In-Depth

Report: More Sexual Abuse Uncovered In Southern Baptist Churches, Includes Missionaries

Find out what several survivors told News 88.7 about their experiences, the mishandling of their cases and the need for reform in the Southern Baptist Convention.

This collection of mug shots includes a portion of the 220 people who, since 1998, worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches and were convicted of or pleaded guilty to sex crimes.
This collection of mug shots includes a portion of the 220 people who, since 1998, worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches and were convicted of or pleaded guilty to sex crimes.

Earlier this year, a joint investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News revealed widespread sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches in Texas and around the country. Now, the Chronicle’s found that abuse wasn’t limited to the United States. It also included missionaries who were supposed to spread the gospel, but instead sexually assaulted others — many of them children and teenagers.

The Chronicle’s investigation details the trail of five predatory missionaries who served in places like Taiwan, Malawi and Indonesia and left behind at least 24 victims.

The paper found the International Mission Board (IMB) — the world’s largest sponsor of Protestant missions — followed a common pattern: It repeatedly kept reports quiet, didn’t alert the public and often delayed or took no action against accused missionaries. The board’s current policy calls for zero tolerance of child abuse and asks for people to report it. The IMB told the paper that it’s committed to a “rigorous examination” of its policies and procedures.

The latest findings add to the growing sexual abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The decentralized network has no investigative powers and doesn’t always receive complaints from local churches. It has yet to create a database of known predators, despite survivors calling for that reform for over a decade.

Reformers will attend the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Alabama, this week and will press leaders for more action. Chronicle reporters John Tedesco and Lise Olsen talked with Houston Matters about what to expect. Some proposals on the table include:

  • Create a new committee that would more efficiently handle cases where churches knowingly harbor predators or registered sex offenders. That committee would examine the cases and if needed, “disfellowship” the church from the SBC.

Other findings in the Chronicle’s latest investigation include:

  • More predators who’ve contributed to the sexual abuse crisis in Baptist churches. The paper has updated their database with about 40 more Baptist sex offenders. These are preachers, employees or volunteers who’ve pleaded guilty or were convicted of sex crimes. It brings the total to over 260.
  • More cases of Southern Baptist churches that since the 1990’s have hired accused sexual predators or let them continue to serve in their roles. Earlier, the paper found at least 10 churches that have harbored sex offenders. They’ve now increased that number to at least 30, including churches in Austin and San Antonio that have allowed known sex offenders to keep preaching despite their past. As a result, the San Antonio church has been ejected from the SBC.

  • More than 350 people have contacted the paper since its initial investigation with tips or stories of their own abuse. Some survivors spoke out for the first time. With their help, the Chronicle has raised the number of those credibly accused to more than 400 Baptist leaders.
Dee Miller served as a Southern Baptist missionary in Malawi. She confronted the mission board about alleged sexual assault by a fellow missionary and says she was ignored.

Read below what several survivors told News 88.7 about their experiences, the mishandling of their cases and the need for reform in the Southern Baptist Convention.

AFRICA

Dee Ann Miller is a nurse and former missionary. She told News 88.7 that she was assaulted by a fellow missionary in Africa in 1984. She described the cover-up and other complaints in her book, How Little We Knew.

“I did not know if the others would stand with me. But I felt like that if there were other victims, that we would be able to stand together and that our superiors would send him back to the United States. It didn’t work out that way. What actually began operating is what I would later call ‘D.I.M. Thinking.’ It’s denial, ignorance and minimization … (Abuse by missionaries) is so hidden that I don’t think anyone can really say how big a problem it is. But I believe that the mishandling of these cases is the bigger problem … No system is equipped to police itself. None. If they don’t have policies and procedures, it’s hopeless. But even if they do, there is a bias that’s built into the system.”

TAIWAN

In 1984, as a teenager, Harriet Sugg told a pastor at her Taiwan boarding school that a Baptist missionary molested her as a child. Decades later, when Sugg, now a teacher in Florida, searched the Chronicle’s database of Baptist predator preachers, she didn’t find her abuser, Walter Dildy. The boarding school where she studied and where he worked sent him back to the States. But he settled in Texas and worked at a church in Houston. He died recently. After reporting the abuse, Sugg saw a counselor for one session as a teenager.

“The fact that they believed me and they fired him was pretty huge. I think that my mission board and my school did the best job that they could do with the knowledge that they had. Of course, now looking back, I think that further action probably should have been taken. But I really feel that they didn’t know what should have been done … There’s got to be a way that they (the IMB) could up their game with profiling candidates, background checks, that sort of thing … And in retrospect, I would think, man, if kids today report abuse, I would pray that someone would get them into counseling and keep them in counseling and follow up. Because that was the only counseling I had, was that one session.”

TEXAS

Christa Brown says she was sexually abused as a teenager at her Southern Baptist church in Texas by her youth minister. Years later, she realized her abuser was still serving in Baptist ministry. She said she contacted 18 Baptist leaders in four states — including Texas — with no support. Her abuser didn’t leave the ministry until after she filed a lawsuit and her story received media attention. For over a decade, Brown has advocated for reform in the Southern Baptist Convention to prevent sexual abuse and has served with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, as the group’s Baptist coordinator. 

“The pattern just keeps repeating itself. It’s the same old story year after year after year — for decades. These decades of horrific abuse-enabling institutional patterns that do not change. And, yes, you know, they say nice things. They say nice words. I mean, we’ve seen these words over and over again. They promise that they’ll pledge to do better, that they’ll establish strong policies, yada, yada, yada. But nothing really changes in reality. So, it is all talk and it is not true action — at least not yet. And we don’t see any outreach — I certainly haven’t seen it — on the missionary front for what about all those children in all the place where those missionaries were working in the mission field? And the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, it purports now once again to have had an investigation. And even now, after all this, after all this media, after all this publicity, we don’t really see that they are engaging this problem with transparency.”

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Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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