I’ve written for the Washington Post Magazine more than a dozen times, but I’ve never known it to be all that interested in certain inside baseball aspects of American religious culture. Stories always had to connect with a larger issue –- usually politics -– to get in.
Which is why I was happily surprised to see this recent feature on the corps of bloggers who’ve been going after Protestant churches that have tolerated — if not outright encouraged — sexual and spiritual abuse. And there’s a bunch of them out there and many of these congregations are quite large.
Those of us who are insiders on the beat have known about the Wartburg Watch, the most famous of these blogs, for years.
After an opening anecdote about one whistleblower, the Post continues:
(Recent exposes) are thanks to the Wartburg Watch and Watch Keep, blogs that are part of a larger constellation of “Christian watchdog” outlets. While clergy sex abuse within the Catholic Church has been in the headlines for years, it’s only more recently that abuses within Protestant churches have started to draw mainstream media attention. Much of the credit for this quickening churn goes to a circle of bloggers — dozens of armchair investigative journalists who have been outing abuse, one case and one congregation at a time, for over a decade now, bolstering their posts with court records, police reports, video clips of pastors’ sermons, and emails, often provided to them by survivors.
Most of these bloggers are women; many come from churches that teach women’s submission and deny women’s spiritual authority. “Investigative blogger women started a revolution at their kitchen tables,” says pastor Ashley Easter, who hosts the Courage Conference, a Christian, survivor-focused gathering. They have advocated “for victims of abuse from where they were, where they could find a platform — blogs and social media.”
Recently, a younger cohort of “ex-vangelicals” and online activists have joined the fold, and in late 2017 #ChurchToo started to trend on Twitter. In turn, a wave of secret-smashing tweets blossomed into reported pieces at publications like Mother Jones and the New Yorker. Yet the bloggers who built the foundation for this activist network are known mainly to church abuse survivors and reporters covering these stories. To the rest of the world, their efforts have mostly blended into the joint backgrounds of the clergy sex abuse scandal and #MeToo.
You know what I really liked about this piece? It gave the ‘little people,’ who are so often ignored by their pastors, a vote.
When Dee (founder of the blog) wrote in the comments section of her blog why she decided to work with the Post on the piece, she noted:
What clinched the deal for me is this. Maybe, the next time a victim comes to me and I call a church, they will take my call more seriously. Maybe people like Joe Carter, editor of The Gospel Coalition, will hesitate before calling me pathologically dishonest and listen to what I’m saying,
Personal note: When I came out in 2009 with my book on spiritual abuse by charismatic leaders, Dee was one of the few people to cheer me on. I still have her email.
Back to the main Post piece:
The Wartburg Watch is run by Darlene Parsons, a 65-year-old former home health nurse who goes by “Dee” online; Watch Keep was founded by Amy Smith, a 50-year-old Houston mother of four. Both sites have covered numerous stories of abuse in recent years. Posts on both blogs, for instance, helped a missionary’s wife in Dallas put pressure on her church after she said she was disciplined for requesting an annulment (her then-husband had admitted to watching child pornography and being attracted to children, according to a report Smith obtained from the missionary organization where he worked at the time). And a Pennsylvania minister resigned three months after a woman alleged on the Wartburg Watch that he’d molested and raped her 40 years before, when he was a teenager and the woman was a child. …
Parsons, one of the first watchdog bloggers, isn’t a trained journalist — but she hawkishly covers any credible allegation of church-based abuse she finds. It’s no wonder, then, that a year ago reporters for the Houston Chronicle contacted Parsons and Smith — along with others in the watchdog blog world — for the paper’s joint investigation with the San Antonio Express-News that uncovered 700 sexual abuse victims over a 20-year span in Southern Baptist churches. Much of what Parsons and Smith had to offer had already appeared on their blogs.
These women are doing the jobs that reporters used to do but alas, there being so few religion beat reporters these days, the job of amassing information is left to dissatisfied church members themselves. Which isn’t all bad, as they have access to members-only messages, church Facebook pages, bulletins and of course private phone numbers of other members.
After running into pedophiles at two of the churches she attended, and seeing unsuspecting parishioners not being warned of their presence,
Parsons decided to turn to the Internet. She would start a blog dedicated to exposing hypocrisy in the Protestant church. She called her friend Wanda Martin, who would go by “Deb” on the blog and who’d likewise stood with Wilson. Together, they launched the Wartburg Watch, naming it after Germany’s Wartburg Castle, where, starting in 1521, Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German and hid from Pope Leo X’s condemnation. (Wanda Martin stepped back from the blog last year.) “I assumed no one would read it,” Parsons says. “Of course, no one did read us for a while. But we were getting it all out of our system.”
These are the real people behind the #churchtoo movement and I’m beyond grateful that someone wrote a piece on them for a major publication. Watch Keep, the other blog mentioned in the story, can be found here.
These blogs are flourishing because church leaders do nothing about their messes. The only reason churches — both Protestant and Catholic -– are doing anything about sex abuse is because they will get lawsuits if they don’t.
The fear of God wasn’t enough to motivate them. It took a fear of the American court system.
In most cases, the people involved have approached church leaders about the problems they see, only to be ignored or pushed away or, worst of all, they have their motives questioned. If the aggrieved member dares to talk about their doubts with other members, they are castigated by their leaders for gossiping. It’s a control ploy by pastors and it’s nasty, believe me. One paragraph in the Post story somewhat reflects this.
The lack of survivors of color in the stories the bloggers share is conspicuous. After “slavery and since Jim Crow, black folks have been trying to be seen as respectable by white folks,” says Lyvonne Proverbs, a pastor, poet, incest survivor and blogger who speaks and runs retreats for black Christian women as part of her #WereSurthrivors (survivor + thrivers) platform. She suggests this tendency to protect reputations includes “not airing out one’s ‘dirty laundry’ ” and an impulse among black Christians “to refuse to witness the grotesque in our communities.”
This may be the first article I’ve seen that reflects the power of blogs in American churches. I remember when I was trying to dig up information about Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., and the mess there, it was the SGM survivors blog that was of such help.
After the Post story came out, Julie Anne Smith, another blogger mentioned in the story, commented on her blog that the article gives these female whistleblowers the stature to be taken seriously by their male targets. “When we reach out to church leaders and ask questions,” she wrote, “they will know we mean business.”
(Julie Anne’s travails with her former pastor are detailed in the video atop this blog. After she blogged critically about him, he sued her).
A lot of church leaders I know will probably just retort “Fake news!” and ignore the Post article. Hopeflly a lot of reporters will add these bloggers’ names to their source lists. It’s about time.