Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Dow­nen, Lise Olsen and John Tedesco STAFF WRIT­ERS

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 other faiths that in­clude the Catholic Church.

“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. 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 said he was 12 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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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

“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

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 in the Green­s­point area, 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.

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.

‘A known prob­lem’

Wade Burleson, a for­mer pres­i­dent of Ok­la­homa’s South­ern Bap­tist con­ven­tion, says it has long been clear that South­ern Bap­tist churches face a cri­sis. In 2007 and 2018, he asked SBC lead­ers to study sex­ual abuse in churches and bring pre­ven­tion mea­sures to a vote at the SBC’s an­nual meet­ing.

Lead­ers pushed back both times, he said. Some cited lo­cal church au­ton­omy; oth­ers feared law­suits if the re­forms didn’t pre­vent abuse.

Burleson couldn’t help but won­der if there have been “ul­te­rior mo­tives” at play.

“There’s a known prob­lem, but it’s too messy to deal with,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “It’s not that we can’t do it as much as we don’t want to do it. … To me, that’s a prob­lem. You must want to do it, to do it.”

Doyle, the Catholic whistle­blower, was sim­i­larly sus­pi­cious, if more blunt: “I un­der­stand the fear, be­cause it’s go­ing to make the lead­er­ship look bad,” he said. “Well, they are bad, and they should look bad. Be­cause they have ig­nored this is­sue. They have de­mo­nized the vic­tims.”

Sev­eral South­ern Bap­tist lead­ers and their churches have been crit­i­cized for ig­nor­ing the abused or cov­er­ing for al­leged preda­tors, in­clud­ing at Hous­ton’s Sec­ond Bap­tist, where for­mer SBC Pres­i­dent Ed Young has been pas­tor since 1978. Young built the church into one of the largest and most im­por­tant in the SBC; to­day, it counts more than 60,000 mem­bers who at­tend at mul­ti­ple cam­puses.

Be­fore she was mo­lested in the choir room at Sec­ond Bap­tist in 1994, Heather Sch­nei­der filled a black notebook with po­ems. The sev­enth-grader, with long white­blond hair and sparkling green eyes, had be­gun to work as a model. She soon at­tracted at­ten­tion from John Forse, who co­or­di­nated church pageants and pro­grams at Sec­ond Bap­tist.

He also used his po­si­tion to re­cruit girls for pri­vate act­ing les­sons, ac­cord­ing to Har­ris County court doc­u­ments.

A day af­ter she was at­tacked, Sch­nei­der told her mother, Casa­dos, that Forse had touched her in­ap­pro­pri­ately and tried to force her to do “hor­ren­dous things.” Casa­dos called po­lice.

Casa­dos, who was raised a Bap­tist, said she re­ceived a call from Young, who ini­tially of­fered to do what­ever he could to help her daugh­ter. But af­ter she told Young she al­ready had called po­lice, he hung up “and we never heard from him again,” she said in an in­ter­view.

It took months — and the threat of crim­i­nal charges — be­fore Forse left his po­si­tion at the church, ac­cord­ing to state­ments made by Forse’s at­tor­ney at the time and Sch­nei­der’s re­sponses to ques­tions in a re­lated civil law­suit.

In Au­gust 1994, Forse re­ceived de­ferred ad­ju­di­ca­tion and 10 years’ pro­ba­tion af­ter plead­ing no con­test to two counts of in­de­cency with a child by con­tact. He re­mains a reg­is­tered sex of­fender and was later con­victed of a pornog­ra­phy charge. He is listed in the sex of­fender reg­istry in 2019 as tran­sient; he could not be reached for com­ment.

Church of­fi­cials de­clined in­ter­view re­quests. In a state­ment to the Chron­i­cle, Sec­ond Bap­tist said that it takes “al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct or abuse very se­ri­ously and con­stantly strives to pro­vide and main­tain a safe, Chris­tian en­vi­ron­ment for all em­ploy­ees, church mem­bers and guests.”

The church de­clined to re­lease its em­ploy­ment poli­cies but de­scribed Forse as a “short-term con­tract worker” when he was ac­cused of sex abuse. “Af­ter Sec­ond Bap­tist be­came aware of the al­le­ga­tions made against Forse his con­tract was ter­mi­nated,” the state­ment says. “Upon no­ti­fi­ca­tion, Sec­ond Bap­tist Church co­op­er­ated fully with law en­force­ment in this mat­ter.”

Sch­nei­der’s par­ents filed a civil law­suit against the church, Forse and a modeling agency. The case against the church was dis­missed; its lawyers ar­gued that Forse was not act­ing as a church em­ployee. Sec­ond Bap­tist was not part of an even­tual set­tle­ment.

In 1992, be­fore Sch­nei­der was mo­lested, a lawyer for the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion wrote in a court fil­ing that the SBC did not dis­trib­ute in­struc­tions to its mem­ber churches on han­dling sex­ual abuse claims. He said Sec­ond Bap­tist had no writ­ten pro­ce­dures on the topic.

The lawyer, Neil Mar­tin, was writ­ing in re­sponse to a law­suit that ac­cused First Bap­tist Church of Con­roe of con­tin­u­ing to em­ploy Ri­ley Ed­ward Cox Jr. as a youth pas­tor af­ter a fam­ily said that he had mo­lested their child. In a court fil­ing, Cox ad­mit­ted to mo­lest­ing three boys in the late 1980s.

Young, SBC pres­i­dent at the time of the law­suit, was asked to out­line the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s poli­cies on child sex­ual abuse as part of the law­suit. He de­clined to tes­tify, cit­ing “lo­cal church au­ton­omy” and say­ing in an af­fi­davit that he had “no ed­u­ca­tional train­ing in the area of sex­ual abuse or the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of sex­ual abuse claims.”

Young also said he feared tes­ti­fy­ing could jeop­ar­dize his blos­som­ing TV min­istry.

Lead­ers of Sec­ond Bap­tist have been sim­i­larly re­luc­tant to re­lease or dis­cuss their poli­cies on sex­ual abuse in re­sponse to two other civil law­suits re­lated to sex­ual as­sault claims filed in the last five years, court records show. Those suits ac­cuse the church of ig­nor­ing or con­ceal­ing abuses com­mit­ted by youth pas­tor Chad Fos­ter, who was later con­victed.

Another civil law­suit as­serted that Sec­ond Bap­tist helped con­ceal al­leged rapes by Paul Pressler, a for­mer Texas state judge and for­mer SBC vice pres­i­dent. In that suit, brought by a mem­ber of Pressler’s youth group, three other men have said in af­fi­davits that Pressler groped them or tried to pres­sure them into sex. Sec­ond Bap­tist, how­ever, has been dis­missed from the suit, and the plain­tiff’s sex­ual abuse claims against Pressler have been dis­missed be­cause the statute of lim­i­ta­tions had ex­pired.

Pressler has been a prom­i­nent mem­ber of Sec­ond Bap­tist for much of his adult life.

In its state­ment to the Chron­i­cle, Sec­ond Bap­tist said “our pol­icy and prac­tice have been and will con­tinue to be that any com­plaint of sex­ual mis­con­duct will be heard, in­ves­ti­gated and han­dled in a law­ful and ap­pro­pri­ate way. Re­ports of sex­ual abuse are im­me­di­ately re­ported to law en­force­ment of­fi­cials as re­quired by law.”

‘Break her down’

Another de­fen­dant in the law­suit against Pressler: Paige Pat­ter­son, a for­mer SBC pres­i­dent who, with Pressler, pushed the con­ven­tion in the 1980s and 1990s to adopt lit­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the Bi­ble.

In May of last year, Pat­ter­son was ousted as pres­i­dent of South­west­ern Bap­tist The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in Fort Worth af­ter he said he wanted to meet alone with a fe­male stu­dent who said she was raped so he could “break her down,” ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from sem­i­nary trustees.

But his han­dling of sex­ual abuse dates back decades. Sev­eral women have said that Pat­ter­son ig­nored their claims that his ex­pro­tégé, Dar­rell Gil­yard, as­saulted them at Texas churches in the 1980s; some of those al­le­ga­tions were de­tailed in a 1991 Dal­las Morn­ing News ar­ti­cle.

The Gil­yard case both­ered Deb­bie Vasquez. She feared other vic­tims had been ig­nored or left to han­dle their trauma alone.

When Vasquez be­came preg­nant, she said, lead­ers of her church forced her to stand in front of the con­gre­ga­tion and ask for for­give­ness with­out say­ing who had fa­thered the child.

She said church mem­bers were gen­er­ally sup­port­ive but were never told the child was their pas­tor’s. Church lead­er­ship shunned her, asked her to get an abor­tion and, when she said no, threat­ened her and her child, she said. She moved abroad soon af­ter.

Vasquez sued her for­mer pas­tor and his church in 2006. In a de­po­si­tion, the pas­tor, Dale “Dickie” Amyx, ad­mit­ted to hav­ing sex with her when she was a teenager, though he main­tained that it was con­sen­sual. He ac­knowl­edged pa­ter­nity of her child but was never charged with any crime. Amyx was listed as the church’s pas­tor as late as 2016, state Bap­tist records show. He could not be reached for com­ment.

Amyx de­nies that he threat­ened or phys­i­cally as­saulted Vasquez. He and his em­ployer at the time of the law­suit — an SBC church Vasquez never at­tended — ar­gued that Vasquez ex­ag­ger­ated her story in an at­tempt to get pub­lic­ity for her fight for re­forms, court records show.

Amyx wrote an apol­ogy let­ter that Vasquez pro­vided to the news­pa­pers; her law­suit was even­tu­ally dis­missed, but she con­tin­ued press­ing SBC lead­ers, in­clud­ing Pat­ter­son, to act. In one series of emails, she asked Pat­ter­son why lead­ers didn’t in­ter­vene in cases such as Gil­yard’s.

Pat­ter­son re­sponded force­fully, writ­ing in 2008 that he “forced Gil­yard to re­sign his church” and “called pas­tors all over the USA and since that day (Gil­yard) has never preached for any South­ern Bap­tist or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

In fact, Gil­yard preached af­ter his Texas ouster at var­i­ous churches, in­clud­ing Jacksonville’s First Bap­tist Church, which was led by for­mer SBC Pres­i­dent Jerry Vines. It was there that Tif­fany Thig­pen said she met Gil­yard, who she said later “vi­ciously” at­tacked her.

Thig­pen, who was 18 at the time, said that Vines tried to shame her into si­lence af­ter she dis­closed the abuse to him. “How em­bar­rass­ing this will be for you,” she re­called Vines telling her. As far as Thig­pen knows, po­lice were never no­ti­fied.

Gil­yard was con­victed in 2009 of lewd and las­civ­i­ous mo­lesta­tion of two other teenage girls, both un­der 16, while pas­tor­ing a Florida church. He found work at an SBC church af­ter his three-year prison sen­tence, prompt­ing the lo­cal South­ern Bap­tist as­so­ci­a­tion to end its af­fil­i­a­tion.

Nei­ther Vasquez nor Thig­pen has for­given SBC lead­ers for their in­ac­tion.

Vasquez: “They made ex­cuses and did noth­ing.”

Thig­pen said of Vines in a re­cent in­ter­view: “You left this lit­tle sheep to get hurt and then you pro­tected your­self. And I hope when you lay your head on your pil­low you think of ev­ery girl (Gil­yard) hurt and life he ru­ined. And I hope you can’t sleep.”

Pat­ter­son and Vines did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. Heath Lam­bert, now se­nior pas­tor at First Bap­tist in Jacksonville, said in a state­ment that “we de­cry any act of vi­o­lence or abuse.”

‘Lethal’ abuse

De­fen­sive re­sponses from church lead­ers rank among the worst things the abused can en­dure, says Har­vey Rosen­stock, a Hous­ton psy­chi­a­trist who has worked for decades with vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors of clergy sex­ual abuse. They can re­wire a de­vel­op­ing brain to for­ever as­so­ciate faith or au­thor­ity with trauma or be­trayal, he says.

“If some­one is iden­ti­fied as a man of God, then there are no holds barred,” he said. “Your de­fense sys­tem is com­pletely par­a­lyzed. This man is speak­ing with the voice of God. … So a per­son who is not only an au­thor­ity fig­ure, but God’s ser­vant, is telling you this is be­tween us, this is a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship, this has been sanc­tioned by the Lord. That al­lows a young vic­tim to have al­most zero de­fenses. To­tally vul­ner­a­ble.”

Rosen­stock is among a grow­ing num­ber of ex­pert clin­i­cians who ad­vo­cate for changes in statute of lim­i­ta­tions laws in sex­ual abuse cases. They cite decades of neu­ro­science to show that those abused as chil­dren — par­tic­u­larly by cler-

“Well, they are bad, and they should look bad. Be­cause they have ig­nored this is­sue.” — the Rev. Thomas Doyle, an early Catholic whistle­blower who has urged SBC lead­ers to act on sex­ual abuse

gy — can de­velop a sort of Stock­holm syn­drome that pre­vents them for decades from rec­og­niz­ing them­selves as vic­tims.

Such was the case for most of David Pittman’s life.

“Co­caine, heroin, metham­phetamine — what­ever would quiet my mind and di­min­ish what I was feel­ing, be­cause I wanted to be numb,” he said. “I didn’t want to feel any of it.”

An ath­letic child with an in­car­cer­ated father, Pittman said he had dreamed about join­ing the youth group at his church near At­lanta since he was bap­tized there at age 8.

There, he could play any sport he wanted, and at 12 he found in the youth pas­tor a much-sought father fig­ure. The groom­ing started al­most im­me­di­ately, he said: front-seat rides in the youth pas­tor’s Ca­maro; trips to see the Doo­bie Brothers and Kansas in con­cert; and, even­tu­ally, sleep­overs dur­ing which Pittman said he was first mo­lested.

Pittman said the as­saults con­tin­ued un­til he turned 15 and the youth pas­tor qui­etly moved to a new church nearby.

“For the long­est time, I wouldn’t even ad­mit to my­self that it hap­pened,” he said.

Three decades later, in 2006, Pittman learned that his al­leged abuser was work­ing as a youth min­is­ter in Ge­or­gia. Though Ge­or­gia’s statute of lim­i­ta­tions had by then elapsed, Pittman and oth­ers came for­ward with al­le­ga­tions.

Like Pittman, Ray Har­rell grew up with­out a male fig­ure in his life. His father left early, he said, and his mother later “threw her­self ” into the church.

Even­tu­ally the youth min­is­ter started babysitting Har­rell, then a pre­teen. Har­rell still re­mem­bers the min­is­ter’s stuffed mon­key, which was used to “break the ice,” he said.

“This is a youth min­is­ter and the only male in­flu­ence in my life and so I never thought any­thing about it,” Har­rell said in an in­ter­view. “And when the abuse started ... I knew it was wrong, but this is some­body I was sup­posed to be­lieve in, to look up to, who was in the church.”

Pittman reached out to the church’s lead pas­tor and chair­man of the church’s dea­cons.

The dea­con said in an in­ter­view that he con­fronted the youth min­is­ter and “asked him if there had ever been any­thing in his past and he ac­knowl­edged that there had been.” The min­is­ter also told the dea­con that he had got­ten “dis­creet” coun­sel­ing, the dea­con said.

The youth min­is­ter re­signed, af­ter which the dea­con and oth­ers be­gan look­ing through a Mys­pace ac­count that he had while em­ployed at the church. On it, the dea­con found mes­sages “that the po­lice should have,” he said.

The dea­con said he pro­vided the Ge­or­gia State Bap­tist Con­ven­tion with ev­i­dence that the youth min­is­ter should be barred from work­ing in churches.

The youth min­is­ter who Pittman and Har­rell say abused them still works at an SBC church in Ge­or­gia. The church’s lead pas­tor de­clined to say if he was ever made aware of the al­le­ga­tions, though Pittman pro­vided emails that show he reached out to the pas­tor re­peat­edly.

The youth min­is­ter did not re­turn phone calls. Reached by email, he de­clined to be in­ter­viewed. The news­pa­pers are not iden­ti­fy­ing him be­cause he has not been charged.

Anne Marie Miller says she, too, has been de­nied jus­tice. In July, Mark Ader­holt, a for­mer em­ployee of the South Carolina Bap­tist Con­ven­tion and a for­mer mis­sion­ary, was charged in Tar­rant County with sex­u­ally as­sault­ing Miller in the late 1990s, when she was a teenager. Texas elim­i­nated its statute of lim­i­ta­tions for most sex crimes against chil­dren in 2007.

In 2007, Miller told the SBC’s In­ter­na­tional Mis­sion Board about Ader­holt af­ter he was hired there, prompt­ing an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion that of­fi­cials said supported her story. Ader­holt re­signed and worked at SBC churches in Arkansas be­fore mov­ing to South Carolina, where he worked for the state’s Bap­tist con­ven­tion.

Miller, mean­while, was told to “let it go” when she asked mis­sion board of­fi­cials about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“For­give­ness is up to you alone,” gen­eral coun­sel Derek Gaubatz wrote in one 2007 email. “It in­volves a de­ci­sion by you to for­give the other per­son of the wrongs done to you, just as Christ has for­given you.”

Af­ter Ader­holt’s ar­rest, a mis­sion board spokes­woman said it did not no­tify his fu­ture SBC em­ploy­ers about the al­le­ga­tions in 2007 be­cause of lo­cal church au­ton­omy. The board also said that Miller at the time did not want to talk with po­lice. She says that was be­cause she was still trau­ma­tized.

The charges against Ader­holt are pend­ing.

Miller, 38, lives in the Fort Worth area. She says she has re­ceived sup­port from Greear, the new SBC pres­i­dent. But she’s skep­ti­cal that the SBC will act de­ci­sively.

“I was re­ally, re­ally hope­ful that it was a turn­ing point, but I’ve been dis­ap­pointed that there hasn’t been any mean­ing­ful ac­tion other than form­ing com­mit­tees and as­sign­ing bud­gets, which is just good old Bap­tist red tape,” Miller said. “That’s just what you do — you form a com­mit­tee, and you put some money to­wards it and no change ac­tu­ally hap­pens.”

The elec­tion last year of Greear, the 45-year-old pas­tor of The Sum­mit Church in Durham, N.C., was seen as a sig­nal that the SBC was mov­ing away from more rigid con­ser­va­tive lead­ers such as Pat­ter­son. Greear has launched a group that is study­ing sex­ual abuse at the re­quest of Burleson and oth­ers.

Un­like in 2008, Burleson last year di­rected his re­quest for a sex of­fender reg­istry to the Ethics and Re­li­gious Lib­erty Com­mis­sion, which does moral ad­vo­cacy on be­half of the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion. For the first time, the study of his pro­posal has been funded.

But Greear said in an email that he is lim­ited by lo­cal church au­ton­omy.

“Change has to be­gin at the ground level with churches and or­ga­ni­za­tions,” he wrote. “Our churches must start stand­ing to­gether with a com­mit­ment to take this is­sue much more se­ri­ously than ever be­fore.”

Com­ing Tues­day: Preda­tors re­turn to the pul­pit.

This col­lec­tion of mug shots in­cludes many of the 220 people who worked or vol­un­teered in South­ern Bap­tist churches and, since 1998, were con­victed of or pleaded guilty to sex crimes. Our data­base of the con­vic­tions is at hous­tonchron­i­cle.com/abuse­of­faith.

Donna McWil­liam / As­so­ci­ated Press

In this 2007 photo, Deb­bie Vasquez holds a pho­to­graph of her­self at age 14, when she says she was first mo­lested by a pas­tor of her church in Sanger.

Jon Shap­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

Re­port­ing by John Tedesco, Robert Dow­nen and Lise Olsen; Ken El­lis graphic / Staff Source: Hous­ton Chron­i­cle and San An­to­nio Ex­press-News Re­search

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