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

At the Historic Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, New York, the legacy of Henry Ward Beecher, the church's first pastor who died more than 120 years ago, is prominently displayed in monuments celebrating his life.

On a cold Saturday morning this winter, a guide could be heard telling tourists at the church about his great work as an abolitionist.

Buried in lot 18495, section 123 at the nearby Greenwood Cemetery about a mile away from where Beecher is interred with his wife, Eunice, is a less prominently displayed part of his legacy.

There are no signs announcing her presence, but cemetery records show that along with three other family members surnamed Tilton, one surnamed Pelton and another surnamed Morse, Elizabeth Tilton, a former parishioner of Beecher's, is also buried here.

Cemetery staff could not confirm if Elizabeth's remains were below a white gravestone marked "GRANDMOTHER" in section 123 but confirmed she was "definitely there," according to their records. She died blind and alone on April 14, 1897.

At Greenwood Cemetery, where the remains of many of New York City's elite are laid to rest, it is hard to forget minister Beecher among the 560,000 buried here. Among 22 portraits of the famous figures highlighted on a map of the cemetery's sprawling network of graves, Beecher tops the list and is referred to as "The Great Divine." The inscription on his gravestone in section 139 says "He thinketh no evil."

Beecher died nearly 10 years before Elizabeth, on March 8, 1887. Once revered as The Most Famous Man in America, Beecher died in his sleep. 

With oodles of charisma and progressive political views on issues such as equal rights for women and his opposition to slavery, Beecher, whose sister Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the classic anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, attracted thousands to Plymouth Church to create America's first megachurch. He was also the highest paid clergyman of his time, earning a staggering $100,000 annually, which would be the equivalent of approximately $2.3 million today.

Scandal in the church

Before her lonely death in 1897, the story goes, Elizabeth and her husband, Theodore Tilton, were once faithful members of Plymouth Church. Beecher had presided over the couple's wedding and was a mentor to Theodore Tilton, who became one of the preacher's most committed followers.

In 1870, however, the lovefest between Elizabeth, her husband and Beecher ended in one of the biggest scandals of the 19th century. Elizabeth confessed to her husband that she had engaged in a 15-month sexual affair with their pastor, setting in motion what forensic psychologist Gary Schoener calls America's first major clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Some accounts of what happened say Elizabeth got pregnant with Beecher's lovechild but Theodore Tilton contended that his wife began her affair with Beecher shortly after the death of their infant son, Paul. She was in a vulnerable state, he said, "a tender frame of mind."

Elizabeth's confession would later become known to influential members of the church and eventually, the sordid details of what happened and why it happened became fodder for newspaper reports despite an attempted cover-up.

The affair destroyed what was left of the Tiltons' troubled marriage. Theodore Tilton got fired from his job as a journalist at a religious publication and he was ex-communicated from Plymouth Church. When Plymouth Church leaders then chose to exonerate Beecher, Elizabeth's husband sued the popular minister in 1874 for "criminal intimacy" with his wife. It led to one of the most closely followed trials in American history.

Elizabeth never testified at the ensuing trial because her husband was the plaintiff. After the trial ended in a hung jury, her husband left her and moved to France where he lived out the rest of his days. She remained in Brooklyn and a member of Plymouth Church until she confessed again that she did in fact have a sexual relationship with her pastor. She was ex-communicated from the church after that and later died blind and alone.

The enduring legacy

More than 120 years after the Beecher-Tilton scandal, similar stories of relationships between church leaders and their parishioners, including minors and vulnerable adults like Elizabeth, continue to endure. And coming forward about the abuse remains one of the hardest things to do in the church.

For victims, says Schoener, even when they do come forward, finding justice can in some cases turn into a nightmare, particularly when they get no support from their churches.

While the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct affecting both minors and adults in Protestant churches remains difficult to truly quantify, in 2007, some five years after the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal revealed there were 13,000 credible accusations of child sex abuse against Catholic clerics since 1950, Protestant churches found themselves under the microscope for these crimes as well.

Available research provides a small window into the enduring problem and experts like insurance companies advising churches have been using this data to develop sexual abuse prevention plans to minimize their liability.

Richard Hammar, an expert on church law and taxation who serves as legal counsel for the Assemblies of God, says his research of about 12,000 lawsuits involving churches in both state and federal courts annually, shows that sexual abuse of minors has been the number one issue in the last 22 years.

In 2014, for example, of the approximately 12,000 cases presented before the courts, some 11.7 percent or 1,404 of them involved the sexual abuse of minors. Church Mutual Insurance, GuideOne Insurance and Brotherhood Mutual Insurance, which collectively insure a majority of the estimated 331,000 congregations in the U.S., reported in 2007 that they typically received about 260 reports each year of people younger than 18 being sexually abused by clergy, church staff, volunteers or congregation members.

Updated figures were requested from the three companies by The Christian Post and only Church Mutual Insurance Company, the largest insurer of religious institutions in the U.S., covering some 30 percent of the religious market, responded.

The company said it could not provide CP with explicit data on sexual misconduct-related claims made by churches because the data was proprietary. Jeff Szalacinski, vice president of claims, said, however, that only a small portion of claims submitted to the firm were related to sexual misconduct and those types of claims have been consistent for years.

"Sexual misconduct is a horrific and damaging crime, both for the victims and the congregations that it affects," Szalacinski said. "A very small fraction of claims submitted to Church Mutual are related to incidences of sexual misconduct. Additionally, trends related to sexual misconduct claims and payments have been stable and consistent for years."

Mark Steinberg, senior vice president of Church Mutual, explained in an interview less than a year ago that the No. 1 claim that churches have been submitting to their firm were property claims.

Adult victims

In The Prevalence of Clergy Sexual Misconduct With Adults: A Research Study, Baylor University researchers present findings from a national random survey of 3,559 respondents in 2008. The findings, said the university, showed "the widespread nature of CSM (clergy sexual misconduct) and refutes the commonly held belief that it is a case of a few charismatic and powerful leaders preying on vulnerable followers."

"In the nonrandom qualitative study that occurred concurrently with the survey, survivors hailed from 17 different Christian and Jewish affiliations: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, Disciples of Christ, Latter Day Saints, Apostolic, Calvary Chapel, Christian Science, Church of Christ, Episcopal, Friends (Quaker), Mennonite, Evangelical, Nondenominational (Christian), and Reform Judaism," wrote the late Diana R. Garland, founding dean of Baylor's School of Social Work.

In the study, more than 3 percent of women who had attended a congregation in the past month reported that they had been the object of clergy sexual misconduct at some time in their adult lives. A majority of the sexual advances were made in secret and 67 percent of the offenders were married at the time the advance was made. The study concluded that in the average American congregation of 400 persons, an average of seven women experienced clergy sexual misconduct.

Underreporting

Schoener, who is one of the founders and director of consultation and training at Walk-In, Counseling Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, agrees that clergy sexual misconduct, like all other forms of sexual misconduct, is severely underreported.

"The majority [of these crimes] aren't reported. I don't know anybody who knows anything about this who's ever suggested that most cases come forward. Even today with all this visibility, there are so many things arguing against coming forward," he said.

Schoener, who is well known for his expertise on professional misconduct, is an expert on ethics and professional boundaries. He has spent more than 50 years counseling sexual abuse victims and more than 30 advising churches.

For clergy sexual abuse victims to come forward, he said, the exercise can be a lot more costly because of the subculture.

"Start out with losing your family, losing your marriage, losing all your friends. Remember that churches are not just a place to worship. They are a place to commune with others. They are a central part of people's social world. Many of the victims who come forward lose everything," he said, pointing to what happened with Elizabeth Tilton.

"I have worked with people who, to their credit, stood up but they knew that they were going to lose everything that had mattered, that they were going to have to redo their lives. You know how when people come out of 10 years in prison and think, 'Oh my goodness' how do they redo their lives?" he asked. "It's no harder than what some of these people have to face. It doesn't even matter if it's proven true."

The case of Jules Woodson

Jules Woodson knows what it's like to lose for speaking up. In early January, inspired by the #MeToo campaign that brought down several powerful men in secular culture such as Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein and former NBC "Today" show co-host Matt Lauer, who were both accused of sexual harassment and assault in 2017, Woodson revealed her own assault at the hands of a church leader.

In graphic detail, she explained to The Wartburg Watch how Andy Savage, teaching pastor at the popular Highpoint Church Memphis, coerced her into performing oral sex on him on a dark Texas dirt road when she was 17 and he was her 22-year-old youth pastor 20 years ago.

Her parents had recently gone through a divorce and she was seeking fellowship at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church, now known as StoneBridge Church in Texas, when the sexual assault occurred.

The encounter with Savage, however, ruined everything. And how the church responded lost her for good, she said.

"I was silenced. I was shunned. The church's reputation was more important than my well-being. No one reached out to me. No one asked questions. No one showed concern," Woodson told The Christian Post through victim advocate Amy Smith. "I left [the church] that summer for college and never went back."

She currently has no relationship with the church in general because "no one has ever been concerned about what happened to me or how it affected me. Not then, not now."

Highpoint Church Lead Pastor Chris Conlee and his staff, who say they were aware of Savage's past before they hired him in a leadership position, have thrown their full support behind him. Savage has insisted that his relationship with Woodson was consensual.

"The atmosphere was very flirtatious. That flirtatious environment continued to move forward, which led to us making out, some heavy petting. It was a very mutual, spontaneous, physical moment. Our hormones were obviously very much in that moment, and she performed oral sex," Savage said in an interview with conservative radio host Ben Ferguson as he recalled the encounter with Woodson. He also insisted, "I do not believe I broke the law."

Texas Law states that a sexual relationship between a pastor and parishioner cannot be consensual if the clergyman "causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person's emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman's professional character as spiritual adviser."

Savage was not prosecuted for the crime because the statute of limitations had expired. He was placed on paid leave from Highpoint Church after public outcry from victims' advocates who believe he should not be in a position of leadership because of his past.

Karen Campbell, a crisis consultant for churches, said she would not have recommended Savage for a leadership role in the church because he still doesn't appear to understand the gravity of his actions and recognize that what he did is a crime.

"You can't fix what you don't acknowledge and until he acknowledges [that what he did was assault] he can't fix it. I'm saying that as a human. That's why God has us confess our sins, not to make him feel bad but to acknowledge them so we can change," she said.

"You've got women and people in the church who are being triggered by this," said Campbell, who believes Savage should be removed from leadership in a way that helps him and his family.

"I have not met this pastor but churches need to understand that sexual misconduct of any kind is a sin but it also can be dealt with, with counselling. So putting your head in the sand doesn't help anybody. Get someone the help that they need. There are professional Christian counseling people," she said.

#ChurchToo

When the #MeToo campaign first used by social activist Tarana Burke in 2006 as part of her work building solidarity among young survivors of sexual harassment and assault exploded in 2017, sexual assault survivor Hannah Paasch and her friend, Emily Joy, who met while studying at Moody Bible Institute, decided to launch the #ChurchToo campaign in late November and it exploded. Within hours of the launch, hundreds of church sexual abuse survivor stories had littered Twitter.

Joy, said Paasch, had been groomed and manipulated into a romantic relationship with her megachurch's youth leader when she was just 16.

"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.

"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

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."

Loading ...