After decades of insomnia and recurring nightmares, Brown was in her 50s when she first used the words “oral rape” to describe what Gilmore did to her. (The average age when a survivor of childhood abuse first reports it is 52.) It was after her own daughter turned 16, and Brown realized that if any authority figure did to her daughter what her own youth pastor had done, she certainly would not call it an “affair.” She had avoided church for years. Stories like Brown’s are alarmingly common within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the country’s largest evangelical body. Women and children in SBC are taught to defer to men, particularly those in roles of authority, Brown explained, and to her mind, this has contributed to submission and obedience when those authority figures are bad actors. It’s one theological setup for widespread abuse. Some denominational leaders knew the scope of the crisis but denied having a way to intervene—largely, according to emails and SBC legal opinions later made public, in an effort to avoid liability. Even when abuse was reported, pastors often moved to new churches, where they abused again. Some SBC leaders even maligned survivors as attention-seeking Jezebels and tools of Satan. Among their biggest targets was Christa Brown.
In the wake of her op-ed, Brown’s inbox flooded with stories of pastors being moved between churches. BGCT kept reference to its list online with a link for churches to request background information on pastoral candidates from at least 2007 (until switching to a new reporting system through Ministry Safe in 2016)—but in the meantime, Brown started her own website, Stop Baptist Predators, where she maintained a national database of Southern Baptist sexual abusers named in public records and media reports. Between emails and dozens of phone calls, she gathered stories of abuse that were strikingly similar to hers. For every name, Brown kept wondering, “Would this be the one that would tip the scales? Would this be enough?” The weight of each disclosure stuck with her. Her own assaults could still explode across her mind without warning. Even into her 50s, she might be out on a run and feel a breeze that reminded her of Gilmore’s breath on her neck, causing her to fall to her knees and vomit.
“Sexual abuse by a trusted religious leader has a soul-murdering impact.” —Christa Brown
Among those survivors, Brown was fighting for was Jules Woodson, who was decades younger than Brown, but whose story carries obvious parallels. In 1998, Woodson was 17. She was a church girl who was taught purity culture by her youth pastor, Andy Savage, in The Woodlands, Texas. According to a description of events later written by Woodson, when Savage, then 22, stopped his truck on the drive home from church one night, unzipped his pants, and requested oral sex, she believed it meant he loved her and wanted to marry her. She went along with it until he stopped the assault and asked her to keep the act secret. (Savage did not respond to requests for comment.)
In 2018, the year after the #MeToo movement grew into a national flashpoint, Woodson was a flight attendant with a reflexive smile and the mother of three children. She also hadn’t forgotten. She wrote to Savage asking if he remembered the incident, closing with #MeToo. He didn’t respond. Googling his name, Woodson stumbled upon a blog post about a different alleged abuse coverup at a church that merged with Savage’s church at the time, Highpoint Church in Memphis. (Representatives from Highpoint Church did not respond to requests for comment.)By then, there was an infrastructure of online confessional spaces, inspired in part by Brown’s Stop Baptist Predators, that underscored the vast number of church-based sex abuse stories. Woodson decided to go public with her story about Savage in an essay shared on the church abuse blogs Wartburg Watch and Watchkeep.
“Nobody came beside me and said, ‘Are you OK?’” —Jules Woodson
Leading up to the rally, a steady drumbeat of media coverage outing pastors, including Woodson’s story, made the dire reality of widespread church abuse clear. The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published a joint, six-part “Abuse of Faith” investigation series, tallying at least 700 victims of sexual abuse, including Brown and Woodson, over 20 years within the Southern Baptist Convention. More than 100 Southern Baptist youth pastors had been charged or convicted of sex crimes, while advocates argued that given how rarely sexual abuse is reported, this was likely an undercount of the actual number of perpetrators. Nevertheless, the scope substantiated what Brown had been publicly itemizing herself for years, much to the ire of SBC leaders.
“I can call it evil because I know what goodness is.”
One sexual abuse survivor who was invited to speak at the 2019 SBC meetings on the abuse crisis was Rachael Denhollander. In 2018, Denhollander was positioned to become a sort of evangelical darling. Homeschooled, with long hair and a polite but professional demeanor, the attorney by training rose to national prominence after becoming the first of more than 150 women and girls to publicly accuse USA Olympic gymnastics physician Larry Nassar of sexual abuse.
At the end of the Bible story, Esther has a partial victory: Her people are still condemned but permitted to defend themselves. They were, at least, better equipped for the battle ahead. Up and down SBC’s once-secret list were accounts of abuse, sexual battery, and rape. Some ministers were later charged and pleaded guilty; others were hired as preachers while already registered sex offenders. Reams of gruesome abuses were known, documented, and neatly organized in spreadsheet boxes.
For Brown, at this point, SBC’s sincere repentance will only be measured in action. On Twitter, Brown had renewed a call for a Truth and Justice Commission modeled on the U.S. Justice Department’s probe of Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses. She called upon state attorneys general to launch thorough investigations into sexual abuse, institutional enablement, and maltreatment of survivors by SBC. She’d been lobbying for a federal investigation since at least 2018. In August, SBC’s executive committee announced that the U.S. Department of Justice had initiated an investigation of multiple SBC entities. With such an investigation comes subpoena power and the collection of evidence that can be used by state and local law enforcement. SBC wouldn’t be controlling the process. Brown was grateful. “May justice flow down like waters,” she tweeted.
“I dare to hope that we will, in the end, demonstrate with our actions the sincerity of our appreciation and lament.” —Bart Barber