Pastor-centered, independent fundamental Baptists feel abuse scandal

Fundamentalist Baptists are facing their own sex abuse crisis, propelled by their churches’ pastor-centered model of leadership, according to an in-depth report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (December 9). The eight-month investigation by the newspaper found that “For decades, women and children have faced rampant sexual abuse while worshipping at independent fundamental Baptist churches around the country. The network of churches and schools has often covered up the crimes and helped relocate the offenders…” The paper uncovered at least 412 accusations of sexual misconduct in 187 independent fundamental Baptist churches and their affiliated institutions, spanning 40 states and Canada. One infamous case is that of Dave Hyles, son of Jack Hyles, founder of the flagship First Baptist Church of Hammond, Ind., who has faced numerous allegations of molestation and rape but never been criminally charged. The report found that 168 church leaders were accused or convicted of sexual abuse against children, with at least 45 of the alleged abusers remaining in ministry after allegations had surfaced. While there is no official count of independent fundamental Baptist churches, an online directory compiled by a pastor in Maine lists more than 6,000 of these congregations in the U.S., as well as churches in countries such as Nicaragua and Germany.

Although they operate independently, these Baptist churches are often linked through church-affiliated colleges (often founded by prominent pastors), such as Hyles-Anderson College, Golden State Baptist College, and Bob Jones University. Reporter Sarah Smith writes that pastors use their connections in this informal network to help abusers find new churches. She found that many of the churches identified in the investigation were clustered in the Southeast and Midwest, with the most being in North Carolina (17) and Ohio (12). A common thread in the allegations against these pastors is that they operated with little oversight and with an authoritarian style that allowed little questioning of their leadership. Many of the churches, which were among the fastest growing congregations in the 1970s and ’80s, are separatist in nature, having left the Southern Baptist Convention not only for its supposed liberalism but also because of denominational oversight as they openly challenged Baptist traditions such as pastoral accountability to deacons. Smith adds that sexual abuse survivors from these churches have started Out of the Shadows, an online support group.

(Fort Worth Star-Telegram,