Fathom Mag
Article

The High Cost of Advocacy

I fought sexual abuse in the church as a friend of survivors.

Published on:
May 20, 2019
Read time:
4 min.
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According to my friends, thirty-eight years ago the youth pastor in a large SBC church began to molest them. I believe them, so though I did not know it at the time, thirty-eight years ago I became a friend to abuse survivors. But I have lived most of my life with this knowledge, watching the effects of clergy sexual abuse unfold in real time with real people over decades. A shared childhood made us friends, but two years ago #metoo opened a door which also made me their advocate. As a licensed clinical social worker, advocacy is a familiar professional role, but this one was personal.

My motivation to endure was simple—faithfulness to God and not going to my grave without having done everything possible to stand up for my friends and to protect others.

As society at large began to recognize the abuse that had always been present, God called me to be his voice on behalf of and in partnership with the women who survived abuse at this pastor’s hands.  Two previous attempts had been made to warn the church which employed this man of the molestation charges made against him. Still, he pastored for over three decades. What outcome could I hope for from a third attempt? Better equipped people had seemingly failed. This kept me trembling, calling out in prayer for courage, clarity, and strength. Amos 5:24 became our battle cry: “But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.” God would fight for and with us—he would have to. 

The beginning of advocacy was a quiet war of preparation—hours upon hours of research, phone calls, and emails to prepare the facts, the arguments, and the testimony. The work was solitary but sacred. Finally, letters were sent to church leadership, and emails and phone calls to Southern Baptist organizations. One last attempt for justice was made, hoping for a different outcome. 

As our voices grew more intense, the true opposition was revealed. We were not up against the youth pastor of my childhood church, but against people and organizations who looked like “the good guys.”    

“It happened so long ago.”  

“It was just a couple of girls.”  

“What if he apologizes now?”  

“This will hurt other people.”  

What do you do when no one listens? When they listen but do not believe? When they believe but do not act? When they act with few results? When the results are not enough? 

The denomination had no authority. The association had no teeth. The committees had no answers. The denominational press had no interest. The initial offerings were silence, delays, and side steps.   

Journalism has a heart, but it also has teeth.

From the beginning, we were in over our heads, doing the impossible.  While many expressed quiet sorrow, few were moved to meaningful action. Worse, fellow believers called the victims and advocates “wicked, evil women with bad agendas,” portraying us as hysterical ladies who had fallen victim to the cultural wave of #metoo. To advocate for survivors is to live with armor and weapons, to shelter in a ditch while bullets whiz by. To be the outcast. To be the untrusted in the place you believed you were already accepted—God’s house.

The first victory felt like a glass half full of lies. He resigned, but the victims testify that he did not tell the truth in doing so. Justice could not be found in the court system due to the statute of limitations. A resignation of lies was not justice, and the fight continued. 

Gathering courage from Rachael Denhollander in an interview with Christianity Today, I read these words over and over: “Obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.” 

Other options were exhausted by the time we entrusted a secular journalist to tell the accounts of abuse that occurred in Texas before she was born. The survivors became willing to hand shame-filled secrets to strangers because the church had turned its back, measuring the cost of involvement with the wrong currency. With a deep breath, I handed over a binder full of documents. The reporter took it carefully, knowing it carried our final hope for justice. I have never been so grateful for the free press.

Once the media process started, it rolled out fast and furious. New battles were fought on a phone, from a keyboard, in a church office. Journalism has a heart, but it also has teeth. The press process took on a life of its own, and I was equal parts terrified and ecstatic. Would I be sued for telling the truth? Would this be enough to keep him out of a pulpit?

The wins came first with a newspaper article—front page and lengthy. Sobbing quietly, I watched the filming of my friend’s interview from five-feet off camera. Next came a reporter with a camera crew. The TV spot was short and damning. Finally, the truth was told, more than three decades after it happened. 

Even when a war is won, there are casualties, and this one left me wrecked and healed in equal parts.

A year has passed since the media blitz. Advocacy costs, but it was worth every insult heard, every hour spent, every tear shed, every sacrifice made. My motivation to endure was simple—faithfulness to God and not going to my grave without having done everything possible to stand up for my friends and to protect others. The alternative was to let a man I believe to be a serial molester to occupy a pulpit. 

All that is lost cannot be counted.  Even when a war is won, there are casualties, and this one left me wrecked and healed in equal parts. The gift given to me was humility in the certainty that this task was always and only God’s work. We have experienced the fullness of justice on this earth, the truth has been told, and this cross can be put down. The rest we carry until heaven.

Carol Shelton
Carol Shelton is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a trauma-informed therapist. She is a wife, mom of four, and lifelong Texan. Her professional experience includes advocacy for kids in foster care and adjunct teaching at a local university. She specializes in grief and loss and volunteers as a group facilitator at The Warm Place with women who have experienced the death of a child. She loves Jesus desperately and clings to him daily.

Cover image by Shamim Nakhaei

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