At the #CaringWell conference last week, Rachael Denhollander recommended that Southern Baptists read Christa Brown’s book, This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang.[i] I read the book after receiving a copy at the For Such a Time as This rally at the SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham at the recommendation of a friend. I too commend the book to you.
This Little Light was released 10 years ago, a year after the SBC Executive Committee declined to create a database of credibly accused sex offenders (considering a motion originally made by Wade Burleson). In the book, Christa describes her own abuse at the hands of a Baptist minister, the actions and inactions of those who knew of her abuse, and her experience SBC denominational leaders as an advocate first for herself and then for other survivors of abuse. The book is an eye-opening look, through the eyes of this survivor turned advocate, at how churches, pastors, and denominational leaders have acted to silence victims, cover-up abuses, protect institutions over people, and have justified taking little to no action to protect the vulnerable from serial abusers.
In the first section of the book, Christa describes her abuse at the hands of youth minister Eddie Dunagan (Tommy Gilmore) when she was fourteen. Her story shows how Eddie groomed her, manipulated her through spiritual abuse, molested her, and eventually discarded her. In the process, Christa makes her first attempts to report what was happening, first to a friend and then to her music minister, and finally her sister. Their responses would silence her until years later. Her story is painful to read.
The next two sections of the book, Christa begins to piece her story together and come to the realization that her 14-year-old self did not have “an affair with a minister” (41), but that she “was sexually abused by a Baptist minister” (45). Driven by the desire to see her abuse acknowledged and to prevent this predator from abusing others, Christa decided to return to the church of her youth and the minister she had confided in. The minister and church were not at all receptive and even threatened to sue her if she continued to pursue the matter. “It didn’t make any sense to me. They knew what I was saying was true. . . . but instead of doing anything about the minister who molested me, the church was threatening ME” (53).
Christa also reported her abuse to the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT), following the guidelines of their policy booklet, “Broken Trust” but soon realized “the policy booklet was just words on paper. Nothing more” (53). The BGCT would do nothing with the information that Christa had provided them, the pastor would remain in his position and her abuse would not be acknowledged in any meaningful way. Promises were made and broken and her conversations with key leaders soon became conversations with only their lawyer—she was being shut out. Undeterred, Christa would continue to work to make her abuse known. Meanwhile, “Dunagan was still working in children’s ministry [and] No one . . . NO ONE . . . thought it mattered enough to do anything about it” (76).
She shares her decision to file a lawsuit against Dunagan and against her former church, a long shot to be sure, seeking acknowledgement of his abuse and his removal from ministry. In the process, Christa shares her own personal struggle and how the long term effects of abuse affected her ability to trust, her relationship with her husband, and her own mental health. She shares her own struggles in recovery even as she continued to pursue justice and the removal of her abuser from ministry.
It seemed that all parties involved wanted secrecy, the one thing that Christa refused. Her attempts within SBC-life continued to be a dead end. Neither her past church, friends or denominational leaders would act. “I know better than to believe that anyone who carries the name ‘Baptist’ is going to help me” (117). Eventually, she dropped the lawsuit against Dunagan. In a court ordered, she settled her lawsuit with her church, receiving a public written apology (which she herself helped to construct) but never any face-to-face apology. “They just wanted me to shut up and go away” (125). Dunagan remained in the ministry at another church.
In the next section of the book, Christa explains how her attention shifted from finding justice for her own abuse to advocating for others. She introduces us to Debbie [Vasquez], reliving her own story as she heard Debbie’s own frustrating attempts to have her abuser removed from ministry even as he confessed to abusing other children. Denominational leaders “were still more focused on protecting themselves than protecting kids” (136). As she began to advocate for others, bring the crisis of clergy sexual abuse in the SBC to light,, and call for a “means by which autonomous congregations may responsibly share information about clergy predators” (134), Christa discovered that many other survivors shared similar stories to hers. “My story wasn’t anything unusual. Lots of other people had similar stories, and no one in the denomination was listening to them” (146-47).
As she spoke to denominational leaders like then SBC president Frank Page, Morris Chapman, Augie Boto, Richard Land and others, she began to realize that “in the autonomous system of Baptist churches, the buck stops nowhere” (142-43). She continued to hear “nonsensical rationalizations” (160) of why nothing could be done due to our denominational polity.
After Wade Burleson’s motion at the Convention meeting in 2007 to form a database of credibly accused clergy abusers, Christa had some hope and, with it, the opportunity to speak to the SBC Executive Committee as they deliberated about the issue. She describes that meeting: “As an appellate attorney, I have sometimes given arguments before judicial panels that were not at all sympathetic. But this was unquestionably the most hostile room in which I have ever spoken” (176). She recounted her story of abuse and of the inaction of Baptist leaders and pastors, pleading with the committee to take action.
Not only did they decline to take action, Baptist leaders then sought to discredit and malign her. “Rather than telling people what they knew about Dunagan . . . they were publicly smearing me” (179). Frank Page would later characterize her as “opportunistic,” Paige Patterson would call her and other advocates “evil-doers” and “just as reprehensible as sex criminals,” while an EC member would call her a “a person of no integrity (180-81, 183). The ultimate result of all this was, despite an opportunity to take action, “Southern Baptist officials did what was easy. They did nothing.” (210).
In her closing chapters, Christa gives some final thoughts about where things are and what she expects in the future. She speaks of the devastating effects of clergy sexual abuse. “It is not only physically, psychologically, and emotionally devastating, but it is also spiritually annihilating” (213). In the process of advocating for herself and for others in the denominational structure, she sees the overwhelming message to survivors is “you don’t matter” (218). She laments, “There is little reason to believe that Southern Baptist leaders will be able to prevent the clergy child molesters they don’t yet know about when, over and over again, they do nothing about the clergy child molesters they’re specifically told about” (222).
I am still processing all that Christa has shared in her book and there is much more to be said, but here three take-aways (there are many more):
I understand why many survivors/advocates do not trust the SBC or current leadership and are waiting to see action. I’ve only summarized Christa’s account here, but what we’re looking at is a history of talking a lot, wringing our hands, passing resolutions, and then finally…doing nothing (all the while attacking those who report abuse and call for reform). Yes, back in 2008 a lot of churches finally began doing background checks, but that’s a minimal result. Our system that allows serial abusers to move from church to church has not changed and a decade later a large number of our leaders continue to throw up our hands and say “church autonomy.”
I’m thankful for the changes we’re making, and I think the change to our SBC constitution and credentials committee is a good step. But until we actually see these policies in action, and actually result in keeping abusers from finding safe haven in our churches, it’s just words on paper and soundbites from denominational platforms. Even the #CaringWell conference and challenge will be meaningless if more churches don’t get involved and those churches don’t make real and meaningful changes back in their home churches. Trust is earned, and we must follow through here.
Spiritual abuse often goes hand in hand with sexual abuse. Perhaps the most alarming part of Christa’s story of abuse, which I’ve now heard in many other stories, is how this minister used scripture and manipulated her faith and desire to please God to satisfy his own vile lusts. Over and over again, her abuser cruelly twisted God’s word into a warped evil caricature. What God designed for Good, this minister used for evil. We don’t talk much about spiritual abuse, but it is a real issue in our churches as ministers use the Scripture and the “spiritual authority” of their position for selfish ends. In the case of Christa and so many others, that end is sexual abuse. The effects of that abuse on a person’s concept of God and their ability to find hope in him is devastating. For many, “When faith has been used as a weapon, it becomes almost impossible to use it as a resource for healing” (213).
This will be important for us as we seek to care well for the abused. I’m thankful for the testimony of those who have found hope and healing in Jesus Christ. That is my desire for every person who has suffered abuse. My hope is that God would use us to be vessels of mercy that God uses to show His love and care for them and that the gospel would truly be received as Good News.
I also understand why so many are not in a place where they can enter a church, trust a pastor, or hear certain truths of Scripture. The things of God have been mishandled and wickedly exploited as to intentionally inflict harm instead of love and grace and care. Those who seek to minister to others who have been abused both sexually and spiritually will need the to depend on the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom, understanding, patience, grace and for him to do the work that only he can do.
We need to listen to the stories of those who have been abused. Christa’s story is an important one. There are many others. We need to become much more familiar with the stories of those who have been abused in our churches. In doing so we learn about the experiences of survivors, we understand how predators groom the vulnerable, we come face to face with evil and corruption in our midst, we find ourselves culpable for our actions and inactions in protecting and caring for others, and it drives us to dig deeper to find how the gospel speaks to all of this. I hope that many more pastors, leaders, and other believers would take the time to listen and learn and grow and grieve and repent and act.
As Christa closes her book, that is her challenge to us as Southern Baptists to actually do something about the sexual abuse crisis in our midst: “We tell our stories. We give our testimony. We bear witness…. And I believe that the cumulative power of those stories will eventually compel the people of this in-the-dark denomination to convert to an ethical practice that prioritizes kid-protection ahead of institutional protection” (219).
I hope she’s right.