Debbie Vasquez, now in her mid-sixties, was molested by a minister in her church beginning when she was 14 years old and was later impregnated by him. The perpetrator went on to pastor for decades, most recently at an SBC church that withdrew from the Convention when the credentials committee began an inquiry. If you don’t know her story, you can read about it here, and here, but I warn you, it’s a horrific story. Debbie has given me permission to share part of her story and our interaction with each other in this essay.
I met Debbie Vasquez in 2019 at the close of the ERLC’s Caring Well Conference in Grapevine, Texas. When the last session ended, I was in the hall talking to a pastor friend of mine. Robert Downen saw us, introduced us to Debbie and she began to share her story. For more than an hour, Debbie poured out her heart to us and all of her passion and frustration at our actions and inaction as Southern Baptists. She was speaking to me as a stand-in for the SBC and SBC pastors as a whole. Debbie was devastated that so many people had been abused that didn’t have to be, if only I had cared about this sooner. But of all the words she spoke to me that night, the one thing that she repeated over and over and that to this day I cannot get over:
“Why won’t you do something?!?”
Those words shook me. They were not the words of an angry, irrational, can-never-be-pleased survivor. They were the heart cry of a woman who knows first-hand the pain and trauma of clergy sexual abuse and wants to spare others from experiencing that same pain.
As an adult survivor of clergy abuse, Debbie has been active in advocating for the SBC to take abuse seriously and especially to find a way to track abusers and prevent them from moving to another church to abuse again. Her advocacy is personal, not because she was abused, but because she has reason to believe she is not the only victim of this man and that he continues to have access to children. In addition to her own case, she has given much of her time, energy, and resources to research stories of abuse in churches and appealing to pastors like me to protect other young boys and girls from the devastation of abuse. And she’s not alone. Every time I talk to survivors of church abuse, I hear the earnest desire to see churches care for survivors, employ best practices for prevention and response, hold abusers accountable, and prevent them from abusing again.
That’s why I cringe when I hear pastors talk about the “angry survivor” as if those sexually victimized in our churches are unhinged, crazed extremists who can never be pleased. They are simply men and women who have suffered abuse in our churches, suffered further trauma by churches and leaders when they disclosed abuse, and want to see the SBC seriously address the problems in our denomination surrounding abuse.
Debbie has been working hard over the past few months preparing data and news stories about abuse. She’s shared some of her research with me and she wants to share her findings on the patterns of sexual abuse in our churches and ideas for how we can stop it.
Debbie is coming to Anaheim this summer. She wants to talk to messengers and convince you to take action at our annual meeting. She’ll be at our SBC Voices booth at the Pastors’ Conference to talk with as many as will listen. Stop by and meet her and let her tell you firsthand the devastation of abuse and how we can stop it. She is taking great pains to be there for our annual meeting and believes her efforts are worth it.
Debbie’s words to me last week were this: “Todd, what happened to me is past. I can’t do anything about it. But maybe I can help prevent others from being abused.” It’s this kind of care for others that is the motivation for her activism and of so many others. It’s the reality that churches continue to be places where people are vulnerable, that abusers go on to abuse again, that we so often fail to minister well to those who have suffered abuse, and that our system so often protects the abuser and the institution while victims are discarded that causes survivor-advocates to cry out “Why won’t you do something?!?”
Southern Baptists, it’s time to do something.