Sex abuse in Protestant life: Is Rachael Denhollander the tip of a newsworthy iceberg?

When former gymnast Rachael Denhollander stood up in court at the end of January and stunned the country with her speech to her abuser, Larry Nasser, she was a media star. Here she was the first woman to publicly accuse Nasser and the last -- after a long string of some of America’s best-known gymnasts -- to tell him what she thought of his years of criminal sexual contact.

As my GetReligion colleague Bobby Ross reported, her speech was notable for many reasons. She talked about God’s forgiveness, tossed in a C.S. Lewis quote near the end, then added that she lost her church over the matter.

That's news. Only Christianity Today really went after what happened and named the organization: Sovereign Grace Ministries, whose flagship church -– Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. –- got hit with a sexual abuse lawsuit. Sovereign Grace Ministries issued a rebuttal on Feb. 13. 

Sadly, no reporters are pursuing what Denhollander is alleging: That Sovereign Grace Ministries is really the tip of the iceberg and that sexual abuse of the young in Protestant churches may dwarf the horrors exposed, starting 16 years ago, in the U.S. Catholic Church.

Blogger Warren Throckmorton is going after the story and has posted more from Denhollander’s Facebook page about the issue. And I want to cut and paste a few of her remarks, because it speaks to what reporters are not getting about this issue. She says.

This call does not rise from a sort of Javert-like obsession with SGC, but from the knowledge that evangelical churches are plagued with serious problems related to how we respond to and counsel victims of sexual assault. In fact, experts have stated that both the amount of abuse, and the failure to report it, is likely worse than in the Roman Catholic Church – a religious organization often used by evangelicals as a byword for sexual assault scandals.

The italics are mine. For those of you who’ve read any religion reporting in the past decade and one-half, including many posts on the blog, the story of sex abuse in the Catholic Church has gone on for many years and still continues. So, how does one process the claim that what has happened among Protestants may have been worse?

The one publication (that I’m aware of) that’s done anything on this is this piece that appeared in the New Republic last June. Titled “The Silence of the Lambs” by Kathryn Joyce, it centered on a sex abuse scandal among missionaries for the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism serving in Bangladesh. It is a horrifying story.

But Joyce said the ramifications go way beyond this group to something else:

Over the past five years, in fact, it has become increasingly clear -- even to some conservative Christians -- that fundamentalist churches face a widespread epidemic of sexual abuse and institutional denial that could ultimately involve more victims than the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church. In 2012, an investigation at Bob Jones University, known as the “fortress of fundamentalism,” revealed that the school had systematically covered up allegations of sexual assault and counseled victims to forgive their attackers. Sovereign Grace, a network of “neo-Calvinist” churches, has been facing multiple allegations of child molestation and sexual abuse. In 2014, a New Republic investigation found that school officials at Patrick Henry College, a popular destination for Christian homeschoolers, had routinely responded to rape and harassment claims by treating perpetrators with impunity, discouraging women from going to the police, and blaming them for dressing immodestly.

After naming four evangelical Protestant men, including Institute of Basic Conflicts founder Bill Gothard, who were mired in sex abuse accusations, there was:

This burgeoning crisis of abuse has received far less attention than the well-documented scandal that rocked the Catholic Church. That’s in part because the evangelical and fundamentalist world, unlike the Catholic hierarchy, is diverse and fractious, composed of thousands of far-flung denominations, ministries, parachurch groups, and missions like ABWE. Among Christian evangelicals, there is no central church authority to investigate, punish, or reform. Groups like ABWE answer only to themselves.
The scale of potential abuse is huge. Evangelical Protestants far outnumber Catholics in the United States, with more than 280,000 churches, religious schools, and affiliated organizations. In 2007, the three leading insurance companies that provide coverage for the majority of Protestant institutions said they received an average of 260 reports per year of child sexual abuse at the hands of church leaders and members. By contrast, the Catholic Church was reporting 228 “credible accusations” per year.

Want to know where to start on reporting on this behemoth?

Begin with getting to know Boz Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham and the founder of an organization that investigates sex abuse in evangelical Protestant churches, who was interviewed by vice.com. The article said, in part:

VICE: How big of a problem is child sexual abuse for Protestant churches?
Basyle "Boz" Tchividjian: It's hard to answer that with any degree of certainty, because the research out there is pretty minimal. If you accept the general statistic that one in four women and one in six men will have been sexually victimized before they turn 18, then you have to acknowledge that those same people are inside of our churches and faith communities. So if you had 100 men and 100 women in your church, 20.5 percent of your church would be survivors of child sexual abuse.

As he said, “research out there is pretty minimal.”

One of the best investigative reporting groups out there, ProPublica, has no one researching religion. Why is that? I haven’t seen any religion pieces in Investigate West, a more local (to me) investigative powerhouse. In fact, if there are any investigative dollars aimed toward religion topics by a reputed journalistic group, I don’t know of it. (I stand corrected if anyone can name one -- perhaps in our comments pages).

To paraphrase “The X Files,” the story is out there.

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