NASHVILLE (BP) – She earned a law degree with honors and practiced law for 25 years while simultaneously serving as a wife and mother. Today, she says she’s more likely found on a hiking trail or a yoga mat than in a courtroom.
Christa Brown, the retired attorney and grandmother, has told her story of sexual abuse and survival for decades, in news interviews, blogposts, articles and books. But when she approached the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee in 2006 to share her traumatic story of being raped as a 16-year-old more than 30 times by her Southern Baptist youth minister, many in power didn’t listen.
Such dialogue was rejected specifically in a letter by Augie Boto, an attorney then employed by the SBC Executive Committee, as neither “positive or fruitful.”
She claims other leaders “mistreated” her as she attempted to speak at an EC committee meeting.
May 24th, more than 15 years later, Southern Baptists listened.
Brown is one of a handful of sexual abuse survivors listed by name in a detailed investigative report of the EC’s handling of sexual abuse complaints from 2000-2021. She and others responded in the wake of the report, including following the EC’s public apology, commitment to change and pledge to take corrective measures aimed at preventing sexual abuse and serving survivors.
“I’m grateful for the EC’s repudiation of that 2006 letter from Augie Boto. It is one very small step, and so much more is needed, but I hope that this may be the start of a new era in how the EC relates to SBC clergy sex abuse survivors,” Brown said in a press statement shortly after the EC’s May 24 meeting. “I am also grateful for the statement of commitment, as expressed by the EC’s attorney Gene Besen, to publicly release the EC’s list of pastors and ministers credibly accused of sexual abuse. I hope that will happen in the very near future.”
In a statement to Baptist Press Tuesday (May 24), SBC EC Interim President and CEO Willie McLaurin said the EC is “diligently reviewing the list of offenders and abusers referenced in the Guidepost report with the goal of making as much of the report public as quickly as possible.” The statement gave an anticipated release date of Thursday (May 26).
In a separate tweet, Brown welcomed additional measures.
“Repentance requires restitution. There’s a lot of talk now about what the SBC may do moving forward,” she tweeted. “In addition, there must be a reckoning with the past and the harm that has been done – harm from the whole institutional failure.”
In her official statement, she pointed out “that Augie Boto did not act alone, in this and so many other things. The letter that the EC now repudiates was, as shown on its face, written on behalf of three major offices: the EC president, the SBC president, and the ERLC president,” Brown said. “Those other offices bear some responsibility as well. In 2019, via email exchange with ERLC attorney Palmer Williams, I specifically requested that the ERLC repudiate the letter. That didn’t happen.”
Survivors Jennifer Lyell, Tiffany Thigpen, Debbie Vasquez and Jules Woodson are also named in the report. Some released official statements. Others tweeted their sentiments and responses after the report and the EC meeting.
Thigpen, whose accused abuser Darrell Gilyard was convicted of having lewd contact with two teenage girls, released an official statement on Twitter May 24.
“If Southern Baptists are to have any pure witness, the best way forward is to not only state their belief in scriptures, but to show it in action. These action steps could not only become a way forward, but also could allow a model for other denominations and organizations to follow,” she said in part. “The SBC wants to be known as a missions organization and prides itself as a missionary sending powerhouse, though it seems it is often forgotten that the mission field includes its local congregations, and its own members. If you aren’t protecting those in your own backyard mission field, isn’t it counterproductive in your witness?”
Thigpen implored Southern Baptist men to stand against abusers.
“Men claiming to be called by God yet show no courage to stand against abusers in their ranks aren’t leading as men of God at all,” Thigpen wrote. “God hates abuse, hates darkness, hates false witness, hates idolatry. He hates sin and evil. You have a choice.
“Will you rise up? Will you listen or look away? … No second chances to get this right. This is the time.”
Debbie Vasquez tells of her Southern Baptist pastor sexually abusing her as a 14-year-old, impregnating her and forcing her to repent before the church.
“As a result of one of the many sexual assaults, she became pregnant with her abuser’s child. Ms. Vasquez was forced to go in front of her church to ask for forgiveness, but she was told she could not mention who the father of the child was because it would harm the church,” Guidepost Solutions said in its report. “Her abuser went on to serve at another Southern Baptist church.”
Years later in 2007, when Vasquez reported her case to the EC, Boto, Guidepost revealed, “offered a lengthy response assuring her they are looking into it but asking her not to share her communications with anyone.” Vasquez continued to plea for change. In 2019, after then SBC President J.D. Greear named the church on a short list of churches accused of abuse, the church voluntarily resigned from the SBC.
The father’s paternity was proven in a paternity test. The father has also admitted paternity, Nashville Scene reported in 2008, but the longtime pastor instead claimed “sexual exploits” instead of abuse.
Baptist Press could not reach Vasquez for comment, nor find a public statement.
Jules Woodson, whose account of abuse is shared on page 143 of the report, accused a youth pastor in 2017 of having sexually abused her 20 years ago. Her abuser, who was then a pastor of a different, non-Southern Baptist church when Woodson came forward, issued an apology in a livestreamed church service. He referred to the abuse as a “sexual incident” and received a standing ovation but eventually resigned.
An advocate for Woodson reported the church where the abuse occurred to the SBC Credentials Committee.
“No more will the excuse of autonomy be accepted,” Woodson tweeted May 23. “People matter more than the construct of an organization, and the powerful positions these men hold within, all while claiming Christ’s name.”
“I will continue to speak out,” Woodson said in a separate May 23 tweet, “so no one else has to suffer the traumas I have. Because every child deserves to be safe in the company of their pastor.”
Lyell, who, according to the report, was sexually abused for years by a former Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor, received an apology from the EC in February after a 2019 Baptist Press report characterizing her abuse as a “morally inappropriate relationship.” Lyell shared her abuse allegations here.
In written comments to Baptist Press May 25, Lyell expressed a range of emotions in response to the EC statement, including gratitude, caution and encouragement.
“I was greatly encouraged by Mr. (Gene) Besen’s remarks on behalf of the EC CEO (McLaurin) and board chairman (Rolland Slade) at the start of the May 24, 2022 EC informational meeting in which he outlined the statement, plan to release the previously concealed list of credibly reported sexual abuse cases, and the formal apology to Christa Brown,” Lyell said. “I was also relieved and grateful to hear that the potential revocation of Augie Boto’s retirement benefits is under review. Furthermore, I thought it was particularly important that the EC leadership, through Mr. Besen’s statement, noted that these actions are merely initial steps and that further action will be forthcoming.”
She emphasized “the EC must find a practical, consistent way to limit the weaponization of parliamentary processes” saying “it was truly painful to watch as an EC officer so reflexively sought to introduce parliamentary concerns” and noting “one of the SBC’s ongoing vulnerabilities is that we have allowed parliamentary rights to supersede biblical commands and suppress responsiveness to the Holy Spirit. My fear is that if this is not addressed and somehow reframed, there will be no way to address the investigation’s broader revelation of how easily the SBC’s institutions, processes, and precedents were used as justification for sinful conduct left unchecked by many who could have intervened earlier.”
Lyell encouraged readers to read the entire Guidepost report and its appendages.
‘The time it takes to read the report is minuscule compared to even just the amount of time I have spent sending the documentation and facts of my case to EC leaders in the past,” she told BP. “This is staggering if you consider that I am just one case and then consider every circumstance recounted in the report. Those pages and the reports therein taken individually and added together reflect many decades of previously hidden or dismissed suffering by Southern Baptist children, teens, and adults. I cannot express strongly enough that it is absolutely crucial that pastors, deacons, elders, and all messengers read the complete report.”
She has also lamented that the report itself will not end abuse.
“Tonight there are children, teens and adults going to bed having been sexually exploited, abused, and assaulted in SBC churches that the @SBCExecComm heard about and did nothing to stop or serve,” Lyell tweeted May 22 with the hashtag “SBCaccountability.” “It will not stop being the case because this report is out.”
If you are/have been a victim of sexual abuse or suspect sexual abuse by a pastor, staff member or member of a Southern Baptist church or entity, please reach out for help at 202-864-5578 or SBChotline@guidepostsolutions.com. All calls are confidential.