What Would Jesus Say?
Churchgoers are asking for protection against clergy sex abuse, but the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention says there’s little it can do to fend for the flock
By Elizabeth Ulrich
February 14, 2008
Debbie Vasquez was immobilized, pinned on her back in a car parked somewhere near a field in rural Sanger, a small North Texas town that sits atop a hill in the Blackland Prairie. A man nearly twice Vasquez’s age had driven the girl nearly half an hour away from her hometown to a secluded spot and parked the car.
In depositions filed as part of a 2006 lawsuit, Vasquez said that he next took off her pantyhose, unzipped his pants and hovered above her, tacking her narrow shoulders to the car seat as he forced his flesh into her small body. She gazed upward at him—a man of God, a seminary student who worked with the bus ministry that drove her to church every Sunday—and all she could do was toss her head from side to side as the long locks of her wavy, chestnut brown hair furled beneath her.
When he was done forcing the 15-year-old into her first sexual experience, Dale “Dickie” Amyx, who would soon become the church’s associate pastor, walked down to a creek that snaked its way along the rolling hills of the Red River Valley. As she climbed out of Amyx’s car and allowed him to cleanse her bloody lower half, Vasquez watched the blood-tinged creek water stream down her legs and splatter on the dry Texas ground, according to her deposition. She was scared and confused. She didn’t understand why he had done it or how he could hurt her. She thought she might need to go to a doctor to stop the bleeding, but she was afraid she’d get in trouble if she did.
Then she threw up.
Even then, she knew that if she told, no one would believe her. “I didn’t know what to do,” Vasquez tells the Scene. “I was so young and I was scared. I didn’t know anything. And no one would believe me. Who’s going to believe what I said over a minister?”
Two years before, Vasquez joined Calvary Baptist Church, a now-defunct, midsized church in Lewisville, Texas. When the church’s bus ministry came knocking on the door of her family home and invited her to its junior church services, she boarded the bus thinking that she would find someone to confide in about the physical abuse she had earlier suffered at the hands of her father. Her mother had forbidden her to tell.
When she was 14, she met Amyx, who would eventually rise through Calvary ranks. In Amyx, Vasquez thought she’d finally found a confidante. “He told me he was a man of God, and I thought I could trust him,” she says. “I thought he could help me.”
She says Amyx started taking her on long country drives to talk about her problems. It was then that Amyx began touching her inappropriately. In his deposition, Amyx admits to having sex with Vasquez somewhere between 20 and 40 times—at Lewisville Lake or back out in Sanger, even in his apartment when his wife was out of town for Thanksgiving.
Vasquez didn’t tell anyone because she had been taught to do what the minister said—and Vasquez says Amyx told her that she would “get used to it.” And, according to Vasquez’s lawsuit, Amyx made threats that kept her in a “continual state of anguish, hurt and tremendous fear.” The suit also alleges that Amyx “often had a gun or knife in hand” and “would intimate to her what he might do with them if she ever ‘betrayed him.’ ” Plus, Vasquez says she simply didn’t have anyone to tell. “When your parents are abusive, and the guy that hurts you is a minister, who are you going to tell?”
So Vasquez hid it until the age of 18, when her pregnancy made three years of abuse hard to hide. When the church’s senior pastor called Vasquez into his office and asked who the father was, she told him. And Vasquez says he made her march to the front of the church during Sunday service and ask her fellow churchgoers for their forgiveness. She was forced to confess that she was a pregnant, unwed teenager. But she was forbidden from fingering Amyx as the father—a fact that was not only proven years later in a paternity test, but which Amyx also has admitted.
Amyx has a different account of what happened. In his deposition, Amyx said that Vasquez was “either 16 or 17” when he first became aware of his sexual attraction to her. But he went on to explain that he believed Vasquez was 17, the age of consent, when he started having sex with her. And while he regretted it, he said Vasquez was OK with it. “I hated it, that it happened,” he said in the deposition. “I told her many times that I never meant to hurt her, and if I did, I’m sorry.”
Either way, officials at Calvary Baptist didn’t see any reason to fire Amyx, report him to police or prevent him from leading other congregations. Vasquez received no counseling, but Amyx was promoted to associate pastor before church officials transferred him to a church in Arizona.
Amyx eventually moved back to Texas, where he is now the pastor of Bolivar Baptist Church in Sanger—the same small, Texas town where Vasquez says he first raped her. And, after a 2003 conversation she had with Amyx, Vasquez fears that Amyx has continued to abuse.
In his deposition, Amyx described the conversation, in which he detailed the friendships he had formed with students at a high school where he worked in-school suspension classrooms. Amyx recalls telling Vasquez that some of the girls at the school talked with him “about their sexual exploits.” Amyx said in the deposition he knew that Vasquez started to worry that he was having relationships with the girls.
In telling her story to the Scene, Vasquez, who is now 49, barrels through the details of her own abuse as if on autopilot, her horrific accounts of brutal sex brief and detached. But she loses it when she talks about other girls she fears have been abused. Sobs catch in her throat and her voice shakes. “As soon as I found out and realized he wasn’t hurting just me, it really was so much that I couldn’t take it—and I couldn’t get anyone to help me,” Vasquez says as she starts weeping audibly into the phone. “I couldn’t get anyone to do anything [to help the girl].”
But Vasquez tried. She turned to local police, who encouraged her to initiate and tape a phone call with Amyx to get the names of the girls she believed were being abused. In transcripts of the taped conversation, which Vasquez’s lawyers included in her lawsuit, Amyx gave the name of one of his female students. In the taped conversation, Amyx said students told him the girl was in love with him, but he denied romantic involvement with her.
Later in the conversation, Vasquez told Amyx that she wanted to talk to the girl to put her mind at ease. But one of Amyx’s comments only made Vasquez all the more uneasy: “If something happens between me and these kids, I doubt she would be telling anybody.”
When Vasquez took her concerns to the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), of which Bolivar is a member, she was patronized and dismissed. In fact, SBC officials refused to meet with her in person.
Vasquez has experienced so much guilt that she has been suicidal. “Knowing how much [sexual abuse] hurts, and thinking I kept my mouth shut, and so now someone else is hurting, that’s what gets to me.”
Now her lawsuit is seemingly over because of the statute of limitations. Charges couldn’t be filed against Amyx because, in cases of juveniles, victims only have 10 years after their 18th birthday to report a crime of sexual assault. So you won’t find Amyx’s name on the National Sex Offender Public Registry—and neither would any church attempting to conduct a background check on Amyx before placing him in the pulpit. Of course, it’s not clear that would even matter. Vasquez says officials at Amyx’s current church are aware of her allegations and of the proven paternity, and they have failed to act.
The scourge of sex abuse within churches belonging to Nashville’s SBC has been well documented, though the denomination continues to ignore, and in some cases deny, the problem.
In July, police arrested Steven Haney—the former pastor of Walnut Grove Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., who led the church for two decades—after a 21-year-old man told police that Haney had molested him for a period of five years. According to a police affidavit, the abuse started when the victim was 15 and lasted from September 2001 through December 2006, during which time the boy turned to Haney for mentoring. In those years, the victim says Haney forced him to take “obedience tests”—acts that required oral sex, masturbation and anal sex—that the pastor required as a test of faith. In October, a grand jury indicted Haney on charges of rape and sexual battery by an authority figure. But it certainly was not the first time that Cordova was rocked by a clergy abuse scandal.
Paul Williams was minister of prayer and special projects at Bellevue Baptist Church, a Cordova mega-church. In the summer of 2006, Williams told two Bellevue officials—the minister of biblical guidance and later, the church’s pastor—that two decades earlier, he molested his own son. In his confession to Pastor Steve Gaines, Williams said the abuse lasted for a period of 12 to 18 months and that he had repented to his family. Even though Williams’ job required him to interview church volunteers who said they had been sexually abused in the past, the pastor allowed Williams to remain on staff. And even though Tennessee law requires all adults to report such abuse, the pastor kept the meeting confidential. It wasn’t until December 2006 that Gaines pulled out of the confidentiality pact. When Williams’ son came to Gaines and asked why his father was able to continue as a minister, it was clear that the family had not resolved the matter, and Gaines reported the transgression to the church. Though church officials fired Williams in January 2007, Gaines still stands at Bellevue’s pulpit today.
But in June, Vasquez thought change might be coming.
That’s when more than 8,600 Southern Baptists descended upon San Antonio for the annual meeting of the SBC. With a reported membership of more than 16 million people in an estimated 42,000 churches in the country, the SBC (a name used to describe both the denomination and the annual meeting itself) is the largest Baptist group in the world and the largest Protestant denomination in the country. In the U.S., its membership is second in size only to that of the Catholic Church. And the whole operation is headquartered here in Nashville.
When these “messengers”—an SBC term for those elected to represent local churches at the annual meeting—requested that the SBC executive committee conduct “a feasibility study concerning the development of a database of Southern Baptist clergy and staff who have been credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse,” victims like Vasquez felt hopeful.
The vote for the database study was nearly unanimous—a reflection that the people in the pews want the SBC to prevent sex abuse in their churches. If the executive committee were to deem such a database “feasible,” the system would be available to all SBC churches, which could run a pastor’s name through the database to see if he were flagged for past sexual impropriety.
In addition to the database, sex abuse victims groups are pushing for the SBC to establish some sort of review board that would hear allegations, determine their credibility and warn churches about predatory preachers—a board that would, in turn, reach out to wounded victims.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the nation’s largest, nonprofit support group for victims of clergy abuse, saw the SBC study as the first step to prevent clergy sex abuse in the denomination. Up until the 2006 convention, SNAP categorized SBC efforts as “grossly inadequate” and “way behind the curve as compared with other major faith groups in this country.”
But it seems that the Southern Baptist abuse survivor network may have been too quick to place faith in their leaders.
While the SBC executive committee has reportedly been “studying” the potential for such a database for a good six months or more, there’s little to show that they’ve made progress. Or that they’re giving the database idea—or the wounded victims left to fend for themselves—much consideration at all.
In a few months, the SBC committee will report its database study findings to messengers at the next annual meeting in Indianapolis.
While some SBC members say they have a “higher trust” that the committee will come back with a serious proposal, when the Scene asked SBC officials about the budget for the study, no one could provide one. Spokesman Sing Oldham says there’s no “specific budget set aside for the study.” And although SBC general counsel Augie Boto, who is also a member of the committee charged with studying the database, would not agree to an interview, he did send an email to explain that studies such as this one are “normally undertaken without creating a separate line item for funding.” Neither would speak to the scale of the study.
And there’s no indication that the executive committee has consulted with experts or officials from other religious groups who have already established their own standards to deal with clergy abuse. Christa Brown, a survivor of sex abuse and the leader of SNAP’s Baptist arm, says it would seem like a logical step for Southern Baptists to look at how other religious groups have responded. “We are anxious to see whether this is going to be a legitimate study...or whether it will be the product of a group of guys sitting around talking,” she says.
Neither Boto nor Oldham have been forthcoming about with whom the committee has consulted. When asked if the committee had sought advice from anyone outside of the SBC, Oldham says that he was not fully apprised on “the extent to which they have done that...but yes.” And Boto’s legalese answer only muddies the water: “The answer, then, is that their study is informed by the work, experiences and opinions of experts and victims, though they have not employed anyone in those two categories, nor made any arrangement with any vendor.”
SBC president Frank Page repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this story, saying that he was busy traveling, and instead directed all inquiries to Oldham and Boto. But Page certainly hasn’t been shy about spurning the idea of creating a predator database.
In November 2007, Page told a reporter in Louisville, Ky., that a “national registry is not the way to best protect children.” During the interview, Page also identified Boto as the man “in charge of the subcommittee” dealing with the issue of sexual abuse. While the actual chairman of the committee is Stephen Wilson, vice president of academic affairs at Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky., SNAP officials fear that Page’s comment reveals a de facto reality about who is actually wielding more power.
Boto also seems predisposed against a database. “Having an investigatory body would not be a bad idea in any denomination that recognizes ecclesiastical authorities outside the local church,” he has said, adding, “Baptists are among those faiths that do not.”
In recent months, this has become somewhat of an SBC anthem for the anti-database argument. Historically, autonomy has been a key principle of Southern Baptist churches, which operate as self-governing bodies.
The Rev. Wade Burleson is the SBC messenger who made the motion for the database study at last year’s convention. And, as a church pastor and former president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, Burleson has spent nearly a quarter-century in the pulpit of Southern Baptist churches. “My church is the highest authority in terms of our convention,” he says. “Nobody can tell my church what to do. Nobody tells my church who can be their pastor. Nobody tells my church when the pastor must leave. Nobody does anything in terms of how our church functions. It’s our church that makes that decision.”
But when it comes to sexual abuse, Southern Baptists are forced to wrestle with two biblical ideals: autonomy vs. protection of the vulnerable. And Burleson says it doesn’t have to be the either-or scenario that some SBC officials have made it.
“The vast majority of people in the SBC are kindhearted, well-meaning, good people who want to do the right thing,” Burleson says. “So I think if somebody at the executive committee level in Nashville put some funding together to provide training and some kind of crisis committee to deal with [sex abuse] issues at the local church level, churches would respond—and not because they’re told to. Take my church, for example. God forbid we have a youth pastor who’s been accused by a 35-year-old woman of abuse 20 years earlier, when she was 15 and the statute of limitations has run out. Frankly, we want to deal with this properly. We don’t want to cover it up. If he is an abuser, we want him held accountable. But we also don’t want a false allegation to ruin this man and his family. OK, what do we do? I think if I knew that there was somebody in Nashville who was experienced in [dealing with] this, I’d pick up the phone and say, ‘Will you help us?’ ”
Bill Leonard, dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University Divinity School, says the SBC’s own history makes the autonomy defense a shaky one. “The Southern Baptist Convention has tended in the last 20 years or more to want to set certain policies regarding what you have to believe that do impact local congregations—what you have to believe about the Bible, what you have to believe about women in ministry, what you have to believe about sexuality,” he says. “I simply wonder if by virtue of setting those boundaries and setting more specific rules about what it means to be a Southern Baptist church, if that makes it more difficult for them to say that they don’t have any authority over local congregations.”
It’s a question that has not been lost on SNAP and Brown, who says that the SBC is using autonomy as an excuse for failing to protect children from clergy predators, an excuse she dubs “bogus and blasphemous.” Brown says it’s hard to ignore the cooperation between autonomous churches, which join together to do international mission work, to create retirement funding for SBC pastors and to maintain an archive of Southern Baptist history in Nashville, to name a few. “If they can pool their resources and pool funding for that sort of thing, why can they not also make a cooperative endeavor to track clergy predators across state lines and to provide a review board that would be able to objectively and professionally hear the reports of people who want to report abuse and keep track of this problem?”
If the SBC did establish a database and a review committee, it certainly wouldn’t be the first Baptist group to do so. Last year, the Alabama arm of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which split from the SBC in the early ’90s, started to maintain a file of clergy sex abusers. Even though it acknowledged, “Each church is autonomous in decision-making, answering to no authority beyond its own congregation,” the fellowship advised its churches to provide information about clergy who violate “the sacred role God has given them.”
With the SBC autonomy argument hanging by a thread, some Southern Baptist leaders have started to speculate about what really could be holding SBC officials back from plunging into the fight to protect their own flock from predators. Burleson has a few ideas, but given his affiliation with the SBC—he’s in his third term as a trustee on the SBC International Mission Board—he’s a little hesitant to get into it. “To be honest with you, autonomy is an issue,” he says. “But I think, bottom line, funding and personnel is the greater issue. You basically have a new department. And I think what people are wrestling with is do we put mission dollars...to use in an office where you have a staff of one or two and a director who uses volunteers for a crisis committee [to deal with abuse] in local churches? And nobody’s going to say that in the executive committee position because it sounds harsh to the victim.”
Burleson says that he’s not trying to portray the committee in an unpleasant light because he thinks “they’ve got great hearts,” but he knows the funding will be a real sticking point with the members. But he says the answer to the money question lies in one simple truth: “If you talk to just one Southern Baptist who’s been a victim, you will never ask that question.”
In the mid-1980s, Father Thomas Doyle was a canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., when a case came across his desk: that of Gilbert Gauthe, a Louisiana priest who would eventually plead guilty to 11 counts of molesting boys—a case that would make Catholic sex abuse a national issue for the first time.
Doyle soon became aware of the alarming scope of the scandal and wanted to help bishops deal with abuse, a blight on the church that he feared would only get worse. He was right.
He worked with two others to create a manual of suggested procedures for dealing with reports of clergy sex abuse and the treatment of priests with sexual disorders. Yet for nearly two decades, his warning went largely unheeded.
And by 2002, according to a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, the sex abuse scandal had cost dioceses nearly $573 million—a figure that would’ve been even higher had it included the $85 million settlement paid by the Boston Archdiocese and the record $660 million the Los Angeles Archdiocese paid to settle the lawsuits of more than 500 alleged victims.
The near obliteration of public trust in the Catholic Church was undeniable, as was the accuracy of Doyle’s warning. Now he has a similar prediction: The Southern Baptist church could be headed down the same road.
In a March 2007 letter addressed to SBC president Page and to executive committee president Morris Chapman, Doyle warned that “clergy sex abuse is a scourge that knows no bounds of theology, denomination or institutional structure.”
Doyle said he was “not writing in a spirit of criticism but in a spirit of fraternal hope that you take pains to avoid the incredible harm to your church that the Catholic Church did not avoid because of its arrogance and obsession with power and image.”
Then Doyle began to outline the ways in which he fears SBC officials are falling into some of the Catholic patterns of dealing with abuse—or rather, not dealing with it. “To effectively address this scourge requires a strong cooperative effort,” he wrote. “Yet, in recent Baptist Press statements, I have seen that Southern Baptist leaders disclaim that possibility on the ground [sic] that the Southern Baptist Convention has ‘no authority’ over autonomous churches. While the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is different from the congregational structure of Baptists, you should nevertheless realize that your ‘no authority’ argument is actually quite analogous to what Catholic bishops were espousing prior to 2002.”
When establishing the Office of Child and Youth Protection in 2002, Doyle says the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found it to be an “extraordinary and unprecedented” step because the conference has no direct authority over any bishop in the country. These bishops considered themselves to have control over their own dioceses.
It would be a mistake, Doyle wrote, for SBC officials to think that the structure of the Catholic Church inherently allowed for oversight—it was simply the desperate need to hold priests accountable for abuse that drove the denomination to create a system to protect its most vulnerable.
Page’s response to Doyle’s letter was terse. After thanking Doyle for writing, Page quickly turned defensive, writing that the SBC has “some serious limitations due to the policy of our convention.”
Page went on, “While Catholic bishops did claim to have ‘no authority,’ Southern Baptist leaders truly have no authority over the local church. We do have influence, and we are attempting to utilize that influence to the fullest extent to provide this protection.”
Doyle tells the Scene that he wasn’t surprised by Page’s response, which he characterizes as dismissive. He says such reactions are standard for people in church leadership positions, who tend to place the needs of the institution before their Christian obligations.
“What I hoped to do was simply say, ‘Look, my church has been through a nightmare. I was at the middle of it. Don’t do what we did. Learn from our mistakes,’ ” Doyle says. “But I understand that the Baptist governmental structure has responded, in many ways, similar to the Catholic church...by worrying more about the image and the system.”
But the similarities don’t end there.
From the abusers’ ability to move from church to church, to church officials asking victims to remain quiet and failing to report incidents to police, SNAP says sex abuse in Southern Baptist churches has all the trappings of a full-blown nightmare of Catholic proportions, though plenty of Southern Baptists would scoff at the idea that it’s a systemwide pestilence.
In his book Pedophiles and Priests, Pennsylvania State University professor Philip Jenkins determined that between .2 and 1.7 percent of Catholic priests are pedophiles. Among Protestant clergy—a group in which Southern Baptists are the largest denomination—that figure, according to the book, ranges from 2 to 3 percent.
And in a 1993 survey by the Journal of Pastoral Care, 14 percent of Southern Baptist ministers admitted to engaging in “inappropriate sexual behavior,” and a whopping 70 percent said they knew a minister who had had such contact with a parishioner.
Consider the rise and fall of one the denomination’s most promising stars.
“Paul had warned those Ephesian elders about an invasion of false teachers. He said, ‘Watch out now, because fierce wolves shall come, not sparing the flock.’ Well, those wolves had come. And deceptive teachers had slithered into the sheepfold.” These were the words of Darrell Gilyard, a young, handsome black pastor, as he stood before the Thomas Road Baptist Church—a mega-church founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell.
In 1989, the vision of this pastor with creamy cocoa skin, decked out in an immaculate steel-gray suit, streamed through the airways on the nationally syndicated broadcast of Falwell’s Old-Time Gospel Hour. As the cameraman cuts to the audience, grown men blink furiously as Gilyard’s voice rises and falls into a soft, gravely tone and moves them to tears.
The man had an undeniable star quality. Gilyard’s mentor, former SBC president Paige Patterson, dubbed him one of the “most brilliant men in the pulpit.” It was that natural charisma and talent that led SBC leaders like Patterson and Jerry Vines, another SBC president, to promote Gilyard.
But when Gilyard stood at the pulpit at Falwell’s church that day in 1989, he already had a dark history with parishioners. A 1991 Dallas Morning News story exposed many of the alleged indiscretions that marked Gilyard’s early career. According to the article, Gilyard had been forced out of a Dallas Baptist church in 1987 amid accusations of sexual impropriety. Yet Gilyard would still have a four-year run as pastor of Victory Baptist Church, another Dallas church.
The same news article included the accounts of several women who said Gilyard sexually abused them—in their homes, the church, even at the base of the pulpit—and they came to Patterson with the allegations. But they say Patterson refused to help them, at times refusing their phone calls or telling them that unless they had proof, he would not see them. Some women said he asked them to refrain from talking about the abuse. In press accounts at the time, Patterson said he was “dealing with a man of special gifts and talents” and that he was “unwilling to call anyone guilty until I had demonstrable evidence that these allegations were true.”
That “demonstrable evidence” wouldn’t come until 1991, when, as the Dallas news account detailed, Gilyard admitted to Patterson that he had committed adultery—even though many of the women’s allegations seemed much more akin to rape than consensual sex. It was then that Patterson finally cut ties with his protégé—but not before he personally prepared the goodbye speech for Gilyard to deliver to Victory Baptist.
Still, there were other congregations waiting for Gilyard.
Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Florida was once a flock without a shepherd—at least, that’s how they describe themselves. But that changed. “God sent a young man to preach for us...a young man from Dallas, Texas, of national prominence,” the church history reads as it describes Gilyard.
Little did they know that the man who would become their pastor in April 1993, a man who the congregation dubbed their “Moses,” had a trail of victims that snaked westward all the way back to Texas. The people packing the pews at Shiloh—a congregation that impressively grew to more than 7,000 members under 14 years of Gilyard’s leadership—must have fallen hard for him.
His tale of trial and tribulation, a touching story of redemption, was always a crowd pleaser: It was the struggle of a black orphan who grew up on the streets and even lived under a Florida bridge during his teen years. The story was so powerful, in fact, that Falwell peddled The Darrell Gilyard Story, a biographical video that chronicled Gilyard’s rise to fame after a hard-knock life, on his television show.
Too bad it was a lie. Gilyard’s tale of woe unraveled when a Florida woman came forward and said that she raised Gilyard from early childhood to adulthood. Despite reports that their pastor had lied about his past, Gilyard’s parishioners remained steadfast in their devotion.
Even after Gilyard was arrested on Jan. 14 after a woman told the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office that Gilyard sent obscene, sexually explicit text messages to her 14-year-old daughter, the Shiloh website still boasted, “God is doing great works through Pastor Gilyard.... So let us rejoice and thank God for sending us a ‘Moses’ to lead us to higher heights!” Gilyard resigned Jan. 4—10 days before his arrest—and pleaded not guilty to lewd and lascivious conduct.
The Patterson-Gilyard connection is hard for SNAP members to stomach. As is Gilyard’s connection with Vines, who mentored Gilyard as a young seminary student. When the two crossed paths again three or four years ago, Gilyard asked Vines for forgiveness for his past troubles. Vines not only forgave Gilyard, but SNAP says he also lent credibility to the man by preaching at Gilyard’s church.
“What’s unbelievable is that [Patterson and Vines] don’t see how morally reprehensible this is,” Brown says. “They’re blind to it—they’re blind to their own complicity in this horror. And to the contrary, I think they honestly believe that they are doing good and doing the right thing, which was probably true of Catholic bishops as well.”
In January, SNAP sent a letter to trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where Patterson now serves as president, asking them to temporarily remove Patterson from his position to investigate claims that he failed to warn churches that Gilyard was a serial predator. “I think you’ve got to wonder—this happened 17 years ago—why have there not been other Southern Baptist leaders and ministers to call Patterson out for this?” Brown says. “Why does it take a young mother there in Jacksonville, Fla., who finally speaks out about Gilyard [to expose him]? Why were there not other leaders in this huge denomination who called him on the carpet for this?”
Patterson has characterized SNAP’s claim as “misinformed and inaccurate.” He claims that he’s fought to bring more awareness to clergy sex abuse—what he calls one of the greatest tragedies of the modern era. “Throughout my 50 years in the ministry…I have never turned a blind-eye to clergy sex abuse...and in the classroom and in the pulpit I have steadfastly fought and will continue to warn and fight against it,”
Patterson said in a press release following SNAP’s call for an investigation.
But it seems that Patterson never extended those “steadfast” warnings against sex abuse to the string of churches where Gilyard took the pulpit. And as much as Patterson had helped Gilyard, he certainly didn’t expend as much energy—if any—dimming Gilyard’s rising star.
In a press statement, Patterson now says he exercises “no control over autonomous churches anywhere” and that he has “no influence [on churches] not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Religious leaders the Scene interviewed say that even if pastors don’t feel they have a professional obligation to warn churches of sex abuse allegations against a new pastor, as men of God and as human beings they have the moral obligation to protect people in the pews.
Burleson says denominational distinctions shouldn’t make any difference when it comes to protecting people from known sexual predators. “If [Gilyard] went to a Christian church, if he went to a Methodist church...we would inform that church regardless of the denomination.”
Burleson describes Gilyard’s decades-long run of abuse as a shameful indictment on the church and says that the ease with which predators are able to bounce from pulpit to pulpit is a big part of why he’s involved in lobbying the SBC for change. But he knows it won’t be easy.
After her failed attempts to persuade officials up and down the state of Texas to take action to help the young, nameless girl she fears is suffering silently from Amyx’s abuse—just as she did—Vasquez set her sights on church officials in Nashville for help.
In April, she started a letter-writing campaign of sorts to SBC higher-ups, keying her story into long emails. Often, Vasquez gets so emotional that she has to step away from her computer.
“Why can we not set up a way to keep track of those who have been convicted or have confessed or have been shown to have had inappropriate sex with minors?” she writes in an email to SBC president Frank Page. “Please open up your heart and mind and talk with some of the people who are trying to get things changed.... But please do not ignore and pretend this problem does not exist. Please help to stop other people like myself from being hurt the way I was hurt.”
Page begins his reply with a request that Vasquez keep their communications confidential: “I send all emails expecting that, as a matter of courtesy, the recipients would ask my permission before sharing them with others. I hope you will honor this request....”
The rest is brief. Most of it, like in the letter he sent to Father Thomas Doyle, is spent defending the SBC—even asking Vasquez to “pray for us as we consider what we are able to do to help in this situation.”
“Please do not accuse me of ignoring or pretending this problem does not exist,” he writes. “There are people who are trying to paint a picture of me and our convention which is patently untrue. In fact, some of the groups who are doing this are nothing more than lawyer groups, looking to raise their caseload level.” He’s referring to the efforts of SNAP—a group that Vasquez turned to for support when law enforcement, the court system and a whole slew of clergy failed her.
Once she finally mustered the courage to share her story, she’s received a myriad of uncaring responses from Baptist leaders. At this point, they’ve become quite predictable: Put it in God’s hands. You will feel better if you let it go. Nothing can be done anyway. It’s in the past.
“It’s not in the past,” Vasquez says. “He’s still out there, and he’s still in the position to hurt someone.”
After his reply, Vasquez didn’t hear much else from Page, whose assistant later sent an email on his behalf that contained contact information for Boto. So Vasquez wrote to him, too. But Boto’s responses are equally empty. Aside from knocking the idea of a database and, like Page, asking Vasquez to keep their communications quiet, he also goes on the attack:
“With regard to how you can help, let me suggest that you consider a ministry of information to your church and other churches about your experience, and what you learned about what perpetrators do. SNAP...could be a great help to congregations if they took such a route instead of spending so much time placing blame, attempting to get Baptists to operate in hierarchical ways they simply will not, and being sarcastic and pejorative. People do not appreciate being attacked for things they did not do. Subjected to such tactics, people raise defenses. What needs to happen is a broad recognition by churches of the initial signs of perpetrator activity. You can help churches know what to look for. And you can help them know what good practices are and what should never be allowed. That is what I will be saying and writing about, but I am only one person. I need help. You mentioned Baptist cooperation. This is the kind they gravitate to.”
But the worst came from Patterson, whom Vasquez contacted after she read about the case of Gilyard. Because Patterson is now president at a Baptist seminary, Vasquez was hoping she could convince him to better educate those called to ministry in how to compassionately assist those who report abuse.
Unfortunately, Patterson’s responses are an ironic indication that somehow, somewhere, the SBC has gone terribly wrong in teaching its own how to help the most vulnerable:
“Debbie, what more did you want me to do? Would you feel better if I shot [Gilyard]? I am not a detective, a judge, a jury or an executioner.”
He continues: “One last thing, Debbie. If the pastor who abused you is still in the pastorate and it is a Southern Baptist church, and you have a child by that man, it is an easy genetic matter to prove that child is from him and I can promise you he will not last a month at the church.”
Today, as Vasquez points out, Patterson was wrong on all accounts. Amyx is still a pastor in an SBC church long after a paternity test proved Amyx was the father of her child.
Patterson also condemns Vasquez for turning to the “evil doers” at SNAP: “I am sorry, Debbie, but I cannot help anyone whose mind is made up to do wrong even when I regret deeply what has happened to them.”
Looking back at his experience with the Catholic abuse nightmare, Father Doyle says the immediate and most important response any denomination can take is to care for the victims. “The spiritual trauma from sexual abuse is profound,” he says.
In all the times Vasquez has written to SBC officials, and most recently to most of the members of the executive committee charged with studying the feasibility of the predator database, not one has offered to help her. None has offered to counsel her, to refer her to a therapist or to sit face-to-face to hear her concerns, even though she’s requested to meet with the committee in person.
“I don’t want to hurt the church,” she says. “I never wanted to hurt the church. I just want them to change. I don’t want children to be hurt. I don’t want anyone else to feel pain like I feel. I just want someone to care.”