Christa Brown in her home against a white wall.
Photo: Trent Davis Bailey

The Southern Baptist Church Ignored Its Abuse Crisis. She Exposed It.

For decades, Christa Brown documented cases of sexual abuse within the world’s largest Baptist denomination—including her own.

Christa Brown describes her girlhood self as a “goody-two-shoes nerd.” She sang in the church choir and played piano. She adored God with the “wholehearted, unlimited love” of a child. 

She felt cool riding with other church kids in her Baptist youth pastor’s ‘66 Mustang. The pastor, Tommy Gilmore, was then in his late twenties. According to Brown, when he played flag football with her, he kept ending up on top of her, pinning her face-down to the ground. He lingered there. When the youth group played Twister, he played too, pressing his body against hers. When she wore high heels for the first time at 15, Gilmore told her how he loved what heels did for a woman’s legs. 


Brown trusted him. She confided family secrets to Gilmore, and as he began to counsel her regularly, he started to drop her off last after youth events. Alone together in his car, he told her sex was a gift from God. 

As Brown details in her book, This Little Light, Gilmore soon admitted to a growing obsession with kissing her. She refused. He was like an uncle or older brother to her. She’d never been on a date or held hands with anyone. He kept asking until she relented. Soon, he was touching her and telling her he loved her—that God had preordained her to be his helpmeet (a Biblical term interpreted as “helpful companion”). Gilmore was married and said men in the Bible often had multiple wives or concubines. 

“It’s God’s will,” he told her.

She’d been taught to be submissive, to defer to male pastoral authority.

Four photographs laid out on a wood table showing Christa Brown as a younger person.

Photographs of Christa Brown.

Later, she remembered lying very still on a bed, the bruises he left on her breasts. His rages when she cut her hair without asking him, wore perfume, or his irritation if she removed her retainer before seeing him—he wanted to watch her take it out.

(Gilmore did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

When he was angry, Brown said, he called her “Satan’s ally.” One time he tried to get her to drink beer—she didn’t want to because it was against their religion. He was so angered that he later called her to his pastoral office and had her kneel as he stood over her, where, Brown said, he was “beseeching God to cast Satan from me and to cleanse my soul.” 


She was terrified.

Finally, Brown broke down crying one day at a piano lesson with the church’s music minister. Gilmore had convinced her she was harboring Satan, after all. She confessed to the music minister that she’d had “an affair” with the youth pastor. The music minister asked for details.

A few weeks later, it was announced from the pulpit that Gilmore was moving to another Baptist church. He would enjoy a larger salary and head all the children’s programs at his new church.

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.     


Brown was below the age of consent in Texas when her youth minister abused her—and regardless of a victim’s age, the Texas Legislature defines a sexual assault as nonconsensual when it involves a clergyman “exploiting the other person's emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman's professional character as spiritual adviser.” In 2004, after connecting with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Brown reported the abuse to her childhood church, Gilmore’s subsequent church, and other officials within Texas Southern Baptist leadership. 

A tattered Bible with Christa's name letter-pressed into the cover.

Christa Brown's Bible.

The church responded with a letter, now published on her website, which noted that one person’s memories might be materially different from another’s and that Brown may have suffered for reasons “not attributable to Mr. Gilmore or the church.” It threatened to seek “recourse” if she pursued the matter.  So Brown, herself an attorney, collaborated with another lawyer to seek reconciliation with the church outside of court—asking, for example, for them to create a meditation garden with a marker for sexual abuse victims and to cover costs for victims' counseling. 

In those early negotiations, Brown found out that Gilmore was still working in children’s ministry in Florida—then she made another shocking discovery, hiding in plain sight. Right there on the website of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the state’s Baptist governing body noted that it kept a confidential file of clergy who had confessed, been convicted of sexual abuse, or about whom there was “substantial evidence that the abuse took place.” But the names on that list were being kept secret. If BGCT was in fact keeping a statewide list of abusers, why wasn’t that information being shared with future churches where those abusers might go on to work? 


In 2006, Brown published an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News, calling on the BGCT to make its file of Texas clergy offenders public. Her logic was plain: “Sexual abuse by a trusted religious leader has a soul-murdering impact.” The way forward was shining a light on the church’s darkness. 

“Sexual abuse by a trusted religious leader has a soul-murdering impact.” —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. 


Almost as soon as Brown began advocating for a national SBC database of abusers, some SBC leaders pushed back against her efforts. In 2006, D. August “Augie” Boto wrote to Brown in his capacity as then-vice president of convention policy, saying that “continued discourse between us will not be productive or fruitful.” (Boto could not be reached for comment.) The following year, while Brown was advocating for an independent review board to SBC’s bylaws work group, she recounted what it was like to discover that the man she said had molested and raped her as a teen was still working as a Southern Baptist children’s minister. One executive committee member turned his back while she spoke, and another one chortled. She was the only woman in the room. 

In refusing to create a public record of pastors accused of abuse, SBC officials regularly cited church autonomy as a reason the larger church body cannot intervene in individual church decisions. But that has not, for example, historically stopped state conventions or local associations from booting churches for being LGBTQ-affirming or ordaining women pastors. Even today, on the denomination’s website SBC claims no “centralized ecclesiastical authority” to force churches into compliance. 


And in fact, SBC’s outside counsel, James Guenther, did propose a plan where SBC’s website could link to a database of people convicted of sexual misconduct or with a civil judgment against them. In another memo Guenther sent Boto, labeled “Very Very Confidential,” Guenther suggested assessing BGCT’s database model. Boto did not respond; he didn’t think the executive committee could make judgments about who to put on the list and doing so could create a risk of liability or false accusations. (Guenther did not respond to requests for comment.)

Meanwhile, Brown poured herself into documenting cases. She ultimately gathered 170 names of credibly accused abusers. She also absorbed the brunt of SBC’s vicious backlash against survivors demanding reform. Another sex abuse survivor noted that in private emails, Paige Patterson, a former SBC president, characterized SNAP advocates (which would include Brown, SNAP’s Baptist director) as “evil doers who have slandered others,” and “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.”

Christa Brown holding a photograph of her younger self.

Christa Brown holds a photograph of her younger self.

Patterson, reached through his attorney, says he “never was likening persons who have been abused sexually to ‘evildoers,’” but rather those who "slandered others"—publishing false statements against innocent people. Brown received anonymous threats including an unnerving package containing a self-described “deadly serious” 23-page diatribe referencing her website. The long rant showed up in a brown package on her doorstep—it was all the more chilling because she had just moved, and the anonymous mailer had already located her.


For 17 years, she demanded SBC maintain a public database of credibly accused abusers, all the while updating her Stop Baptist Predators website as survivors continued to contact her. By 2013, she also began calling for a truth and reconciliation commission

Using just her legal expertise, a Blogspot website, and a Twitter account, she was fighting an institution—spanning all SBC entities, the executive committee, and its historic library—with what was then a $1.2 billion operating budget.

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.) 


The next day, in shock, Woodson marched from school directly to church and told an assistant pastor what Savage had done. Woodson remembers how, in short order, Savage was given a farewell party and moved to a new church. The youth group had been Woodson’s life, but as rumors spread that she and Savage may have kissed, she was treated as a Jezebel. Feeling abandoned and ashamed, Woodson sank into depression and backed away from church. “Nobody came beside me and said, ‘Are you OK?’” she recalled.

“Nobody came beside me and said, ‘Are you OK?’” —Jules Woodson

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


While she was embraced by other survivors, including Brown, other Christians called her a “slut” and posted her home address online. Woodson was shocked when her story triggered a cascade of interview requests and articles in major news outlets including the Washington Post and CNN. 

Two days after Woodson’s post went live, at Highpoint Church, Savage addressed the accusation, apologized, and called the assault some 20 years prior a regretful “sexual incident with a female high school senior.” His congregation gave him a standing ovation. News about a pastor applauded for confession to sexual abuse with a minor astonished some, but among advocates, it was nothing new. By the next year, Savage was starting a new church.

Christa Brown stands behind a glass window.

Christa Brown at home.

“Here is where hope resides. Right here,” Brown began from a music stand functioning as a makeshift podium, addressing a crowd of about 100 people “It is not over there with those religious leaders. No. It’s here with you.”

It was 2019, and more than 8,000 Southern Baptists had flooded into Birmingham, Alabama for the annual SBC meeting. Woodson, Brown, and other organizers had been denied a request for a small space inside the convention hall to hold a rally for survivors. Their best option was a permit from the city for a loud, sweltering space next to a bus stop and a dumpster outside. 


Still, Brown marveled at how far they had come—at their 2007 rally, there had only been ten of them. The rally’s name, For Such A Time As This, was derived from the biblical book of Esther, in which the eponymous heroine begins as a passive, beautiful virgin swept into the harem of the Persian king. Later, as queen, she must choose between remaining silent about her (until then) secret Jewish identity and risking her position and life to protect her people. As the story goes, she may well have been placed in the position to make that choice, “for such a time as this.” 

“I can call it evil because I know what goodness is.”

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.


Inside the convention hall for the annual meeting, arguably SBC’s largest press event each year, was a conspicuous display of grief over abuse. It was framed as a reckoning, and dozens of abuse victims stood to pray. Then-SBC president J.D. Greear said he’d spent the better part of the year hearing from almost 100 sexual abuse survivors and months fighting for reform. Standing before the annual meeting, Greear was moved to tears.

At her makeshift podium outside, Brown repeated her demand for a comprehensive database of Baptist clergy sex abusers. “How many more kids will it take?” she repeated, with her hand clenched in a fist. Behind her, a woman held a sign that read, “I can call it evil because I know what goodness is.”

But after the public shame from the “Abuse of Faith” articles died down, those shows of tangible reform were rapidly squelched. Greear had proposed, as due diligence, investigating ten churches included in the “Abuse of Faith” series, among them at least three that had employed youth pastors who were convicted sex offenders. But within days, at a time Greear was out of town, the executive committee’s work group swiftly cleared seven of those ten churches.

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. 


She gave a startlingly measured victim impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing, offering her perpetrator her forgiveness. She wished for him “the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God.”

After the Nassar hearing, Christian news sources latched onto Denhollader. And she immediately leveraged her growing platform to call out prior allegations of systemic abuse within SBC-affiliated Sovereign Grace Church in an interview with Christianity Today. (She also happened to be a victim, at age 7, of childhood sexual abuse at church.) On a conference stage provided by SBC, she spoke up in support of Jennifer Lyell, a former executive at SBC’s publishing arm who had written an account of sexual abuse and violence committed against her by a former Southern Baptist seminary professor. SBC’s Baptist Press had erroneously reworded Lyell’s story as a “morally inappropriate relationship.” Following the misrepresentation, Lyell was called a “whore,” physically threatened, and lost her job. (In February 2022, SBC’s executive committee released an apology acknowledging “its failure to adequately listen, protect, and care for Jennifer Lyell when she came forward.”) 


Despite Denhollander’s brazenness, SBC, which was in a public relations crisis of its own making, continued inviting her to SBC public events on sex abuse. She became a unique bridge between a resistant institution and survivors who had been shunned from it. While unwelcomed advocates, like Brown and Woodson, organized online for reforms, Denhollander tried to galvanize change within the SBC. Championing abuse survivors always came at a cost.

In 2021, news outlets obtained leaks of SBC letters and audio recordings. One published by Religion News Service detailed how an SBC executive faced “vicious guerrilla tactics” from other SBC leaders when he spoke up about sexual abuse. Another letter revealed by the Washington Post described how SBC executive committee members stonewalled efforts to address sexual abuse and that leaders used Biblical analogies such as “Potiphar’s wife” (famous for having lied about an attempted rape) to describe sexual abuse survivors. The letter further claimed executive committee staff and leaders also called victims “crazy.” 


In a 2019 email, Boto, then SBC’s general counsel, characterized “this whole thing” as “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.” Eventually, in the spring of 2022, SBC’s executive committee released a statement rejecting Boto’s sentiment entirely. 

There were, of course, messengers (the name for SBC voting delegates) and pastors who were horrified by the abuse crisis. In the leadup to SBC’s 2021 annual meeting, Denhollander and Brown consulted two such pastors as they developed motions requiring an outside audit of sexual abuse within SBC and the formation of a task force to oversee a third-party investigation of abuse mishandling between 2000 and 2021. With votes looming, SBC’s executive committee announced it would hire Guidepost Solutions, specializing in internal investigations, to conduct a review. In essence, the executive committee would be overseeing the group it proposed to investigate the executive committee itself.

A binder containing the independent investigation and Christa's post-it markers.

Christa Brown's copy of the independent investigation.

Within days, Woodson had organized a letter, signed and distributed to messengers at the 2021 annual meeting by a group of survivors, demanding that the executive committee waive attorney-client privilege so that Guidepost Solutions could review its documents. The maneuvers worked. The vast majority of delegates voted to support an independent review culminating in a public report and that the executive committee must waive attorney-client privilege.


On May 22, 2022, the Guidepost Solutions report was set to be released. In the wee hours of the morning before it went out, Brown posted a short video of herself singing along to a Tom Petty song. Wearing a black turtleneck and gazing straight into the camera, she intoned, “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”

The report included stories that were well known to Brown by then; in that way, the dreadful scope was not a surprise. According to repeated quotes throughout the Guidepost Solutions report, SBC’s central concern had been avoiding legal liability: That was the justification SBC lawyers had used to argue against managing a database of abusers or investigating too closely whether churches wanting to affiliate with SBC were negligent on the issue of sex abuse. But there was a notable revelation: All the years Brown had stood her ground, demanding a denomination-wide list of credibly accused abusers and while leaders had smeared and waved off Brown, Boto’s staffer had secretly kept just such a list spanning back to roughly 1960. 

It was a gut punch, but Brown could not rest. She immediately began demanding the list be made public. 


This time, SBC relented quickly and released its internal list within days on its website.

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.

Christa Brown standing outside with trees in the backdrop

Christa Brown in her yard.

Brown saw Tommy Gilmore’s name alongside the four other SBC ministerial and staff roles he held across three states after leaving her childhood church. Woodson read Savage’s name with the note, “since the statute of limitations had expired, no charges would be filed.” 

The list contained more than 700 cases of credible accusations. There was the principal of a Baptist school who pleaded guilty to crossing state lines with the intent of having sex with an 11-year-old. The Baptist youth pastor who pleaded guilty to rape, gross sexual imposition, and kidnapping a 12-year-old girl. The pastor who abused more than a dozen boys. Throughout the list, children were itemized by age, clustered in groups of known victims in little blurbs—the totality shrouded from the public eye for years. 

After Guidepost Solutions’ report, SBC’s Sex Abuse Task Force issued a list of recommendations to be voted upon at SBC’s 2022 annual meeting in Anaheim, including the creation of a database listing credibly accused SBC pastors, employees, and volunteers; an independent abuse task force to study the feasibility of implementing best practices for sex abuse reform; and an independent third-party for appeals if a church is unable or unwilling to help. 

Denhollander, who advised the Sex Abuse Task Force on their recommendations, and Woodson were cautiously optimistic about the proposed reforms. But Brown was disappointed that survivors would have to report their abuse first to the church and that the sex abuse task force was “creating a task force to study the study.” And she could not stomach traveling to Anaheim to witness SBC leaders preaching lamentation, a church brought low over its leaders’ failures. She didn’t see, in person, when an overwhelming majority of believers raised their yellow ballots demanding the starter reforms.

SBC’s approach has shifted, even if its most important bylaws concerning church autonomy have not. Gene Benson, SBC’s special counsel today, states that “Mrs. Brown’s abuse is well documented and uncontroverted. We grieve her abuse and the inadequacy of the response Mrs. Brown has received at every level of Southern Baptist life.” Still, he maintains that due to SBC’s constitution, had SBC known about her abuse at the time and even now, the Convention cannot “and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist Body.” SBC will not impose authority over its churches, even in case of child sex abuse.

Reached for comment via email, SBC president Bart Barber noted that messengers had voted overwhelmingly to acknowledge the irreparable harm caused by the institutional response to abuse. SBC publicly voiced appreciation for the advocacy of survivors. Yet SBC has not yet won the trust of survivors like Brown, “and with good reason,” Barber wrote. “We have spoken more as of yet about what we will do than we have completed any of our tasks… I dare to hope that we will, in the end, demonstrate with our actions the sincerity of our appreciation and lament.”

“I dare to hope that we will, in the end, demonstrate with our actions the sincerity of our appreciation and lament.” —Bart Barber

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. 

Christa Brown looking away from the camera in her yard.

Christa Brown in her yard.

But the fight wasn’t over. In October—then in November and December—she counted the months since Guidepost Solutions’ report without “an effort to make amends to those harmed” or hold the named pastors accountable. “The SBC clergy we know about were initially ‘outed’” by the media or justice system, she wrote me recently. Considering the Catholic Church’s method a low bar, she notes that at least that denomination now has a process in place for determining the credibility of accusations and has released the names of 6,770 credibly accused clergy—not just those convicted or confessed. 

In a Twitter exchange with Brown, SBC’s president, Barber, asked for patience. He’d appointed a task force to build a resource to do just this. It would be “disastrous” if it were rushed out, crashed, or could be hacked. 

But Brown has been put off, told to wait, too many times. She shot back, asking when there would be consequences and accountability for SBC’s executive committee members. That could be done immediately without bumping against church autonomy or requiring database development or any other issue she can only see now as excuses. She remains relentless.

Somewhere inside Brown is that faithful, scared girl she once was. She was raised in a church that taught girls to submit to men, defer, and silence themselves. But she was also taught sacrifice and grace, good over evil. Those deeper, foundational lessons kept demanding that Brown break her silence until the church was willing to fight its darkness. In such circumstances, a clarion voice can serve as prayer and its answer.

Follow Sarah Stankorb on her website.