The 15-member, all-male elder board of Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas, has admitted that they failed to prevent the sexual abuse of at least 14 girls by a former youth pastor, didn't involve women leaders when evaluating abuse allegations and failed to provide adequate care for the victims.
"Our church culture lacked involvement of women in decision-making processes related to the abuse of these girls. Further, in almost all meetings with the victims, no women were present, which was inappropriate," said board chair Curtis Elder and Senior Pastor Tommy Nelson in a May letter to the congregation first published by Fox 4 on Tuesday.
Robert Shiflet, 51, the former Denton Bible youth pastor, was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison in June 2021 for child sex trafficking charges, The Denton Record-Chronicle reported. He is set to be released in 2023 but is expected to remain under federal supervision for the rest of his life.
The May letter included the findings of an independent investigation conducted by Scott Fredericks, a third-party investigator and lawyer with the law firm Cantey Hanger LLP. Fredericks was hired by the church in 2019 after it became aware of a federal investigation into Shiflet. Shiflet was arrested and indicted in June 2020.
The investigation revealed how the church failed to act appropriately even when Shiflet was reported to be acting inappropriately with young girls supposed to be under his pastoral care.
"In total, the investigators found credible accounts that at least 14 girls were victims of Shiflet's abuse: 11 at Denton Bible and 3 at Fellowship Bible. The misconduct described in these accounts was characterized by everything from grooming behavior and sexual harassment to criminal sexual abuse, abuse of power, and spiritual abuse," the elders said. "Equally troubling, was the consistent accounts that Denton Bible did not shepherd and care for the victims after they showed great courage coming forward."
The investigation concluded that Denton Bible Church leaders failed to protect the victims from Shiflet and failed to provide a victim-centered response to his abuse. Additionally, the church leaders' failures were exacerbated by not involving women in decision-making.
Shiflet began volunteering in youth ministry at the megachurch in 1993 and was hired to work with middle school students from 1996 to 2001. During that time, the church paid for Shiflet to attend seminary school.
According to the investigation, the married youth pastor was observed "regularly spending time alone with girls in his ministry, including before and after school, in his office, in his vehicle, in his home, and in a hotel room."
"On at least one known occasion two youth workers confronted Shiflet about his being alone with girls, which he dismissed. They also raised concern with church leadership, including Pastor Nelson, about Shiflet's being one-on-one with girls. Shiflet's supervisor was told by Pastor Nelson that Shiflet should not be meeting alone with girls," reads the letter.
However, "there was no evidence that any other corrective or disciplinary action was taken."
Shiflet was also witnessed "wrestling with a girl, counseling a girl sitting on his lap, pulling girls over his body while caving in a small tunnel, and otherwise interacting with middle school girls in ways that made the observers feel uncomfortable."
Still, according to the investigator, Shiflet was able to cultivate such a high degree of trust with parents, church leaders and other gatekeepers that he got permission from parents to "spend time alone with their daughters."
In 1999, a college intern also reported Shiflet's inappropriate behavior, and church leadership told him to write the intern a letter of apology, which was reportedly never delivered. No further disciplinary action was reportedly taken against him.
When Shiflet sought a promotion at the church in 2001 to become the high school pastor, the church said he was not given the position "because of his pattern of being alone with girls and not focusing enough on ministering to the boys in his youth group."
In the summer of that year, Shiflet left Denton Bible Church to become the youth pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. He quickly got himself in trouble.
"On at least three occasions in Arkansas, Shiflet was seen alone with girls, reportedly touched one girl's thigh, and kissed another. When the last incident was reported to the church in 2003, Shiflet was fired," the elders wrote. "However, it was in Little Rock that the second crime for which Shiflet pled guilty occurred. Specifically, Shiflet admitted that he sexually assaulted, by sexual touch and intercourse, a 16-year-old girl in his youth group on multiple occasions over several years, including during a church trip to Florida."
After he was fired in Arkansas, Shiflet went back to Denton and was invited to speak at the church. Once the church leaders learned that Shiflet was fired from Fellowship Bible Church "for violating policies pertaining to being alone with girls, Denton Bible no longer allowed Shiflet to volunteer or teach in any capacity at the church."
The investigation showed credible accounts that Shiflet continued the sexual abuse of at least one girl from Arkansas while he was in Denton.
By 2005, the church reported that a 19-year-old girl who had been in Shiflet's youth group at Denton Bible Church disclosed to a church counselor that Shiflet started grooming her when she was 13 to 14 years old.
"The girl connected the counselor with another girl who had been in Shiflet's youth group in Arkansas. That girl disclosed the sexual abuse Shiflet had committed against her over the course of years. The friend to whom the counselor was introduced was afraid and embarrassed and expressed her desire that the information she shared in that meeting not be discussed with anyone," the elders reported.
Since Texas law did not yet mandate the reporting of abuse by clergy, the elders stated that no official report was made to authorities at that time. However, church leaders confronted Shiflet, who admitted his sexual abuse of the girls. The Denton elders responded by revoking his ordination in September 2005.
"In the months and years following, Denton Bible leaders alerted several other organizations of Shiflet's known actions including the area church his family was attending and the school where Shiflet had begun working. However, Denton Bible made no effort to shepherd or care for the girls after they came forward," the elders admitted.
In 2015, another of Shiflet's former middle school students at Denton Bible reported to the church and police that he sexually abused her. The church responded by confronting Shiflet but offered no care to the victim.
It wasn't until the parents of the first victim who came forward in 2005 approached Denton Bible leadership in 2019 and asked for help caring for their daughter, who was then in her 30s, that the church decided to reach out to the police.
"Recognizing the change in the law and finding no record that a report to authorities had been made, church leaders reported what they knew to authorities and hired the independent investigators. However, Denton Bible did not consistently follow-up with the family or offer care to the victim. As a result the family left Denton Bible," the elder report states.
Denton Bible Church leaders reported they later discovered that several of Shiflet's victims reported him to federal authorities in Arkansas earlier in 2019.
They claimed that when they learned about Shiflet's abuse, they were not prepared to recognize abuse and were "ill-equipped" to investigate.
"Twenty years ago, we were not prepared to recognize the warning signs of grooming behavior. Even though reports were made of inappropriate behavior by Shiflet, we did not understand the way predators groom their victims and gatekeepers," the elders wrote.
"While Shiflet created his own ministry policies for his team and department, including a prohibition against being alone with children, he did not personally follow those protocols himself, nor was he held accountable for violating them. Furthermore, we did not have a system in place to appropriately investigate allegations into Shiflet's misconduct when victims came forward," they explained. "While we attempted to internally examine what happened years later, our Elder Board and counseling department were ill-equipped to lead an investigation into any sexual misconduct allegations during Shiflet's time at Denton Bible."
The elders also admitted to prioritizing "grace and forgiveness toward Shiflet over care for his victims and failed to call out his crimes of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, abuse of power and spiritual abuse."
Investigators also found that even among church members, there was a culture that seemed to protect the institution from criticism.
"The investigators talked to many who described an 'us vs. them' mentality toward those outside of our active church membership. This mindset caused us not to really see or provide care for victims and families that were no longer part of our church community," the elders noted. "The investigators also found that people within our church were afraid to raise concerns or even participate in the investigation, because of a feeling that it would be seen and treated as disloyalty."
Elders contend they were left broken by the report and are doing everything possible to change the culture that allowed the abuse.
"We were and continue to be overwhelmed with grief for the harm our church allowed to happen to young women entrusted to our care. We were taken aback by our failures to not only prevent the harm but to also assist victims in the healing process," the letter reads.
"While no amount of words can bring true healing to the victims, we feel a responsibility before the Lord to say to them and their families, 'We are exceedingly sorry.' These things should not have happened. And even after we were made aware of the abuse, we did not respond in the victim-centered manner befitting a church led by Jesus. For that, we lament."