a spiritual leader,” but accuses him of sexually assaulting her one evening—touching her all over her body, including under her clothes, and lying on top of her while tightly pressed against her.
Kim vociferously denies this, and says they only had a momentary consensual physical encounter when he thought she was indicating interest in him. He acknowledges touching her chest over her clothes, but said in his statement, “At no point did she express any verbal or nonverbal discomfort or refusal, nor did she move away or ask me to stop.” Such encounters, followed by differing interpretations of what happened, occur thousands of times a year at Princeton and other colleges, but the question here is whether Kim was abusing his position as a spiritual authority, and whether—solely based on what he admitted to—the encounter was consensual.
This question has spiritual and legal dimensions. Manna, incorporated in 2005, has had an annual training since 2007 that includes a prohibition of romantic relationships between staff and students. Legally, several states—New Jersey is not one of them—have laws that say sexual contact from someone’s clergy or spiritual adviser is inherently not consensual. They define potentially culpable individuals differently: Texas law says clergy, Minnesota law says clergy who are giving “spiritual advice, aid, or comfort” at the time of an incident. Kim was not ordained in the PCA at the time, but consent in these situations is an area of heated debate.
Willems and Kim remained in friendly communication for several years after the incident, according to emails Kim posted. He insists, “I have never sexually assaulted or abused anyone. … I handled this situation appropriately. … My family and I have been absolutely devastated by these egregious accusations, misleading communications, and the process we’ve been through with an organization that we once deeply believed in,” he wrote in a public statement. Both Kim and Willems declined to answer questions for this article.
Kim is now an author with 11 years’ experience as a leader at Redeemer. He was the director of CTC’s Center for Faith and Work until June. Willems initially planned to work through the Metro New York presbytery, of which Redeemer is a member, but then stopped that process, which she said would involve “a group of all male presbytery members who have no experience or training in investigating sexual abuse allegations.” She contacted Redeemer Human Resources (HR).
Redeemer and CTC—separate entities but in the same family of ministries—conducted an internal investigation. According to several sources, when Willems contacted Redeemer HR it had been working on revamping its policy on handling sexual misconduct accusations against staff members. CTC placed Kim on leave and then in June, after a unanimous agreement from the CTC board that includes Redeemer elders and Redeemer founding pastor Tim Keller, dismissed him without public explanation.
Kim said he did not get a fair hearing: He said the CTC staff only talked to him once about the incident and never shared the specific allegations against him, and he never had the opportunity to give a full explanation of his conduct. Kim said he was presented with a separation agreement that included a one-year noncompete clause prohibiting him from ministry in faith and work. InterVarsity, which had listed Kim as a featured speaker at an event for Christian MBA students in February, scrubbed mention of him from its website.
Willems was also unhappy with CTC’s internal investigation. She and Kim both said they wanted an independent investigation. CTC said it “endeavored on two occasions to hire qualified and respected investigators to lead an independent investigation—both of whom Ms. Willems declined to accept.”
All of this was still happening privately. On July 25 Willems put up a Facebook post stating her accusations, both about Kim and about Redeemer’s handling of the investigation. Willems wrote in a later post that Kim “behaved inappropriately towards me multiple times until I graduated and moved. … David targeted, groomed, assaulted, abused, gaslighted and silenced me.” Kim denies this.
Realizing that the story was becoming public, Redeemer pastors and CTC CEO Steve Shackelford sent a joint email to congregants and those in their ministries early in August. The letter began by saying that the pastors and CTC staff had “sought to maintain confidentiality in this matter on behalf of all parties,” but “recent developments” pushed them to speak. The letter said Kim had admitted to “inappropriately crossing boundaries” with a student while in campus ministry, and that Redeemer had “additional third-party information” corroborating that.
The letter emphasized that it was the first and only accusation of improper sexual behavior Redeemer had heard against Kim, and said the organization had launched an independent investigation to see if there were any other instances during his 11 years at Redeemer. After the letter went out to Redeemer circles, Amilee Watkins, the longtime assistant director at Center for Faith and Work, resigned, saying in an email to CFW circles that “the courses of action taken over the past several weeks, although determined by well-intentioned leaders operating in the face of a difficult situation, do not comport with our theology or our values as an organization.”
CTC did not respond to my questions about the HR process. Redeemer officials responded only to seven yes or no ones. (Few organizations acknowledge behavioral reasons for dismissal—as CTC and Redeemer did in their letter to congregants—for fear of litigation. Lawyers typically instruct organizations to say only when employment began and ended.)
Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and Christian who was the first publicly to accuse USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, educates churches about abuse accusations. She says in numerous cases “internal communications have been poor, communications to congregations have been poor.” She advises churches to have a written policy for all accusations of sexual misconduct that requires notifying the congregation and then immediately commissioning a third-party investigation. She said openness helps all parties, protects the accused from an unfair dismissal or “overzealous” discipline, and encourages other potential victims to come forward.
With accusations from many years ago, Denhollander said the issue is not simply the details of what happened, but how the accused responds. She said Kim at the time may have not recognized his position of authority as part of a campus ministry, but should acknowledge that now. She noted the danger of church leaders, responding to reports of abuse, using their authority in an “un-Biblical way” and recommends independent investigations: “It’s very difficult to see clearly when it’s your own community.”
Denhollander says a church in Lexington, Ky., Tates Creek Presbyterian, offers a model of how to respond to abuse accusations. Tates Creek, a PCA church with about 1,250 members, learned recently of abuse from a former longtime pastor, Brad Waller, who served at the church until 2006.
A college student had reported an uncomfortable experience with Waller to his campus minister, who then reported it to the Savannah presbytery overseeing the church where Waller was a pastor, Grace Church of the Islands. The presbytery investigated, and Waller confessed to the presbytery to “the sin of abuse of authority,” saying that he had sexual gratification from rubbing the feet of men and boys when he was counseling them. The presbytery removed him from office and sent his confession to law enforcement.
Even though Waller had been gone for 12 years, Tates Creek immediately had a meeting of elders, hired an attorney to go through the process, and emailed its congregation about what happened. It held a congregational meeting, and in the course of this, 10 people came forward with their own stories. Evidence began to emerge that the abuse went past foot rubbing, according to Tates Creek leaders, though Waller had denied any physical abuse beyond foot rubbing in his confession to the presbytery. WORLD’s attempts to reach Waller were not successful.
Tates Creek elders unanimously voted to begin an independent investigation and to report findings to the police. Senior Pastor Robert Cunningham released an extensive public statement, answering three major questions: Is this really sexual abuse? (Yes, and the pastor explained why in detail.) Was anyone in leadership aware this was taking place? (Not that he knew, but the church would repent publicly if the outside investigation revealed that.) What steps are we taking in response? (Cunningham detailed an investigation process involving the well-known organization GRACE.)
“If there’s going to be a predator in that church, they’re going to leave Tates Creek,” said Denhollander. “No predator is going to stay in a church like that, because they know that they’ll be caught. By that same token, a survivor or victim will be able to come forward to a leadership like that because they’ve handled it right.”
When I contacted Cunningham to talk more about their straightforward approach, he consulted other church leaders and reported back that they would stick to their policy of not talking further until the independent investigation was complete: “The last thing we want to do is ‘pat ourselves on the back’ and then the investigation reveal that we have much to confess,” he wrote. He promised “transparency” when the investigation is over.
Cunningham asked his congregation to “resist the temptation” to be concerned about the reputation of the church: “I am determined that we prioritize righteousness over reputation. … And above all, remember that our God is faithful to bring beauty from ashes, redeeming what sin has laid waste.” —Emily Belz, with reporting from Sophia Lee
The few cases mentioned in this story should highlight the fact that sexual abuse is not just a Catholic problem. It’s also a Protestant problem, and a deeply human one.
Our investigations show that many churches and ministries have not always done a good job protecting and empowering the victims. As cries of #MeToo reverberate across the nation, so too have stories of #ChurchToo, in which men and women within evangelical churches voice their own tales of long-suppressed guilt, shame, and anguish. They say their trauma isn’t just from the violating act itself: Trauma festered when trusted church authorities failed to believe or protect them, failed to report the crime to legal authorities, failed to change the institutional culture that enables and minimizes the severity of sexual abuse.
Yet because this issue has become so public, more and more churches are acknowledging the existence and severity of sexual abuse within their communities, as shown in many cases mentioned above. More churches are asking for help to help the vulnerable, so this could be a wake-up call for the Protestant world.
Meanwhile, Brenda Wilbee, the woman who accused writer Dennis Hensley of sexually assaulting her in 1983, told me victims of sexual abuse like her feel as if a part of them died, and some of them are still waiting for the day they can rise like phoenixes out of the ashes: “I’m never going to be the same. … None of his victims will be the same. And we just have to let it go, with a weary sigh.”
In reaction to the recent papal announcement of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, columnist Rod Dreher wrote on Twitter, “Nice words from Pope Francis, but after all this time, and all these empty promises from the episcopate, what counts now are **deeds**.”
In the Year of our Lord 2018, that’s what counts in Protestant churches as well. —Sophia Lee
Our next issue will contain a postponed article on fall election prospects.
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