AUSTIN (KXAN) – An Austin Baptist Church hosted a panel Sunday to talk to their congregation about things the church, parents and community members can do to prevent sexual abuse, as well as how to support survivors of abuse to seek help.
This came in response to a report published last week by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News which found that since 1998, around 380 Southern Baptist Church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Of those, the newspapers verified that 220 had been convicted of sex crimes or received deferred prosecutions in plea deals.
There are 700 victims tied to those accusations which span from the present back to 1998. Many of those victims were children.
Back in 2008, survivors and advocates called for changes within SBC to track sexual predators and to prevent congregations from protecting them, but the papers reported that “nearly every” one of those changes was rejected. The papers’ investigation aimed to track abuse for the 10 years prior to and the 10 years after that change.
The investigation also found that more than 100 Southern Baptists described as former youth pastors or youth ministers are either now in prison, are registered sex offenders or have been charged with sex crimes.
Hillcrest Baptist Church in Austin organized an event Sunday allow a place to talk about concerns the articles brought up regarding other churches around the country.
Around 100 people attended. It was an opportunity for church leaders to communicate the policies that are already in place there to prevent abuse (criminal background checks, never allowing an adult to be alone with one child) and to answer questions about how to protect children and support survivors of abuse in the community.
“Of course, for quite a number of years now we’ve heard about that as an issue and a challenge in Catholic churches,” explained Hillcrest pastor Tom Goodman during the panel. But he added that with the Me Too movement shining a light on all kinds of allegations which were previously ignored, the congregation shouldn’t be surprised by or disillusioned with the new information about abuse within the Southern Baptist Church.
“When I first heard about this report coming out, I didn’t think too much of it because I thought well, each Southern Baptist Church is independent, each church is self-governing and our church has had safety policies in place for a long long time to see to it that these types of traumatic experiences would not happen with our church,” Goodman said. “But when I read the article and found out the extent of this problem, I decided we needed to talk about this, we needed to talk about this because if your coworkers or your friends aren’t asking you about it yet, they will and you’ll want to know how to speak about it in an informed way.”
Goodman called the report documenting abuse by leaders and workers within the Southern Baptist Church “heartbreaking.”
So he asked Anna Westbrook, one of the members of his church and a survivor of childhood sexual assault, to speak on the panel Sunday.
As a child, Westbrook was a member of a Southern Baptist Church in Connecticut when she was abused by a volunteer at the church. Westbrook said her church removed her abuser and her family reported him to the police. But she said law enforcement didn’t pursue the case and to her knowledge, her abuser has since moved on to an independent Baptist church.
“I was grateful for the Houston Chronicle for bringing the issue to light and for leaders like the leaders of this church who reached out to me and asked for some manageable action steps,” she said.
Since her abuse, Westbrook has turned her focus to helping others prevent something similar. She has moved on to create “Isabel and the Runaway Train”, a jazz/folk musical which works to make the subject of childhood abuse more approachable.
At the panel she talked about the importance of community resources like SAFE Alliance and Texas and the importance of making sure that when survivors share stories of their abuse, that they are in a safe place and able to access the resources they need.
She added that for parents hoping to protect their children from abuse, the best strategy isn’t just having one conversation with them about the dangers of abuse, but rather having ongoing conversations with them about health and speaking up when they feel uncomfortable.
“I am hoping that individuals who are worshiping in a Baptist church feel empowered to talk to their leaders about ways that they specifically can prevent abuse and that with that individual empowerment, further systematic change can happen,” Westbrook said.
Karen Oden, the Children’s Minister at Hillcrest also spoke on the panel, offering advice for parents.
“It’s important because people aren’t willing to talk about this in the church and for us to say, as a Baptist church, we know this is happening, and we know this needs to stop and it’s only going to happen if we have this conversation, if we talk about it,” Oden said.
She suggested that parents hoping to talk to their kids about preventing abuse to approach the discussion as just “a normal conversation.”
“Talk about it over dinner, talk about it in the car, make it an important conversation, it’s not a weird scary thing, it’s to support you, to protect you and we’re talking about it because we want the best life for you,” she said.
“One of the most important things is telling your kids you have boundaries, you’re allowed to say no, even though we’re taught to respect our elders and respect adults,” she said, adding that it is helpful to have adults model behavior for their children where they say no when they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.
Anna Westbrook explained “there’s not a lot of wins” for survivors of abuse, but for her, being part of that panel felt like a win.
“It felt very validating and it felt like the church was choosing to empower a survivor and learn from a survivor instead of covering this up,” she said.
Westbrook said following the panel, several relatives of survivors asked how they should talk with the people in their lives about the abuse.
“I’m really very encouraged by the questions people were asking,” she said. “Because they were focused on supporting survivors as opposed to being focused on the reputation of the church, which is exactly where the focus needs to be.”
“I am hoping that community leaders are going to take advantage of the extensive response resources in Texas, ” she said. “I hope they realize there are people who have been working in this field for years, all they have to do is ask for help.”
Westbrook explained that on the Isabel and the Runaway Train website, there are community resources listed for survivors and those who love them. She hopes this project offers a platform to talk more about both mental health and sexual maltreatment.