How Churches Have Buried a Devastating Legacy of Clergy Sexual Abuse and the Movement Pushing to End the Cycle

"When the truth came to light, it was Emily who had been censured by her peers in the youth group, punished by her parents and generally ostracized from the cult of good reputation at her local megachurch. The last years of her teens were spent keeping to herself on the outskirts of the church and — thankfully for the world — writing a lot of angry poetry," Paasch wrote in December.

"She told me of other victims who had suffered at the youth leader's hands. Their names would echo through my head at the most inopportune moments: in the middle of chapel, in systematic theology class."

Responding to questions from CP, she said what she has learnt from the #ChurchToo campaign has been "a case of my worst suspicions being confirmed. I've been hearing the stories for years, but to see them unfolding on such a widespread scale, it's sobering, to say the least."

The American church, particularly evangelicals, she said, need to understand that sexual misconduct is a big problem with leaders in the church too.

"As a person of faith, it seemed important to create a space that was specific to the church, that called out the American evangelical church specifically because I know how evangelicals love to think that widespread societal ills somehow don't apply to them, because Jesus," she said.

The space created for survivors by the #ChurchToo campaign has broken the silence on the issue in churches.

Emily Joy
Emily Joy, co-founder of the #ChurchToo campaign. |

"The biggest impact of the movement, in my opinion, has been connecting other survivors with each other. The evangelical church does a good job of hushing up instances of abuse within its walls, so Twitter has actually given us the tools to make space for survivors to share their stories and to meet one another. It's been beautiful to watch," Paasch said.

While she isn't a big fan of church sexual abuse victims seeking justice through the legal system because very few cases actually go to trial, Paasch said she would love to see more awareness about sexual misconduct in churches.

"I am encouraging victims to do what is best in their particular situation. Given the number of sexual assault cases that actually end up going to trial, I don't personally have much faith in the legal system. I would prefer to see more awareness around abusers within the church so that congregants can know who to protect themselves against. But again, I want survivors to pursue whatever forms of justice seem right to them," she advised.

Criminalizing clergy sexual misconduct

In a 2011 Baylor report, Sexual Misconduct of Clergypersons With Congregants or Parishioners – Civil and Criminal Liabilities and Responsibilities, Garland explains that while most states uniformly criminalize sexual misconduct between clergy and minors, only 13 states and the District of Columbia have penal statutes that support the criminal prosecution of clergypersons engaged in sexual misconduct with congregants or parishioners in at least some circumstances.

These statutes, have been enacted by Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. Of these 13 jurisdictions, only two, Texas and Arkansas are said to have language that is designed to criminalize such conduct by clergypersons outside of the counseling context. The report argues that statutes that do go beyond the counseling context and focus more on the positional authority of clergy in sexual misconduct cases are less susceptible to legal challenges.

In Michigan, Sen. Rick Jones recently proposed a bill, says Nicole Hayden of The Times Herald, to restrict clergy members from having sexual contact with congregation members when Pastor Mitch Olson of Grace Ministry Center faced no criminal charges last summer after he was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman during an unorthodox anointing.

"As a law enforcement officer with 31 years of experience I have seen the victims of sexual assault and I know it can be a life-changing, horrific event," Jones told The Times Herald. "We want to do everything possible to stop this from happening and I think certainly since the current law that restricts doctors, psychologists and mental health professionals from having sexual contact with patients, it is very appropriate to have the same law in place for clergy that are counseling their parishioners."

As more of these laws get enacted, explained Campbell who advises churches in crisis, the human resources teams of churches need to ensure that they are fully aware of what the liabilities are for churches when issues of sexual misconduct arise.

"One of the things that churches don't do is they don't have proper HR training. Somehow they think that because they are working for God they don't have to follow the laws of the state," Campbell said.

"There are people who are sick, really sexually sick and need to go to jail and be taken out of the population," she said, while noting that there are others who "with counseling can get help and then there are people who are just not aware of modern propriety."

Jordan Baird's lesson

Jordan Baird, Nick Jonas
Jordan Baird (R) performs with Nick Jonas. |

David Baird, senior pastor of The Life Church in Manassas, Virginia, understands all too well how effective the law can be when a congregant who has suffered clergy sexual misconduct decides to use it. And he is hoping his son, Jordan Baird, has learned his lesson.

"I've not been able to see Jordan since he was incarcerated. And I've talked with him a couple times but not to this degree," the mourning father told CP just days after Jordan was convicted of five counts of taking indecent liberties with a minor related to the abuse of an underage girl at his church.

"I think we are all devastated at what he's having to go through but I just pray that whatever lesson he needs to learn [he learns it]. God has been gracious to give him the opportunity to rebuild his life later and he just needs to learn every lesson he can and deal with any problem that he would have."

Jordan, a 26-year-old pop singer who once served as The Life Church's worship pastor, was convicted earlier this month after his arrest in the summer of 2016. Detectives say Baird sent inappropriate text messages and inappropriately touched a 16-year-old female multiple times between January and September 2015. The contact allegedly took place at the church. 

He could have received a sentence of up to 10 years in prison for his conviction but was only given five months.

"It's been horrific," his father, David Baird, said. "It's something I never thought I would ever face. I've been in full-time ministry for 41 years and I've pastored for 33 years and I never thought I would face anything like this with my own family."

Despite the devastation being experienced by his family, Pastor Baird agreed that it's time for the church to be open about sexual misconduct in their midst.

"It's been horrific but yet through it all I think we've just learned that openness and transparency and vulnerability wins because it's close to the heart of God," he said.

He admitted that had the police not gotten involved, his church would not have known about the criminal elements of Jordan's behavior.

"For us, the tough issue was Jordan claimed innocence to any of the criminal activity. ... When we first heard from the victim through her parents there were no criminal accusations but by the time the police got involved and the arrests took place, obviously they were criminal allegations," he said.

After that, said David Baird, he decided to accept the outcome of the case as the will of God.

"When I said a year ago, my family, I couldn't speak for the church here, but for me and my family, we would accept the outcome of the verdict as the will of God, that was very important to me and the teaching I've done to my leaders," he said. "At some point in time, we have to trust some authority to be a delegated authority from God. And in this case, it couldn't be the church leaders. It became a criminal matter and so we trusted the outcome. As much as I am in mourning with the outcome as a father and as a pastor, I felt like I had to accept it. And our leaders have felt like they had to accept this verdict as the will of God."

When asked what plans he had for Jordan at the end of his five-month sentence, David Baird expressed more concern for creating a safe church.

"That's not even been addressed yet. We've been more concerned at this point with making sure that something like this could never happen again under our watch and making sure that our church has in place everything that every parent and every child needs to be in a safe environment.

"We've examined all our safety procedures and made sure that they are taught. The procedures have always been in place but just making sure that they become important to all volunteers and staff that serve. I think the other thing is to just continue to call awareness to the fact that these kinds of things happen in churches and there is a right way to respond and there is a wrong way to respond. We need to all be committed to the right way."

Free CP Newsletters

Join over 250,000 others to get the top stories curated daily, plus special offers!


Most Popular

More In Church & Ministries