Seventeen years ago, two teenagers approached a Southern Baptist church in Indiana with allegations that their youth pastor had used his position of authority to sexually abuse them.
Megan Frey and Jo Anna Hendrickson claim that back then, the church’s leader tried to sweep the reports under the rug. The 18-year-olds were allegedly blamed for getting “duped,” their families were pressured to keep quiet, and the accused pastor, Wes Feltner, went on to establish a solid career in ministry.
Over the past few days, fearing that yet another Southern Baptist church is refusing to heed their warnings about the pastor, the women have started speaking up again.
But this time, they’re bringing with them the strength of the #ChurchToo movement, which seeks to raise awareness about abuse in Christian communities. And they are hoping that by going public, they’ll help create change in the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination.
Hendrickson, who is part of a Southern Baptist church in Evansville, Indiana, told HuffPost she’s speaking out to educate the denomination about the nature of pastoral abuse and to make sure that no one else will experience what she did.
“This not just about Megan and I, or Wes Feltner,” Hendrickson said. “This is about a big problem in our churches and it has been a problem for way too long.”
The Southern Baptist Convention has made addressing sexual abuse a top priority after it was rattled by multiple scandals in recent years. In September, the SBC organized a high-profile conference meant to give churches advice on how to prevent abuse and support survivors.
Feltner, who received his master’s in divinity from a Southern Baptist seminary, is currently lead pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Minnesota, which is not an SBC church. The allegations against him resurfaced after he became a top candidate for a senior pastor position at a Southern Baptist church in Tennessee, First Baptist Church of Clarksville.
Feltner told HuffPost he believes he is facing a concerted effort from a small group of people who want to prevent him from working in ministry.
“They accuse me of ‘pastoral abuse’ based on events that occurred 17 years ago when I was a single young man working as youth leader in a church in Indiana. They have widely circulated statements of two women whom I dated with the permission of their parents when they were 18 years old,” Feltner told HuffPost.
He said he and his family have been facing a “withering barrage of online attacks and personal threats,” and that he would respond to the women’s allegations after his current church wraps up an investigation into the matter.
“I agree with some of the facts alleged in the statements and deeply regret the hurt I may have caused them. But some of the allegations are not accurate,” he said.
Frey and Hendrickson allege that the abuse occurred in 2002, when they were both 18 years old and attending First Southern Baptist Church in Evansville, Indiana, where Feltner was a youth pastor. Both say they initially approached Feltner for counseling after going through bad breakups with former boyfriends. Both also claim they were emotionally manipulated by the pastor and that he asked them to keep the encounters a secret from their church.
Frey claims the counseling sessions soon transformed into meetings with Feltner at his house, then shared bubble baths, sex and a trip to Las Vegas. Sexual contact with the pastor began while Frey was still in high school, she says.
Hendrickson alleges that Feltner initiated a physical relationship with her in the fall of 2002, while he was also pursuing Frey. She says Feltner told her “he felt God leading him to pursue me” because she was also interested in ministry.
“The physical side of our relationship progressed quickly, but did not involve sexual intercourse,” Hendrickson told HuffPost. “When I expressed my concerns to Wes Feltner about how quickly things were moving physically, and not [publicly] with our relationship, he would dismiss it, and defend his actions by saying this was who he is.”
Both women said that their respective parents were aware of their relationships, but trusted Feltner with their daughters since he was a pastor.
Things came to a head at a church youth retreat in the winter of 2002, when another youth leader discovered that Feltner was pursuing relationships with the two teens. The situation was brought to church leadership, who the women said “simply dismissed it all,” blamed the teens and pressured them to keep silent.
HuffPost has reached out to First Southern Baptist Church for comment, as well as the current church of its pastor at the time.
The Minnesota church where Feltner currently works, Berean Baptist Church, announced a third-party investigation into the allegations on Wednesday. When reached by HuffPost, the church’s elder board declined to name the experts who are conducting the review or to say if Feltner is being removed from his position while the investigation is underway.
The Tennessee church where Feltner is currently seeking a job, First Baptist Church of Clarksville, did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment. Frey and Hendrickson have criticized the leader of that church’s pastor search committee for calling them “adversaries” and appearing dismissive of their complaints.
After hearing about the women’s allegations, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary suspended Feltner from a position as adjunct professor.
Hendrickson said she was “grateful” for the responses from Berean and from SBTS, but that First Baptist Church of Clarksville’s response has been “lackluster and alarmingly dismissive.” Its approach toward the allegations is part of why she chose to speak up publicly, she said.
“Megan and I had given statements, pictures, and dates to the pastor search committee, but they were still choosing to move forward,” she said. “I couldn’t just keep quiet about something that could hurt so many.”
Frey and Hendrickson believe that Feltner should not be in a position of authority or leadership over any congregation.
Abuse survivors and advocates have been speaking up online over the past few days in support of the women. Even though Frey and Hendrickson were legally adults at the time they allege the abuse took place, Feltner’s advances were still wrong, according to Amy Smith, a blogger and longtime advocate for sexual abuse survivors.
Smith pointed out that in 13 U.S. states, it is a crime for clergy to have sexual contact with people they are counseling. One of those states is Minnesota, where Feltner’s current church is located. (Indiana and Nevada don’t appear to have such a law on the books.)
Smith said that Feltner violated his position of trust as a youth pastor when he “preyed” upon teens in his care. She believes he “disqualified himself” from ministry back then and should have been banned from the pulpit ever since.
“A sexual relationship between a pastor and congregant, even adults, is never consensual given the imbalance of power,” Smith told HuffPost. “It is a violation of authority, trust and power, preying upon vulnerable people.”
Looking back, Frey said she believes that Feltner’s career in ministry continued this long because of a lack of accountability structures in the SBC.
The SBC views itself as a network of Baptist congregations, each of which is independent and self-governing. Abuse survivors and advocates say that this doctrine of autonomy has thwarted their attempts to fight sexual abuse in SBC churches, such as through the creation of a denominationwide sex offender database.
“Accountability was needed here, but lacking,” Frey said of her case. “This clearly paints a picture for necessity of a stronger structure and laws for abuse cases within the SBC.”
“After all, at the core of the issue is a human being — no matter the setting, no matter the age,” she added. “Abuse is abuse.”
This article has been updated with Hendrickson’s correction of a dropped word in her original statement, clarifying that her relationship with Feltner did not involve sexual intercourse.