Susan Codone was 14 when her youth minister at a small Southern Baptist church just outside Birmingham, Alabama, began paying attention to her.
Soon, she found herself being asked one night at camp to help him in ministry because she was “smart” and “more mature” than others in her youth group. When she answered in the affirmative, he kissed her, leaving her “extremely confused.”
Over the next 18 months, she became a victim of continual sexual abuse.
What began with attention and flattery ended with threats and intimidation. He told her she’d never be able to get married now, that she lost her salvation because of what she did, and that she’s not going to have a future.
Codone had never spoken about the abuse she experienced until Monday during a panel on sexual abuse at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Birmingham.
When she was 15, she finally decided to tell someone. She was too afraid to tell her parents so she decided to turn to the pastor of her church whom she trusted.
She drove to his home (she had just gotten her learner’s permit) and found him alone. When she revealed what happened and asked for help, her pastor responded: “You’re a smart kid. Seems to me you could’ve done something about this by now. I think you brought this on yourself.”
He then pressed her for more information as she had not shared the details of how the youth minister had abused her. When she refused, he asked her to go in the back and show him what happened.
That’s when she knew she “had landed in the presence of evil.”
Her pastor fired the youth minister but “then he picked up with me where my youth minister left off with me.” She was sexually abused by the church pastor for the next four to six months.
Codone received a standing ovation in a room full of Southern Baptist pastors for her bravery in speaking out. It’s been 35 years since the abuse. She noted that the youth minister who abused her was able to serve in various churches in Birmingham until his death in 2017.
“That is 33 years of unimpeded ministry in this town,” she lamented.
Her story is one of many that have been heard over the last year as Southern Baptists have sought to face and deal head-on with what has been called a horrific problem. Stephanie Davis also told her story later in the meeting of how her music minister abused her as a 15-year-old and how the church failed her.
Beth Moore, who heads Living Proof Ministries and has been outspoken about the issue of abuse, said on the panel that she felt “relief” that after so long, Southern Baptists are finally talking about it “plainly” and making real changes.
“We do have some things happening right now that I have never seen happen,” a hopeful Moore, a survivor of abuse, said.
Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who was the first to call out Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor, for sexual assault, made it clear on Monday that the survivor community is not out to throw stones at the church.
“The survivor community loves the church, they love Jesus, they love the Gospel,” she emphasized. “Our desire is to see the church do this better so that it becomes the refuge it was intended to be.”
The extent of the problem of sexual abuse and successive cover-ups within the SBC was exposed in a report earlier this year by The Houston Chronicle, which found over 700 victims of alleged sexual abuse by 380 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers since 1998.
Moore recognized on Monday that there has been “spiritual manipulation” in SBC churches, where victims of abuse were told to stay silent because it could “destroy the church” or because of how it would affect “the man of God.”
“There’s a disparity the way we value men and women,” she noted.
Just before the panel, Moore spoke to some women who survived abuse. They said when they came forward, they were asked if they had been raped. If not, then they were told “thank goodness, you’ll still be a virgin for your husband” — “as if their only value would be that they could give a future mate their virginity,” Moore said.
The popular author and speaker called on Southern Baptists to acknowledge that their family is sick and needs help.
“We will never get healthy if we cannot get honest,” she stressed. “We have a very, very serious problem because we have this built-in disesteem for women and it’s got to change. We’ve got to get down to the root of it.”
When the issue of complementarianism — the view that men and women equally bear the image of God but have distinct yet complementary roles (view held by Southern Baptists) — was brought up and whether it has contributed to the problem of abuse, Denhollander noted how little has been said from the pulpit to value women.
“I think it is very telling that I have heard hundreds of sermons directed on the quiet and submissive spirit that a woman should have,” she said. “I have heard not one on how to value a woman’s voice. I have heard not one on the issue of sexual assault.”
She continued: “It mystifies me that all of the crazy things teenage boys do are justified as ‘that’s just the way boys are.’ … You’re going to beat each other up to a bloody pulp and when your mom says, ‘What are you guys doing?’ ‘We’re guys, mom, that’s how God made us.’
“But as soon as an issue comes along that needs to be fought for, all that masculinity disappears and the women are left on the front line with you telling them ‘be quiet, submissive, fight your battles.’ Do it better brothers.”
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, made it clear that both women and men are equally valued and needed in the church.
"Just as a child needs father and mother, the church certainly needs both fathers and mothers," he said. "Men need women, women need men.
"A Southern Baptist Convention that doesn’t have a place for Beth Moore doesn’t have a place for a lot of us because Beth wouldn’t do everything the way I would do it, I wouldn’t do everything the way that Beth does it. We love each other, we learn from each other and that’s the way our churches are supposed to be."
He added, "In the moment that we’re in right now, to suggest that the problem that we have is that women are speaking too much seems crazy to me."
Beth Moore (not related) clarified during the panel that this is not “a war between men and women.” Rather, “this is a war between men and women of God against the powers and principalities of darkness.”
After listening to many abuse stories, Russell Moore said the one word that keeps coming up is “satanic.”
“I think that’s the right word and I do not mean that merely metaphorically because what else could it be but literally devilish to prey upon the vulnerable, to seek to kill and to destroy the psyches under one’s care and to do so hiding under the name of Jesus Christ?” he said Wednesday at the annual meeting. “We have reached our age of accountability.”
J. D. Greear, who was re-elected president of the SBC this week, said repeatedly throughout the convention’s meeting that they have failed and called on all churches to repent.
“We have failed by tolerating unbiblical views on grace and forgiveness that allowed an abuser a second chance to prey on the vulnerable,” he said. “Christian teachings on grace and forgiveness never mean covering up sin in ways that expose others to harm.
Calling the sex abuse crisis a Gospel issue, Greear posed, “Why would survivors trust us to care for their souls if they’re not sure they can trust us to care for their wounds?”
In a prayer of lament and repentance, Greear said, “Father, forgive us of our negligence, our lovelessness, our fear, sometimes greed or pride or ignorance or selfishness, any other motive that has caused us to be silent or complacent or passive when we should have been vocal and active.”
On Wednesday, SBC messengers passed a resolution condemning “all forms of sexual abuse” and affirming the need to “defend abuse victims.”
“We affirm that sexual abuse is not only a sin to be disciplined in the context of the church, but also a crime to be prosecuted in the context of civil government,” the resolution states.
The day before, they voted to amend the SBC constitution to expel churches that display a wanton disregard for sexual abuse. The amendment needs to be approved a second time at next year’s meeting.
Additionally, all SBC churches have been called on to receive training and become equipped on abuse awareness, prevention and care.