A culture of abuse: Must-read investigation on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches

On Sunday’s front page, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published the first part of a major investigative report on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches nationally.

Today’s Page 1 of the Texas newspaper brought Part 2.

Part 3 and Part 4 as well as a helpful explainer on how the Star-Telegram undertook the eight-month probe can be read online.

Bottom line: Investigative reporter Sarah Smith and her colleagues have produced a mammoth piece of journalism filled with infuriating case studies of pastors abusing underage girls and suffering few, if any, consequences.

The chilling, powerful opening of Part 1:

Joy Evans Ryder was 15 years old when she says her church youth director pinned her to his office floor and raped her.

“It’s OK. It’s OK,” he told her. “You don’t have to be afraid of anything.”

He straddled her with his knees, and she looked off into the corner, crying and thinking, “This isn’t how my mom said it was supposed to be.”

The youth director, Dave Hyles, was the son of the charismatic pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, considered at the time the flagship for thousands of loosely affiliated independent fundamental Baptist churches and universities.

At least three other teen girls would accuse Hyles of sexual misconduct, but he never faced charges or even sat for a police interview related to the accusations. When he got in trouble, Hyles was able to simply move on, from one church assignment to the next.

Hyles’ flight to safety has become a well-worn path for ministers in the independent fundamental Baptist movement.

For decades, women and children have faced rampant sexual abuse while worshiping at independent fundamental Baptist churches around the country. The network of churches and schools has often covered up the crimes and helped relocate the offenders, an eight-month Star-Telegram investigation has found.

More than 200 people — current or former church members, across generations — shared their stories of rape, assault, humiliation and fear in churches where male leadership cannot be questioned.

The Star-Telegram took eight months to report this series, titled “Spirit of Fear.” It’s a lot to digest, and I’m still doing so. But I’ll offer a few initial thoughts based on my quick first reading.

First, kudos to the Star-Telegram and Smith for devoting such a huge amount of time and space to this project. It’s important work by a talented, aggressive journalist. We need more like her in this profession.

Already, the “Spirit of Fear” project is drawing praise from many, and rightly so:

• Second, since we deal with the religious nitty-gritty here at GetReligion, I was pleased that the Star-Telegram answered some of my “inside baseball” questions.

For example, I was not familiar with the term “independent fundamental Baptist churches” before hearing about this project. I since have learned that this is not the first media deep dive into this movement, as Religion News Service editor in chief Bob Smietana noted on Twitter:

Concerning the Star-Telegram project, I appreciate that Smith offered some background on the number of these churches nationally and the fact that they are not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention:

Independent fundamental Baptist churches preach separation: Stay separate from the world, separate from non-believers and separate from Christians who do not believe as they do. That includes Southern Baptists, who are deemed by the strict sect as too liberal.

It’s helpful, too, that the Star-Telegram explains the difference between the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and how things work in a “free church” movement such as this one (this block quote is from Part 2):

Decisions in the Catholic Church are made within a hierarchical structure that governs all churches. Independent fundamental Baptist churches operate with no oversight or structure outside their own walls.

One thing does bind the churches that face abuse accusations: a culture that uses fear to control and gives men in power the role of unquestioned and ultimate authority. In that environment, abuse has visited scores of fundamental Baptist churches.

And many abusers have escaped consequence-free, often with the help of the pastor in charge.

Finally, if I might question one aspect of the project, I wonder if the Star-Telegram could have presented a little better context on this movement.

One reader offered this opinion in an email:

There is NO EXCUSE for sexual abuse. Zero, zip, nada. Anyone guilty of same deserves the most severe punishment the law allows. BUT, extreme care should be exercised in saying or suggesting this is endemic to all IFB churches, at least not without some evidence to support that.

The reader asked: Were there no current pastors willing to speak out against the sex abuse that has occurred? Were there no officials with the associated colleges named willing to offer their perspective on the movement’s theology (for example, do they agree with the description of their churches as a “strict sect?”). I believe those are fair questions.

Along the same lines, was there an expert on cults who might have responded to characterizations such as this?:

To understand how this systemic, widespread abuse could happen again and again, some former members say it is necessary to understand the cult-like power of many independent fundamental Baptist churches and the constant pressure not to question pastors — or ever leave the church.

Are these Baptist churches actually a cult? Is it possible for 6,000 independent churches to be characterized that way with such monolithic language? I ask in all sincerity.

As I mentioned, I’m still digesting this remarkable piece of journalism. I welcome pushback to my questions. I also invite other reactions and responses to the series. Please comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

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