The times they are a-changing: Crusading Bloggers Expose Abuse in Protestant Churches

09-06-2019 15:06

Sarah Stankorb reports in the Washington Post:

During the fall of 2017, along with the rest of the country, Jules Woodson watched the Me Too movement play out in the media. As women came forward to expose the predatory behavior they’d survived, the Colorado Springs-based flight attendant reflected on a night in 1998, when Andy Savage, the youth pastor at her local church in her hometown of The Woodlands, Tex., offered her a ride home. At some point, Woodson says, Savage passed the turn to her home and drove down a dirt road, where he reached a dead end and switched off the headlights. He unzipped his jeans and asked Woodson, then 17, to perform oral sex. A few minutes later, she says, Savage jumped from the truck, fell to his knees and told Woodson she must take what happened to the grave.

The next day, terrified and traumatized, Woodson told the church’s assistant pastor what happened; she says he asked if she’d “participated.” While Savage continued as youth pastor — even leading a True Love Waits event encouraging youth to abstain from all physical contact, not just from sex — Woodson sank into shame and a deep depression. Although she retained her faith, she eventually left the church.

Twenty years later, Woodson found Savage’s email and sent him a note with the subject line: “Do you remember?” She asked if he recalled the night he was supposed to drive her home — “and instead drove me to a deserted back road and sexually assaulted me?” She signed off with “#metoo.”

When Woodson Googled his name, along with “sex abuse in church” and “youth pastor sex abuse,” she found a blog dedicated to Christian survivor stories called the Wartburg Watch; there, she read a post about an alleged abuse coverup at a church affiliated with Savage’s current church. About a month later, Woodson submitted her own first-person account about her abuse to the Wartburg Watch and a similar Christian survivor blog called Watch Keep. When the blogs simultaneously published her story, Woodson figured that maybe a hundred people would read it — but by that afternoon, the posts had spread enough that Savage responded with a statement. On the website of the Highpoint Church in Memphis — where he worked at the time — Savage described a regretful “sexual incident with a female high school senior” 20 years prior. For his mea culpa at church that Sunday, Savage’s congregation gave him a standing ovation. Within days, Savage responded to Woodson’s email, saying, in part: “I am genuinely sorry for the pain this has caused you and I ask for your forgiveness.”

Woodson soon found herself at the center of a media storm. The hashtag #JusticeForJules bubbled up on Twitter. On a CNN commentator’s radio show, Savage described the incident as an “organic sexual moment.” The New York Times ran a news story the next week and, two months later, a video piece in which Woodson detailed her story. Eleven days after the video came out, Savage resigned from Highpoint Church, acknowledging that his “relationship” with Woodson was “not only immoral, but meets the definition of abuse of power.” The same day, Savage emailed Woodson to again apologize and to say his initial in-church statement and the church’s response were “defensive and self-serving.” (Savage did not respond to my requests for comment.)

Savage’s ouster was a direct result of Woodson’s posts on 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.

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 believes her post had something to do with his resignation, as the minister’s attorney reached out with a letter demanding she stop writing about the man. She was unfazed: “I knew I didn’t do anything wrong, so I wasn’t worried about it,” she told me.

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.

Parsons runs the Wartburg Watch from the kitchen of her brick Colonial outside Raleigh, N.C. Online, she’s forceful and fearless, tagging celebrity pastors, churches and Christian publications alike; her Twitter profile photo is the Church Lady, Dana Carvey’s famously prim, purse-lipped and piously judge-y “Saturday Night Live” character. Parsons is nervous to meet a reporter in person, she admits, offering me a plate of cookies while her three rescue pugs skitter across the tile floor. It’s hard to fathom that this suburban mom of three, with her tidy cardigan and sensible bob, is the same person online haters have called “the Wartburg witch,” a “feminist heretic,” an “e-pharisee” and a “minion of Satin [sic].”

In 2006, leaders at Parsons’s former church, Providence Baptist, called in Parsons and other parents for a meeting. A seminary student and church volunteer who led a youth Bible study, Brian “Doug” Goodrich, had been found with a child in a local park. That child, it seemed, was not the only suspected victim. “We’re so sorry there were some boys who were harmed,” Parsons says she recalls the church leaders saying; she also remembers them saying they hadn’t received any prior reports of wrongdoing and that, “if you have any information, let us know. The police are involved.” The church leaders asked the parents not to talk among themselves to figure out which boys had been victims, to protect their privacy. (Parsons’s son had soccer practice during Goodrich’s Bible study and wasn’t part of the core group of boys who regularly interacted with Goodrich.)

A few weeks later, a friend and fellow congregant, Janet Wilson, told Parsons her elder son was one of the boys involved. Parsons was afraid to talk about it, since the parents had been instructed not to; besides, she trusted the matter was being well handled by law enforcement and the church.

In 2007, Goodrich was convicted on 10 charges of statutory sex offense, indecent liberties and first-degree sex exploitation, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Wilson was understandably distressed during the investigation, and after the conviction she stopped by Parsons’s house, wracked with guilt. Wilson wished she’d done more, she told Parsons, because the church leaders had known about Goodrich before the 2006 incident. In 2005, Wilson says that she and her husband had described incidents with Goodrich to two youth pastors. Goodrich had exposed himself to a group of boys, including Wilson’s eldest son, at church camp, Wilson told Parsons, and encouraged them to reciprocate.

At the time, Wilson had been too embarrassed to tell anyone else about the flashing, or about the conversation with the youth pastors in which she and her husband reported Goodrich’s behavior. But Wilson knew her son was not the only boy hurt by Goodrich’s abuse. “My kids were okay,” she told Parsons that day, “but I feel terrible that these other boys have been harmed.” Wilson told me, “I felt guilty because the church knew about it. They didn’t feel guilty, but I did.”

Parsons was appalled — and decided to do something about it. She, Wilson and a few church friends wrote a letter to the church elders reminding them of the earlier incident. She expected the pastors would say they’d made a horrible mistake. When they didn’t, and the church instead began an internal investigation, Parsons and her group wrote another letter to the entire congregation. Fed up, Parsons and her cardiologist husband, Bill, left Providence Baptist to join another church.

(Goodrich’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. Brian Frost, senior pastor at Providence Baptist, confirmed that the church’s internal investigation was motivated by Parsons’s group letter, and said church policies have since changed: Now, any report or allegation of abuse by an employee or volunteer triggers a leave of duty until an investigation is completed, and all allegations of abuse must be reported to police.)

During their second week at the new church, Parsons says, she saw a man she knew to be a convicted pedophile. (His wife used to teach at her kids’ school, so news of the man’s conviction had circulated among the parents.) “I thought God was playing a joke,” she says. Two churches, two convicted sex offenders. She remembers thinking, “God, this is really not funny.”

Parsons decided to turn to the Internet. . .

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Before the internet, there was no way for these stories to get out save very limited word of mouth.