20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reforms
First of three parts
Thirty-five years later, Debbie Vasquez’s voice trembled as she described her trauma to a group of Southern Baptist leaders.
She was 14, she said, when she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, a tiny prairie town an hour north of Dallas. It was the first of many assaults that Vasquez said destroyed her teenage years and, at 18, left her pregnant by the Southern Baptist pastor, a married man more than a dozen years older.
In June 2008, she paid her way to Indianapolis, where she and others asked leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 churches to track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers. Vasquez, by then in her 40s, implored them to consider prevention policies like those adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.
In this 2007 file photo, Debbie Vasquez holds a photo of herself at age 14, when she says she was first molested by the pastor of her church in Sanger, about one hour north of Dallas. (Donna McWilliam/Associated Press)
“Listen to what God has to say,” she said, according to audio of the meeting, which she recorded. “… All that evil needs is for good to do nothing. … Please help me and others that will be hurt.”
Days later, Southern Baptist leaders rejected nearly every proposed reform.
The abusers haven’t stopped. They’ve hurt hundreds more.
In the decade since Vasquez’s appeal for help, more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals.
It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.
They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.
About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.
Nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, Calif., to Hillsborough County, Fla., state and federal records show. Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.
Journalists in the two newsrooms spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews. They built a database of former leaders in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted of sex crimes.
HOW WE DID THIS STORY:
In 2007, victims of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist pastors requested creation of a registry containing the names of current and former leaders of Southern Baptist churches who had been convicted of sex crimes or who had been credibly accused. That didn’t happen; the last time any such list was made public was by the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It contained the names of eight sex criminals.
In 2018, as advocates again pressed SBC officials for such a registry, Houston Chronicle reporters began to search news archives, websites and databases nationwide to compile an archive of allegations of sexual abuse, sexual assault and other serious misconduct involving Southern Baptist pastors and other church officials. We found complaints made against hundreds of pastors, church officials and volunteers at Southern Baptist churches nationwide.
We focused our search on the 10 years preceding the victims’ first call for a registry and on the 10-plus years since. And we concentrated on individuals who had a documented connection to a church listed in an SBC directory published by a state or national association.
We verified details in hundreds of accounts of abuse by examining federal and state court databases, prison records and official documents from more than 20 states and by searching sex offender registries nationwide. In Texas, we visited more than a dozen county courthouses. We interviewed district attorneys and police in more than 40 Texas counties. We filed dozens of public records requests in Texas and nationwide.
Ultimately, we compiled information on 380 credibly accused officials in Southern Baptist churches, including pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers and volunteers.
We verified that about 220 had been convicted of sex crimes or received deferred prosecutions in plea deals and sent letters to all of them soliciting their responses to summaries we compiled. We received written responses from more than 30 and interviewed three in Texas prisons. Of the 220, more than 90 remain in prison and another 100 are still registered sex offenders.
Find our records that relate to those convicted or forced to register as sex offenders at HoustonChronicle.com/
The investigation reveals that:
• At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.
• Several past presidents and prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are among those criticized by victims for concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their own churches or seminaries.
• Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit. Others remain there, including a Houston preacher who sexually assaulted a teenager and now is the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations, federal records show. Its name: Touching the Future Today Inc.
• Many of the victims were adolescents who were molested, sent explicit photos or texts, exposed to pornography, photographed nude, or repeatedly raped by youth pastors. Some victims as young as 3 were molested or raped inside pastors’ studies and Sunday school classrooms. A few were adults — women and men who sought pastoral guidance and instead say they were seduced or sexually assaulted.
Heather Schneider was 14 when she was molested in a choir room at Houston’s Second Baptist Church, according to criminal and civil court records. Her mother, Gwen Casados, said church leaders waited months to fire the attacker, who later pleaded no contest. In response to her lawsuit, church leaders also denied responsibility.
Schneider slit her wrists the day after that attack in 1994, Casados said. She survived, but she died 14 years later from a drug overdose that her mother blames on the trauma.
“I never got her back,” Casados said.
Others took decades to come forward, and only after their lives had unraveled. David Pittman was 12, he says, when a youth minister from his Georgia church first molested him in 1981. Two other former members of the man’s churches said in interviews that they also were abused by him. But by the time Pittman spoke out in 2006, it was too late to press criminal charges.
The minister still works at an SBC church.
Pittman won’t soon forgive those who have offered prayers but taken no action. He only recently stopped hating God.
“That is the greatest tragedy of all,” he said. “So many people’s faith is murdered. I mean, their faith is slaughtered by these predators.”
August “Augie” Boto, interim president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, helped draft the rejection of reform proposals in 2008. In an interview, he expressed “sorrow” about some of the newspapers’ findings but said the convention’s leadership can do only so much to stop sexual abuses.
“It would be sorrow if it were 200 or 600” cases, Boto said. “Sorrow. What we’re talking about is criminal. The fact that criminal activity occurs in a church context is always the basis of grief. But it’s going to happen. And that statement does not mean that we must be resigned to it.”
‘A porous sieve’
At the core of Southern Baptist doctrine is local church autonomy, the idea that each church is independent and self-governing. It’s one of the main reasons that Boto said most of the proposals a decade ago were viewed as flawed by the executive committee because the committee doesn’t have the authority to force churches to report sexual abuse to a central registry.
Because of that, Boto said, the committee “realized that lifting up a model that could not be enforced was an exercise in futility,” and so instead drafted a report that “accepted the existence of the problem rather than attempting to define its magnitude.”
Q&A: Investigation into sexual abuse ‘shining the light of day upon crime,’ Southern Baptist leader says
SBC churches and organizations share resources and materials, and together they fund missionary trips and seminaries. Most pastors are ordained locally after they’ve convinced a small group of church elders that they’ve been called to service by God. There is no central database that tracks ordinations, or sexual abuse convictions or allegations.
All of that makes Southern Baptist churches highly susceptible to predators, says Christa Brown, an activist who wrote a book about being molested as a child by a pastor at her SBC church in Farmer’s Branch, a Dallas suburb.
“It’s a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he’s been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister,” said Brown, who lives in Colorado. “Then he can infiltrate the entirety of the SBC, move from church to church, from state to state, go to bigger churches and more prominent churches where he has more influence and power, and it all starts in some small church.
“It’s a porous sieve of a denomination.”
To try to measure the problem, the newspapers collected and cross-checked news reports, prison records, court records, sex offender registries and other documents. Reporters also conducted hundreds of interviews with victims, church leaders, investigators and offenders.
‘So many people’s faith is murdered. I mean, their faith is slaughtered by these predators.’
– David Pittman, who says he was molested by his youth minister
Several factors make it likely that the abuse is even more widespread than can be documented: Victims of sexual assault come forward at a low rate; many cases in churches are handled internally; and many Southern Baptist churches are in rural communities where media coverage is sparse.
EXPLAINER: What is the Southern Baptist Convention?
It’s clear, however, that SBC leaders have long been aware of the problem. Bowing to pressure from activists, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, one of the largest SBC state organizations, in 2007 published a list of eight sex offenders who had served in Southern Baptist churches in Texas.
Around the same time, the Rev. Thomas Doyle wrote to SBC leaders, imploring them to act. A priest and former high-ranking lawyer for the Catholic Church, Doyle in the 1980s was one of the earliest to blow the whistle on child sexual abuse in the church. But Catholic leaders “lied about it … covered it up and ignored the victims,” said Doyle, now retired and living in northern Virginia.
Doyle turned to activism because of his experiences, work that brought him closer to those abused in Southern Baptist churches. Their stories — and how the SBC handled them — felt hauntingly familiar, he said.
“I saw the same type of behavior going on with the Southern Baptists,” he said.
The responses were predictable, Doyle said. In one, Frank Page, then the SBC president, wrote that they were “taking this issue seriously” but that local church autonomy presented “serious limitations.” In March, Page resigned as president and CEO of the SBC’s Executive Committee for “a morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past,” according to the executive committee.
Details have not been disclosed, but SBC officials said they had “no reason to suspect any legal impropriety.” Page declined to be interviewed.
Other leaders have acknowledged that Baptist churches are troubled by predators but that they could not interfere in local church affairs. Even so, the SBC has ended its affiliation with at least four churches in the past 10 years for affirming or endorsing homosexual behavior. The SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches.
In one email to Debbie Vasquez, Augie Boto assured her that “no Baptist I know of is pretending that ‘the problem does not exist.’”
“There is no question that some Southern Baptist ministers have done criminal things, including sexual abuse of children,” he wrote in a May 2007 email. “It is a sad and tragic truth. Hopefully, the harm emanating from such occurrences will cause the local churches to be more aggressively vigilant.”
Gwen Casados sits in her daughter’s room in Houston. Her daughter, Heather Schneider, was sexually abused inside Second Baptist Church in Houston in 1994 and later died of a drug overdose. (Jon Shapley/Staff Photographer | Houston Chronicle)
Offenders return to preach
The SBC Executive Committee also wrote in 2008 that it “would certainly be justified” to end affiliations with churches that “intentionally employed a known sexual offender or knowingly placed one in a position of leadership over children or other vulnerable participants in its ministries.”
Current SBC President J.D. Greear reaffirmed that stance in an email to the Chronicle, writing that any church that “proves a pattern of sinful neglect — regarding abuse or any other matter — should absolutely be removed from fellowship from the broader denomination.”
“The Bible calls for pastors to be people of integrity, known for their self-control and kindness,” Greear wrote. “A convicted sex offender would certainly not meet those qualifications. Churches that ignore that are out of line with both Scripture and Baptist principles of cooperation.”
SEARCH OUR DATABASE: We found 220 Southern Baptist church officials who were convicted or pleaded guilty
But the newspapers found at least 10 SBC churches that welcomed pastors, ministers and volunteers since 1998 who had previously faced charges of sexual misconduct. In some cases, they were registered sex offenders.
In Illinois, Leslie Mason returned to the pulpit a few years after he was convicted in 2003 on two counts of criminal sexual assault. Mason had been a rising star in local Southern Baptist circles until the charges were publicized by Michael Leathers, who was then editor of the state’s Baptist newspaper.
Letters from angry readers poured in. Among those upset by Leathers’ decision to publish the story was Glenn Akins, the interim executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.
“To have singled Les out in such a sensationalistic manner ignores many others who have done the same thing,” Akins wrote in a memo, a copy of which Leathers provided. “You could have asked nearly any staff member and gotten the names of several other prominent churches where the same sort of sexual misconduct has occurred recently in our state.”
Akins, now the assistant executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, declined an interview request.
Leathers resigned after state Baptist convention leaders told him he might be fired and lose his severance pay, he said. Mason, meanwhile, admitted to investigators that he had relationships with four different girls, records show.
Mason received a seven-year prison sentence under a plea deal in which investigators dropped all but two of his charges. After his release, he returned to the pulpit of a different SBC church a few miles away.
“That just appalled me,” Leathers said. “They had to have known they put a convicted sex offender behind the pulpit. … If a church calls a woman to pastor their church, there are a lot of Southern Baptist organizations that, sadly, would disassociate with them immediately. Why wouldn’t they do the same for convicted sex offenders?”
Mason has since preached at multiple SBC churches in central Illinois. He said in an interview that those churches “absolutely know about my past,” and said churches and other institutions need “to be better at handling” sexual abuse.
Mason said that “nobody is above reproach in all things” and that church leaders — particularly those who work with children — “desperately need accountability.”
In Houston, Michael Lee Jones started a Southern Baptist church, Cathedral of Faith, after his 1998 conviction for having sex with a teenage female congregant at a different SBC church nearby. Jones, also leader of a nonprofit called Touching the Future Today, was included on the list of convicted ministers released by the Baptist General Convention of Texas a decade ago.
Dr. Joe Ratliff, the pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church, is pictured in this 2013 file photo. Brentwood has been sued numerous times by members alleging sexual misconduct by ministers, including by a man who says he was groped by Ratliff. (Houston Chronicle file)
In December, Cathedral of Faith celebrated its 20th anniversary at a downtown Houston hotel, according to the church’s website. A flyer for the event touted sermons from Jones, another pastor and Joseph S. Ratliff, the longtime pastor of Houston’s Brentwood Baptist Church.
Ratliff was sued in 2003 for sexual misconduct with a man he was counseling. The lawsuit was settled and dismissed by agreement of the parties, according to Harris County court records and interviews. The settlement is subject to a confidentiality agreement. Ratliff has been sued two other times, one involving another person who had come in for counseling; the other involved his handling of allegations against another church official, Harris County records show. The disposition of those two cases was not available.
Jones, Ratliff and Ratliff’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
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SOURCE: The Houston Chronicle, Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, and John Tedesco