Internet Army

03.23.14

‘Survivor’ Bloggers Join Forces to Reveal Christian Fundamentalist Abuses

They collect documents, interview sources, and get thousands of Facebook shares. Meet the army of ex-fundamentalists exposing the misdeeds of the organizations they left.

In early March, blogger Samantha Field contacted her alma mater, the notoriously fundamentalist Pensacola Christian College in Florida, before she published an explosive story. Field, who blogs about “overcoming fundamentalist indoctrination,” was going public with allegations from two former students who said they had been raped at Pensacola, and that the school had shamed and expelled them instead of punishing the alleged perpetrators. The stories had come in after Field posted a call on her blog. She contacted four different departments at Pensacola to ask how such cases were handled, and was finally told by the college’s communications officer that the school didn’t respond to “blog-type articles.”

That didn’t last long. Field’s “blog-type article” was quickly shared tens of thousands of times, and Pensacola was forced to respond to the allegations with an official statement.

Pensacola isn’t the only evangelical institution suddenly feeling the heat from bloggers and online activists, often with an inside knowledge of their operations. After decades in which church authorities tightly controlled information and successfully isolated their disaffected members from society, the internet is making it all but impossible for fundamentalist churches, colleges, and other institutions to hide the scandals in their midst. Online “survivor” communities are obsessively documenting alleged abuses and letting those trapped inside fundamentalist movements know they’re not alone.

“If you have 100 stories that are really similar, the likelihood that they're all made up is really low.”

The scale and impact of these communities has unfolded just in the past few months, as some of the biggest names in Christian fundamentalism found themselves in the crosshairs. In March, Illinois-based fundamentalist Bill Gothard resigned after a website published a slew of stories from women alleging sexual harassment. In February, a filmmaker released a 90-minute, Kickstarter-funded documentary alleging hidden sexual abuse in the Jesus People USA Evangelical Covenant Church, a Christian community in Chicago. In January, Bob Jones University terminated its contract with a consulting firm it had hired to investigate the college’s handling of sexual assault, and then reinstated the contract after an internet outcry. Another fundamentalist patriarch, Doug Phillips, recently resigned after admitting to an affair with a younger woman—with every micro-development, including Facebook status updates of former staff, reported by blogs. Sovereign Grace Ministries, a large association of evangelical churches, is facing not just a class action lawsuit but a phalanx of sites publishing documents, transcripts of its counseling trainings, and testimonies from people who say church leaders ignored abuse.

Many fundamentalist communities control their members by isolating them and strictly regulating behavior—especially controlling the flow of information from the outside world and between people. Bob Jones University, for example, forbids students from listening to certain music, filters their internet use, and prohibits certain magazine subscriptions. At Pensacola Christian College, students are banned from watching any television or unapproved movies. A 2006 Chronicle of Higher Education article said the college allowed students to visit only a few hundred websites and that it strictly censored even the books and magazines in its library.

The internet, especially when accessed through smartphones that can circumvent draconian internet filters and surreptitiously record internal proceedings, has broken down these barriers. Camille K. Lewis, a former faculty member of Bob Jones University, told The Daily Beast that the university’s administration banned a range of sites, from Wikipedia to Dilbert cartoons, but students are now able to easily circumvent those restrictions. “You have kids reading the New York Times (heaven forbid) and watching Glee (oh, horrors), and then on Facebook reading what other people are saying,” she said. “It’s more people saying the Emperor has no clothes.”

Many of the people who run the watchdog sites act as reporters who interview, document, aggregate, and break news about the leaders and institutions they’ve left behind.  

One of the most intriguing facts of Bill Gothard’s demise was that some of the allegations that contributed to his downfall this month originally came to light decades ago, and even led to a 17-day hiatus from power in 1980. But it wasn’t until 34 years later, when the blog Recovering Grace posted a deeply-reported exposé of Gothard’s alleged pattern of sexual harassment and sexual contact with a minor, that he was finally forced to resign.

Recovering Grace, “an online organization devoted to helping people whose lives have been impacted by the teachings of Bill Gothard,” began in 2011 and emerged from a private Facebook page of students once involved in Gothard’s ministry. It grew into a blog and a network of over 1,000 former students. In 2012, the site received its first story from a woman alleging harassment. She included the names of people who could verify her story, and Recovering Grace’s editors did their due diligence.

“We contacted as many people as we could, verified every detail that could be verified, and published her story,” said Kari Underwood, an editor for the site, which is run entirely by volunteers and publishes its posts without bylines. “This started the flood of similar stories.” Dozens of emails poured in from Gothard’s former employees and proteges, revealing strikingly similar details of grooming, harassment and unwanted sexual attention.

Gothard’s former staffers took notice. “They liked the tone of our blog, and they respected our approach to the issues,” Underwood said. Five former staffers sent Recovering Grace a trove of internal documents they had saved for decades, from when the ministry’s leadership first tried to confront Gothard decades ago. Recovering Grace’s editors met with their sources, drew on the site’s extensive network to verify details, and used the documents to construct a detailed timeline of the allegations and how Gothard’s organization had handled it.

The result was an exposé that includes personal testimonies from 34 women alleging abuse and testimonies from people who corroborated that Gothard had singled out an underage girl for his attentions. Internal documents revealed the inner workings of Gothard’s ministry, including an 81-page transcript of a 1983 conference call in which people discussed how to address Gothard’s misbehavior, a 10-year chronology compiled by staff decades ago, and internal correspondence.

Underwood said that the culture inside Gothard’s organization emphasized keeping complaints to oneself. Sharing someone’s misdoings could be labeled “spreading a bad report” and get you “blacklisted.” Through the community of Recovering Grace, former staffers found a place where the truth could come out. “It is our belief that there were people in leadership working directly with Bill who were ready to do something about the situation but needed this kind of public outcry to make it happen now,” she said.

Recovering Grace is one of many similar watchdog sites. Clinton Verley, a 2010 graduate of Bob Jones University, runs BJU News, a site that monitors the college, reports on its financial developments, and publishes internal documents and recordings supplied by tipsters. Verley’s scoops have included recordings of a sermon series on homosexuality and a faculty Q&A in which the administration responded to internal queries about its rules on women’s hosiery, music, and the King James Bible.

When BJU terminated its contract with Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), the organization it hired to review its handling of sexual abuse, the news was first reported on Facebook before major news organizations started covering the story. BJU News blogged throughout the saga with roundups of media coverage, social media reactions, and audio of the college’s meeting with the student body, leaked to BJU News before it was released on Bob Jones University’s website. BJU News also published a post noting the student newspaper’s heavy editing and backpedaling of an editorial that dismissed the college’s critics by calling them “bitter.” Verley said it’s difficult to know the full impact sites like his and others had in Bob Jones University’s reversal, but he believes that they were able to speed up the process.

“Their power comes from being able to keep people isolated and ignorant of the fact that there are other people who are just like them, feeling the same way,” Verley said of “cult-like” institutions. “Without the power of the internet, without being able to reach out to other people, it’s very hard to break free from those messages.” In 2011, Verley joined other BJU students and alumni in the first protest held on Bob Jones University Campus, protesting Chuck Phelps, a board member who reportedly punished and banished a 15-year-old girl, Tina Anderson, who was raped and impregnated by a deacon of Phelps’ church. The rapist was finally sentenced for his crimes in 2011, but the crime was first revealed on a Facebook group for survivors of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches.

Lewis thinks all of the survivor sites together have a powerful effect. “We see all the connections and I think it makes us more courageous, and we feel less alone,” she said. Ryan Stollar, a co-founder of Homeschoolers Anonymous, an online hub for former homeschooled students, agrees that online communities are breaking down the isolation that many abuse survivors feel and are freeing people to tell their stories: “A lot of people felt like they didn’t have the right, and online communities are helping people realize that they can speak up.”

Julie Ingersoll, a professor at the University of North Florida who studies evangelical communities, said mental isolation is key to abuse, and websites telling the stories of abuse survivors “completely undermine the power of abusers to convince their victims that it's their fault and that they're all alone." Collectively, the stories have power. It is often challenging to fully report on stories of sexual harassment or sexism in evangelical communities because records are sealed and because individual allegations are dismissed by people in power, Ingersoll says. But, she notes, if dozens of women tell the same story, the veracity is difficult to deny: “If you have 100 stories that are really similar, the likelihood that they're all made up is really low.”