National Public Radio - NPR [Washington DC]
June 2, 2022
By Terry Gross
In 2019, Houston Chronicle journalist Robert Downen helped break the story about sexual abuse within the SBC. That led the church to commission its own independent study, which suggested a coverup.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. A sexual abuse scandal has shaken up the Southern Baptist Church. A report issued just over a week ago confirmed that survivors who came forward alleging they were sexually abused by church leaders, ministers, workers and volunteers were ignored or silenced by church leadership and often disparaged. Meanwhile, the church kept a secret list of over 700 offenders. The list was even kept secret from most of the church’s leaders. This new report was commissioned by the Southern Baptist Convention in response to a series of articles investigating widespread sexual abuse in the church.
The series titled “Abuse Of Faith” was published in 2019 after a six-month investigation by a team of reporters from the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, a team headed by John Tedesco and my guest Robert Downen, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. The reporters found that hundreds of Southern Baptist Convention church leaders and volunteers had been criminally charged with sex crimes since 2000. The series also detailed numerous incidents in which denominational leaders mishandled, ignored or concealed warnings that Southern Baptist churches were being targeted by predators.
Robert Downen, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your reporting. Let’s start with the finding of the independent report commissioned by the Southern Baptist Convention, the report that was the result of your investigative series, along with a team of reporters. So there was a secret list that was compiled for the church dating back to 2007. Would you describe this secret list of abusers that was kept by the church?
ROBERT DOWNEN: So this was a list that was commissioned at the behest of a top SBC leader and one of their longtime lawyers. And basically, what it did is it compiled Google Alerts and other news stories about criminal charges. And since 2007, that list had grown to more than 700 names. Most of them were confirmed as Southern Baptist affiliated. And a handful of them at the time of the report last week were still working in churches, including in other denominations.
GROSS: Well, what was the point of the list if suddenly people on it were still working in churches?
DOWNEN: We still don’t have exact rationale for why it was being kept, other than that it was being kept by the same people who were pushing back on those exact reforms publicly.
GROSS: So what kind of people were on this list – ministers, church leaders?
DOWNEN: It includes everyone from church volunteers to ministers to pastors, anyone who was credibly accused of sex offenses. And that includes mostly criminal charges, but a handful of, you know, confessions or civil suits with credible settlements attached to them. And we found in our analysis at least 75 of those 700 had worked in Texas, which was twice as many as the next biggest state, which was Florida, and that, you know, dozens of those names had repeat offenses in numerous states, which, again, kind of speaks to the broader issue at hand with the database.
GROSS: This list was compiled at the request of Augie Boto, who is the former Southern Baptist Convention general counsel. Why was their general counsel requesting this list, do you know?
DOWNEN: From what we know from last week’s reports, there were internal deliberations between the top SBC lawyers about the – both practicality of that list in preventing the abuse, but also what it would or would not do to the SBC’s liability in lawsuits. And from what we know from that report, lawsuit liability was for decades a central focus amongst this small group of SBC leaders who were really dictating what the SBC could or could not do. The reason that lawyers factored so heavily into that report is because the SBC’s executive committee has kind of just deferred to this small group of leaders for decades now. I mean, one of the lawyers named in the report had been serving the SBC since, I believe, the mid-1960s. And so – for so long, the better their legal advice was, I think, in many ways kind of treated as gospel truth and went unchallenged, despite years of warnings from survivors saying that such mechanisms were desperately needed.
GROSS: Survivors of sexual abuse who came forward, you know, alleging abuse or were silenced, they were told to just forgive or that they were doing the devil’s work. They were disparaged. Can you talk a little bit about their reaction that people who came forward got from the church?
DOWNEN: Sure. So many of the survivors that we have spoken to over the years have routinely told us that while the physical assault that they endured was traumatizing, the far more damaging part was when they came forward to people that they assumed would be on their side and would be proactive in trying to get their abusers out of ministry. And they were, you know, accused of a whole host of things, I mean, from being called an evil doer to a satanic distraction from evangelism to, in 2008, Christa Brown, a very prominent survivor who had been arguably among the most outspoken advocates for reforms, I mean, she was literally called as reprehensible as a sex criminal by a top leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. And that was sent to another survivor in 2008. And those comments were publicized, and they went unchallenged.
And what we see in this report really corroborates what survivors have been saying for years, which was that Southern Baptist leaders were, at best, not taking the crisis seriously, at worst, actively misleading their own churches about it as a means of protecting the SBC from lawsuits. So as far as reactions go, you know, it really does run the gamut. But the reactions detailed in that report really do speak to the broader culture of, I guess, opposition to outside voices and those who are seeking help.
GROSS: This secret list of abusers within the Southern Baptist Church existed at the same time church leaders were saying it’s impossible to keep track of accusations and offenders because of the structure of the Southern Baptist Convention. What is it about the structure of the Southern Baptist Church that was used as an excuse?
DOWNEN: I think there are a lot of people who want to draw parallels between this report and the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal. And while obviously there are similarities, there are real structural differences between those denominations. And really, the Catholic Church is kind of an outlier in American Christianity. It’s hierarchical. It’s, you know, it has popes that – their decrees matriculate to cardinals, to bishops, et cetera, whereas the Southern Baptist Convention really is a cooperative of 47,000 churches. They have, you know, overlapping theologies and other things that they they cooperate on, including pooling money for missions and to fund seminaries. But by and large, they really don’t have any kind of ordination standards. There’s no recordkeeping. There’s really no way of tracking who has been ordained where or where that person has taken that ordination to. I mean, we had one longtime Christian scholar describe it to us as kind of the wild, wild west system. And that is precisely why survivors have been asking for so many of the reforms that we are just now finding out Baptist leaders were publicly pushing against but privately said could actually help in ousting predators.
GROSS: One of the activists who was arguing for reform within the church said being a preacher in the church was a perfect profession for a con artist. All he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people he’d been called by God and he gets to become a Southern Baptist minister. Then he can infiltrate the entirety of Southern Baptist Convention, moved from church to church, from state to state, go to bigger churches and more prominent churches where he has more influence and power. Do you think that’s an accurate description? Is that what has happened? Did the system make it possible for abusers to keep their positions and even advance?
DOWNEN: I mean, I think that there’s really no doubt that that is a true statement. Christa Brown, the survivor that you’re quoting, I believe later in that quote described it as a poor sieve of the denomination, and, I mean, I think this week’s report really does speak to that, as well as our reporting previously, now – in 2019, as part of our first round of stories, we focused in part on people who had been accused of sex crimes or offenses at churches and were able to find other jobs at other churches, and we found 35 of them. And, I mean, if that’s what we were able to find, just a handful of reporters pursuing that story in addition to the dozens of others that we were pursuing, I mean, it really does speak to the broader issue and how the SBC structure really has allowed a lot of these predators to flourish.
And I think there’s another important part of that, too. While the SBC structure’s obviously very, very central to this story, you know, sometimes we do have people who have accused us, you know, like, you’re attacking the church with your reporting, and my response to that is always that, no, you are being targeted by these predators. I mean, sexual predators understand that churches – they call them soft targets for a reason because they understand that there’s a lot of focus on repentance and forgiveness, and that, coupled with this loose structure that is kind of at the core of the SBC, has really allowed a lot of these guys to abuse, repent and then abuse again, even just down the street.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Robert Downen, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. We’ll talk more about the Southern Baptist sexual abuse scandal and Downen’s own reporting that helped uncover the abuse after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Robert Downen of the Houston Chronicle. He was one of the lead reporters on a series of articles published in 2019 titled “Abuse Of Faith” investigating allegations of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. That series led the Southern Baptist Convention to commission an independent investigation. That investigation led to a report released just over a week ago that confirmed widespread sexual abuse and attempts to cover it up and discredit survivors who came forward.
Can you say a little bit more about the Southern Baptist Convention’s own justification for the lack of oversight within the church and, you know, the lack of a larger structure, the lack of, you know, bookkeeping of how ministers were ordained or where they were ordained, you know, what is described by the church as, you know, church autonomy?
DOWNEN: Right. And I think that that does, you know, again, speak to this idea of the Southern Baptist Convention as exactly that, a convention of churches that convene for a few days a year and make – and pool together resources and what have you for the things that they finance. But this broader idea of autonomy has been used as a shield from a lot of reforms. You know, Southern Baptist leaders, namely the ones named often in last week’s report, they routinely held out this idea of local church autonomy as a reason that they couldn’t implement reforms.
You know, they would tell us, and they told us in 2019, we can’t – we don’t have the power to force churches to report abuses to a central registry, to consult a registry when doing hiring decisions. But at the same time, they did have the power to oust churches that had female pastors or were affirming of homosexuality. Up until our report in 2019, those were two of among the few things that could get you booted from the SBC. Having a convicted sex offender on staff was not one of them.
And so, you know, we’ve been pressing SBC leaders on this for years now, and routinely they’ve held out this idea of local church autonomy as a huge hurdle to any abuse reforms. Now, what we found out in this report last week was, at the same time that they were holding out that idea, they were actually saying behind the scenes that a lot of the reforms being requested were actually compatible and practical and, you know, could help track predators in their denomination. But that’s not what they were saying publicly.
GROSS: Let’s talk about some of the survivors of the sexual abuse. What was the age range and the gender that you’ve learned about through the report that was issued by the independent group commissioned to do this investigation and through your own reporting?
DOWNEN: So I – we haven’t had time to analyze the full, you know, 200-page “database,” quote-unquote, that was made public last week. You know, we haven’t had time to analyze it with that specificity. But in our own reporting, I mean, we found 700 victims, and nearly all of them were children. I believe the youngest were 3. And, you know, there were a handful of people who filed lawsuits about, you know, pastoral abuse and counseling abuse. But overwhelmingly, it was children. And it was a lot – you know, it was really mixed as far as boys versus girls. But there were a few things that we really did hone in on in that first series, and one of those was that of the 400, you know, credibly accused people we had found, at least a hundred of them were in some sort of youth role, whether as a youth minister or youth pastor, what have you.
And what we found is that the lack of training and oversights that often is required in those positions, combined with the ability to use social media and cellphones and all of these other things to kind of start grooming, you know, congregants at an early age, I mean – the fact that, you know, 25% of the cases we were able to find were youth pastors committing abuses of people in their youth groups really does speak to this broader issue within the SBC.
GROSS: You interviewed a lot of the survivors for – the ones who were sexually abused when they were children. What were some of the lasting effects they told you about some of the trauma that they were still dealing with?
DOWNEN: I mean, it really was across the board. You know, we had people who spoke openly and had clearly – you know, I don’t want to say moved past their attack but were very able to talk about it and had, clearly, through help, gotten past it, as far as one can. But more than often, what we found is that the people who were the most traumatized, the people who had the most profoundly devastating effects on their lives, were not the ones who were just physically abused; it was the ones who, like I said, came forward and were blamed for their abuse, were questioned, were disbelieved. And, you know, we have decades of research that shows the ways in which childhood sexual trauma can absolutely just rewire and remap someone’s brain. I mean, it is a neurological physical injury.
And when you couple that with these ideas of divinity, this existential idea, when you’re 7 years old and still trying to come to terms with being abused by the man who told you he was a representative of God, I mean, the trauma from that alone is just hard to fathom, unless you have not actually, you know, walked with someone going through it or experienced it yourself. And then to come forward to others that you thought would be, you know, your shepherd and find out that they don’t believe you or that they just don’t care – I mean, those were the cases, time and time again and, you know, as recently as this week, that we continue to report on because the devastation of that is just – it’s hard to overstate.
I mean, Christa Brown, who we’ve mentioned before, is 68 this year, and it has been 50-plus years since she was first abused. And that trauma, the idea that she trusted people who ended up not caring, who called her as reprehensible as a sex criminal, I mean, that’s the type of damage that you really can’t ever undo. And, you know, there’s a reason why the people who were ignored or who were vilified for coming forward routinely are the ones that are the most vocal and adamant advocates because they understand the truly devastating and nuanced effects of not having someone to talk to or living with the deeply conflicting and profound guilt that, you know, maybe I should have done something more to stop my predator, and now I have to live with the idea every day that he’s abusing others.
GROSS: Did you speak to any of the parents of the children who were abused? I’m wondering if the church tried to discredit the children to their own parents.
DOWNEN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it was not a common theme, but, you know, we definitely spoke to many people who quickly found out that the community that they had considered a family on Sunday, by Tuesday was actively rallying against them. I mean, in 2019, the SBC’s public policy arm had a three-day conference in Dallas in response to our series. It was called the Caring Well conference.
And I remember sitting there on that Friday with the family of a girl who had been abused recently at a Dallas megachurch. And one of the things that just is one of those things that always just kind of sticks with me is that I looked over and she was just crying because in this crowd of 3,000 people were some of her church family, and they were sitting there singing hymns and praying for abuse victims while actively just giving her the cold shoulder. And, you know, one of the things she said to me – she’s like, you know, you think that they’re family, but no one sends lasagnas. No one offers the helping hand that you need because so many people are either afraid to be proactive in their help or are just not informed enough about the contours and complexities of trauma that they mistake inconsistent stories or, quote-unquote, “erratic” behavior for not signs of trauma but signs of – reasons to be – to disbelieve that person.
And to get back to your question, though, we definitely talked to a lot of parents who have had to come to terms with the fact that not only was their child abused, but their child was abused in a setting in which they put them. And then when they tried to get whatever resembles justice for their child, they quickly found out that the very same people that they had allowed to, you know, care for their child didn’t actually care about them. And we don’t speak about that enough as far as the toll of that. But if – I mean, if you’re a parent, you can only, I guess, fathom how deeply painful that is and how just earth-shattering that is to your relationship with your child, with your spouse and with your faith.
GROSS: Well, let’s take another break here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Robert Downen, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. We’ll talk more about the sexual abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Church after we take a short break. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROJECT TRIO’S “BRB”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to my interview with Robert Downen, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. He was one of the lead reporters on a series of articles published in 2019, titled “Abuse Of Faith,” investigating allegations of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. That series led the Southern Baptist Convention to commission an independent investigation. That investigation led to a report released just over a week ago that confirmed widespread sexual abuse and attempts to cover it up and discredit survivors who came forward.
Now that this abuse has been documented not only in the investigative articles that you were part of, but also in this independent investigation that was just released, what reforms are these revelations leading to?
DOWNEN: So the Guidepost report included a bunch of reforms, among them and, I think, probably the most importance is this idea of the database, this essential mechanism through which churches can track people and can, you know, privately say, this person, you know, was accused of misconduct that may not have risen to the level of criminality, but we feel that it should be documented somewhere in case there is a pattern of this. And I think that’s been – you know, that’s something that survivors have been fighting for for almost two decades now. The SBC declined to implement that in 2008 because of local church autonomy. But as we’ve seen through this Guidepost report, this report from last week, even the people who were behind the decision to kill that reform in 2008 were privately saying that it could be, actually, very practical for stopping predators. And so I think that’s going to be a big focal point, you know? There are other conversations about a fund to help survivors with therapy, with all of the costs that come with that type of trauma that I think a lot of people really don’t understand. And I think those are going to be the two reforms that are really at the center of the SBC’s meeting two weeks from now.
GROSS: Do you know if the SBC is worried about what this will mean for the SBC’s reputation, if it will alienate members of Southern Baptist churches and if it will decrease their fundraising efforts?
DOWNEN: You know, in just the last few years, we’ve seen – including in the Guidepost report from last week, we’ve seen SBC leaders saying, you know, this – abuse is a distraction from evangelism. And we need to, quote, “preserve the base” even if it’s – if it means, you know, stepping away from initiatives on abuse or elevating survivors’ voices. And time and time again, that was something that was cited by SBC leaders. They didn’t want to expose the SBC to liability and lawsuits. They didn’t want to damage the reputation of the SBC. They – you know, anything and everything became a distraction from evangelism. And I think it does kind of speak to this broader issue at the core of this report, which is that this denomination had spent so many years – I mean, decades – at war with a whole host of perceived enemies, to the point that it was very easy, actually, for a handful of SBC leaders to just say, you know, this person doesn’t understand our convention, or they just want money. And this is going to hurt our bottom line. And therefore, trust our legal advice when we tell you that this is not feasible. And that’s, you know, a key finding in that report and one that I think does, again, speak to this broader failure of accountability that is supposed to be baked into the SBC system.
GROSS: Robert, let’s talk about your own reporting with a team of reporters from the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. One of the things your team did was set up a confidential tip line where survivors of abuse could report their story. And it was your call to try to track them down or not and their call, I suppose, to decide whether to talk with you. So when you were first getting those calls, how did you separate the kind of crank calls from the real survivors? How did you fact-check the stories?
DOWNEN: I don’t think we really got that many crank calls. I think, within the first few weeks, we had 500+ people just reaching out to us alone. You know, we reached out to the National Sexual Assault Hotline. And I think they said something – there was, like, a 10% jump in calls, you know, in the immediate aftermath of our report. Again, we can’t say directly that’s because of that report. But, you know, the number of people who reached out to us and said, you know, I – this happened to me, and I had always just assumed that I was a misnomer, that this was a Catholic problem and that I was an anomaly. And now I feel empowered to come forward. I mean, that was – I mean, even until, you know, this morning, I’m still getting people reaching out to me, saying that. And that’s been a constant refrain for years now.
Now, as far as the fact-checking thing, you know, we did, obviously, look at all of the reports that we got and tried our best to get in touch with as many people as we could. But unfortunately, at a certain point, we kind of just had to make the decision as a team to not just – not stop responding, but, you know, we – it would have turned into a full-time job for us to just respond to people who were reaching out, which, again, I think, does speak to this, the magnitude of this problem that has been, for so long, kind of just ignored or downplayed because of these structural issues at hand.
GROSS: So in this new independent report that was released, Johnny Hunt, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman from his church in 2010, one month after his presidency ended because of term limits. Tell us something about him and the charge against him.
DOWNEN: So I think that that finding really, you know, as far as the bombshells findings of that report, that had, you know – clearly was among them. Johnny Hunt was kind of this guy who straddled the old versus new guard of the SBC and kind of was seen by many as a pastoral mentor and this person who could kind of reinvigorate the SBC more broadly on missions. And what is alleged in the report is that in 2010, a month after his presidency, he basically had invited a woman and her husband and their family on vacation to Panama City Beach. And while the husband was gone, he basically, you know, invited himself into this woman’s condo next door and sexually assaulted her.
Guidepost, the investigation behind last week’s report, talked to four other people who were aware of the incident, including the counselor that Johnny Hunt pushed them towards, who later turned out to be unlicensed. But they found her story to be credible. And in interviews with Johnny Hunt, they found his story to not be credible. And he has since resigned from the SBC’s Domestic Mission Board, but is still, you know, pleading his case, whether in Atlanta area media or to his own congregation in the Atlanta area. And there are actually a lot of people, you know, just online that have rallied behind him and his version of the story, which is that it was a consensual – you know, a moral failing – you know, that type of coded language.
But, you know, I’ve talked to that woman numerous times. I’ve talked to her husband, as have trained investigators, and they’ve said that the allegations against Hunt certainly seem credible. So for that woman to see him continuing to hold himself out as being, in some form, a victim of, you know, sin, of a moral failing, while also failing to, you know, reach out to them or do other things to care for her – I mean, I – you know, she has said repeatedly that’s been particularly retraumatizing, to just have to relive this over and over and over again via his denials in public.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Robert Downen, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. We’ll talk more about the Southern Baptist sexual abuse scandal and Downen’s own reporting that uncovered the abuse after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RED HEART THE TICKER SONG, “SLIGHTLY UNDER WATER”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Robert Downen of the Houston Chronicle. He was one of the lead reporters on a series of articles published in 2019, titled “Abuse of Faith,” investigating allegations of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. That series led the Southern Baptist Convention to commission an independent investigation. That investigation led to a report released just over a week ago that confirmed widespread sexual abuse and attempts to cover it up and discredit survivors who came forward.
You found that some sexual abuse victims within the church were asked to forgive their abusers or get abortions. Now, the church opposes abortion, right?
GROSS: What was your reaction to that? And I’m wondering if any of the survivors actually did get an abortion. I know, like, some of them were too young to even get pregnant, but some of them weren’t. Did you meet anybody who actually followed the advice and got an abortion?
DOWNEN: I can’t say that I personally did. But, you know, the first person we featured in our very first story was a woman named Debbie Vasquez, who, you know, says she was repeatedly abused by her pastor, starting at 14, until she became pregnant. And after she became pregnant, she said – and this is documented in a lawsuit – you know, the church leadership, knowing that it was her pastor’s child, forced her to stand in front of the congregation and apologize for having sex out of wedlock, for becoming pregnant – and then behind the scenes were pressuring her to have an abortion. And she ended up actually moving abroad for, you know, a decent part of her adult life just because she was that afraid of being retaliated against by those leaders.
GROSS: What a really horrible mixed message to get from your own church after a trauma.
DOWNEN: Yeah. And, I mean, time and time again, we hear from survivors that the abuse was awful but paled in comparison to the retraumatization from church leaders who they thought they could trust. And, you know, Debbie Vasquez is very emblematic of that. I mean, I – she spent 2019, a week before she was about to go into surgery that she thought she would likely die during because of chronic health issues – I mean, she spent two of the last few days that she thought she had on this earth driving a motor scooter through the SBC’s conference on abuse and just pleading people for reforms.
And so when we talk about the profound devastation that this type of abuse, not just sexual but institutional – the type of damage that has on people long-term, I think it’s evident, if you even just spend a little bit of time talking to so many of these survivors – I mean, there’s a reason that Christa Brown is 68 and is just now this week finally being believed. There’s a reason why Debbie Vasquez spent what she thought would be her last few days on earth trying to get someone to get her pastor out of ministry. I mean, these are wounds that never heal. They run deeper than I think very few can imagine. And unfortunately, those wounds have just been picked at and ripped apart so many times, both by their abusers and the institutions that protected them.
GROSS: So for Debbie Vasquez, who was allegedly raped by her pastor and got pregnant, did she carry the child to term? Is – has she parented that child?
DOWNEN: Yes, she did. She refused church leaders’ demands that she have an abortion and later uprooted her life and moved abroad out of fear for her daughter’s safety. And it wasn’t until, I think, around 2008 that she decided to appear publicly in any kind of SBC setting. And the only reason she did that was to pressure SBC leaders on the reforms that they ended up just outright denying in 2008. And again, you know, in 2019, at that conference, she again made a public appearance, all just to get someone to say, this happened to you and we believe you and we’re going to do something about it. And it’s a weight that – it’s hard to fathom.
GROSS: Why was she concerned about her child’s safety? What were the threats that she was afraid of?
DOWNEN: Well, she says that, you know, during the alleged assaults over years, at one point, you know, she’s still half deaf from what she says was her pastor firing a gun next to her head during one assault. I mean, the intimidation, both spiritual and physical, that these pastors can exert over their victims is profoundly damaging and results in exactly the type of long-term trauma that unfortunately has prompted Debbie to continue fighting this fight.
GROSS: When you were doing the 2019 investigation into sexual abuse in the church, how did survivors react knowing that you were taking their allegations seriously, and in some cases, like, you were proving those allegations were actually accurate, that these people needed to be believed?
DOWNEN: You know – sorry. I’m getting emotional here. It’s actually really sad. One of the things that’s really been heavy this week is that for the first time, you know, we featured in our stories this week two of those survivors, Christa Brown and another man named David Pittman, who have been fighting for years, years, I mean, just to get the SBC to note that their abusers, who they had meticulously documented, were still in ministry and still had access to others. And they lived with that trauma daily that they had not done enough to stop the man who abused them from abusing others.
And when we first approached some of them, there was a real hesitancy on a lot of their parts and justifiably because they had been told, you know, they had spoken to media before. They had heard time and time again from all sorts of people, whether in the church or in law enforcement, in media, that, you know, that their abuser would be publicized and that they could finally move past this this deep guilt and complex trauma that they hadn’t done enough. And so this week, we got to name some of those abusers only because they were named in the Guidepost report. And again, I keep coming back to Christa Brown, but, you know, her and I were talking yesterday. And 50-plus years after her abuse and after 20 years of being absolutely dragged through the mud and vilified by SBC leaders, finally a local media outlet reported the name of the man she’s said for decades abused her. And that’s all she wanted when she came forward in 2004. I mean, that’s it. Like, if you talk to so many of these survivors, all they want to do is feel that they have done enough to stop others from experiencing what they have.
And the fact that after 20 years of being retraumatized, we’re just now getting to that point is – it’s an indictment of so many things. And I think it’s just, you know, there are a lot of people, I think, who are reading this report and seeing the response from SBC leaders and, you know, thinking that this is a sign of, you know, new times. And I agree. Of course, like, SBC leadership today is definitely more receptive on this. But I – it’s – I think it’s really worth people sitting and seeking out the stories of some of these survivors because when you understand what they’ve gone through, just to get their abusers name put in print, and then to find out that that abuser was actually on an internal list the whole time, I mean, again, it’s really hard.
I can’t personally put into words how devastating that is and how complex the trauma it is to reconcile the fact that it took 20 years to stop or just name the person who ruined their lives. I mean, I talked to Christa Brown for a while about this. And one of the things that, you know, she said that just keeps sticking out with me is that we feel validated, but there’s absolutely no joy in that because we understand the human toll. We understand the cost that it took just to get to this first step.
GROSS: Robert Downen, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for your reporting.
DOWNEN: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Robert Downey in as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle and was a lead reporter on the 2019 series “Abuse Of Faith” about sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new British TV series “This Is Going To Hurt” starring Ben Whishaw. This is FRESH AIR.