An investigation has uncovered hundreds of abuse allegations against leaders of a conservative, loosely affiliated network of evangelical Christian churches.
The report, published by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Sunday, identified 412 abuse allegations in 187 independent fundamental Baptist (IFB) churches and institutions across 40 states and Canada, with some cases reaching as far back as the 1970s.
The Star-Telegram spoke to more than 200 current or former IFB church members who shared stories about “rape, assault, humiliation and fear.” Many of the stories have already been made public through criminal cases, lawsuits and news reports. However, the newspaper said its reporters uncovered 21 new abuse allegations in the course of its eight-month investigation.
In total, the newspaper said it found that 168 IFB church leaders were accused or have been convicted of sexually abusing children.
Some of the women interviewed suggested that the patriarchal theology preached in IFB churches protects its male pastors from criticism and helps create a pattern of abuse and cover-up.
Interviewees told the Star-Telegram that pastors in IFB churches were treated as if they were chosen by God and beyond reproach. Abusers used their power and position to psychologically manipulate and silence their victims, the women said. And often, even when victims spoke up, the accused pastors would manage to avoid criminal charges and use informal pastoral networks to relocate to another church.
Stacey Shiflett, an independent fundamental Baptist pastor and abuse victim from Maryland, said it’s been the “M.O.” in fundamentalist churches for pastors to sweep abuse allegations under the rug.
“The one that does the abuse is the one that always comes out the other side smelling like a rose and goes down the road to another church, so he can do it again to somebody else,” Shiflett said in a YouTube video from May, which is cited in the report.
About 2.5 percent of American adults identify as independent fundamental Baptists, according to the Pew Research Center ― a higher percentage than those who identify as Episcopalians, Presbyterians or members of the Assemblies of God.
The most well-known independent fundamental Baptists are likely the Duggars, who starred on TLC’s reality show “19 Kids and Counting.” The show was canceled in 2015 after the network learned that eldest son Josh Duggar had been accused of sexually abusing girls, including four of his sisters, and that his parents had kept the abuse hidden.
America’s estimated 6,000 IFB churches can be part of loosely tied fellowships or pastors’ networks. There are also shared children’s camps, conferences and church-affiliated colleges. However, IFB churches don’t have the hierarchical denominational structures that unite more mainstream evangelical groups, like the Southern Baptist Convention.
Ashley Easter, an abuse survivor and advocate who grew up in IFB churches, told HuffPost that she believes the independent nature of the churches has played a role in leaders’ ability to cover up abuse.
“This makes it easy for churches to pass off abusive pastors and missionaries to other churches in their network or to blacklist survivors,” Easter said.
At the same time, when scandals come to light, IFB churches can distance themselves from others in the denomination “so they themselves are not scrutinized,” Easter said.
While practices can vary from church to church, independent fundamental Baptists do share some core beliefs, according to Christianity Today: that the Bible is the divinely inspired and inerrant word of God, for example, and that people should use only the King James Version of the text. Independent fundamental Baptists refrain from engaging in pop culture and many also home-school their kids.
Easter said that patriarchy is a “core tenant” of IFB theology that plays into its “culture of abuse.” Women in independent fundamental Baptist churches are expected to adhere to strict standards of modesty ― and clothing that deviates from this expectation is often pointed to as the reason for a man’s inappropriate behavior, Easter said.
“Women are always placed in positions of submission under men, making them more vulnerable to abuse,” she said. “Women’s voices are often dismissed when they come forward about abuse, while ‘God’s man’ is deemed untouchable.”
In this solidly conservative setting, independent Baptists often look to their pastors as authority figures. Pastors in IFB churches are deeply involved in congregants’ lives ― helping people decide whom to date and whether to take a new job, for example.
Sarah Jackson, a 29-year-old from Maryland, wrote about the level of trust congregants placed in pastors in a Facebook post in May.
″I was raised in a way where you respect your elders and your leaders. Your Pastor in the Baptist faith, is pretty much right under God. You trust him. With everything,” Jackson wrote. “You go to him for guidance, advice, and wisdom. He is someone you can [count] on when your parents aren’t around, right? Someone you ( as a child ) idolize for lack of a better word.”
In that post, Jackson accused a prominent IFB pastor of sexually assaulting her during her senior year of high school, claiming the pastor used his church position to manipulate her.
“I have kept quiet for 12 years because I am not a spiteful person,” Jackson wrote. “This kills me to type. I cared about him. But I also cared for my innocence which was ripped from me by someone I was supposed to trust.”
One of the pastors most frequently cited in the Star-Telegram’s investigation was Dave Hyles, son of the influential late pastor Jack Hyles, who in the 1970s and 1980s led one of the largest IFB churches in the country, in Hammond, Indiana. At least four women have accused Hyles of sexual abusing them when they were teenagers. He has never faced charges. The Star-Telegram claims that whenever Hyles got in trouble, he was able to relocate to a different church.
The Star-Telegram claims that alumni of church-affiliated colleges use those informal networks to help abusers find new churches.
HuffPost has reached out to Hyles, who now runs Fallen in Grace, a ministry that offers counseling to pastors and lay Christians dealing with moral failures. The ministry is part of Family Baptist Church in Columbia, Tennessee.
Lisa Meister, one of the women interviewed by the Star-Telegram, claimed that when she told church leaders in the 1980s that a youth pastor had sexually abused her, the church had both her and the alleged abuser appear in front of the congregation to repent their sins. Then the youth pastor was sent to another church.
“It made me very distrustful of men,” Meister said. “It made me very distrustful of the pastor.”