TUCKER — A common saying describes justice as swinging in a long arc, but eventually getting there. For many sexual abuse survivors, that swing is finally arriving.
But while sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches is being addressed, albeit belatedly, the damage caused continues to affect victims. In the meantime, churches work to build up protocols for protecting children.
But churches may be reticent to approach those situations stemming from a rumor years, even decades, ago. Perhaps congregations wonder what to do when an adult approaches leadership and says, “Yeah, it happened to me too. Here.”
Rehoboth Baptist Church in Tucker hasn’t been named in the recent reporting on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. However, it factors into the current discussion nonetheless.
“Rehoboth was known for its sports programs back in the 70s and 80s, and that’s mainly why I went there,” says David Pittman, a member of the youth group back then who attended the church through the end of high school before going to college. “I got saved as a kid, then later moved into the youth group.”
It was as a member of Rehoboth in 1981, though, when Pittman began being molested by a youth minister when he was 12 years old (The Index is choosing to not name the perpetrator in order to maintain focus on victims and recovery at Rehoboth, but Pittman’s testimony can be read here.). All the acts, Pittman, says, took place away from church property.
Pittman says that time in his life greatly fractured his relationship with God and sent him spiraling into substance abuse for nearly 30 years. But today, he helps train churches on how to stop child predators.
Steps to address the past
Troy Bush was in high school in west Florida during the early 80s, the same time period Pittman was being assaulted while a member at Rehoboth. Bush became pastor at Rehoboth in 2012 and recent weeks, as well as Rehoboth’s own past, has left him determined to lead his church’s continued effort – abuse prevention steps have been in place for years – to being an example for good despite that part of its history.
“We’ve taken some very determined steps with this,” he said. “We tried to engage carefully the survivors (The church confirms five victims from that time.). We wanted to hear first-hand from them.
“Knowing that our processes in the Southern Baptist Convention do not provide a clear pathway to address it, we stepped back and said that regardless of autonomy and our relationships within the SBC, what is our responsibility?”
Pittman, Bush said, assured him that the pastor and church from then were unaware of his abuse. Furthermore, he told Bush he knows they would have dealt with it had they known.
“Rehoboth and its leaders had no knowledge any of this happened,” Bush said. “Today, there is mourning among our members and leaders from that era that they did not know so they could not warn others.
“But what we didn’t know then, we do now. So, what’s our responsibility?”
Contact and listen
Rehoboth’s plan began with contacting all known survivors, and just as important, listening to them.
“We mourned with them and took their allegations seriously,” Bush said. “We engaged with the accused and the church where he was serving as worship leader.”
Until a week-and-a-half ago the perpetrator was leading music at Trinity Baptist Church in Ashburn, which, like Rehoboth, hadn’t been mentioned in the Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News report. Years earlier Pittman had contacted Pastor Rodney Brown to inform him of the staff member. Brown admitted in a letter first shared through The Christian Index that he had not believed Pittman’s assertion that there had been more victims in addition to himself at Rehoboth.
In mid-to-late February, Bush engaged the perpetrator and received direct confirmation for other criminal acts beyond the ones against Pittman. Rehoboth’s pastor then took that information to Brown, who had previously defended his worship leaders as having only done it once. That, plus the perpetrator admitting the acts, led Brown to apologize to Pittman, among others, in his statement.
Said Pittman in response to Brown’s statement: “It is by our fruits we are known, and only time will tell if the words will be followed by action.”
An advisory team from Rehoboth, comprised of both ministers and lay leaders, sent correspondence that called upon the perpetrator to specific actions.
“We held the admitted offender accountable and called on him to take appropriate actions, including a full confession, genuine repentance, to never again serve in any leadership role in a church, to live voluntarily under the same legal requirements as one convicted of these crimes, and to seek appropriate counseling and accountability,” Bush said.
The Index asked Bush as to whether he’d had contact with Southern Baptist leaders on the issue.
“I’m truly thankful for the steps – such as the formation of a sexual abuse presidential study group – our Southern Baptist Convention has taken to address these matters,” he noted. “These are right and good actions they’re taking. At this point, the president’s office has not reached out to us or Trinity Baptist Church. Nobody from the [SBC] Executive Committee has reached out to us at any time to discuss the Trinity matter. I’ve reached out to the Executive Committee, chair, interim director, president’s office, and spoken to them directly.
“The one person we have heard from is Thomas [Hammond, Georgia Baptist executive director]. He’s talked with David, Rodney, and me extensively.”
Pittman, The Index has learned, did receive a call recently from Todd Unzicker, an associate of Greear, on behalf of the SBC president.
Working toward GRACE
GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) joins other organizations dedicated to help churches and other groups bolster their child abuse prevention policies. In the coming months Rehoboth will begin its own steps that can take up to six months in becoming GRACE-certified.
David Pittman will lead them there.
As a consultant and instructor for GRACE, Pittman’s first time to set foot in Rehoboth’s facilities since leaving as a teenager will be to help the church prevent what happened to him, from happening to anyone else.
“Rehoboth, with the obvious exception, still is a place with great memories for me,” he told The Index. “Those memories with family and friends weren’t destroyed. It’s a good place with good people trying to do the right thing.”
Bush agrees with SBC Executive Committee chairman Mike Stone’s call for all hands on deck in dealing with abuse.
“Even at the local level, churches have to take ownership and responsibility in these matters. Rehoboth has done that in the best way we know how.”
‘To look rightly to the future …’
Bush encourages pastors facing a similar situation to first not try to carry it alone. Alert a healthy leadership group in the church such as ministry staff or deacons. Also, seek counsel outside their immediate church body.
“We’re blessed in that there are extraordinary resources available through the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. They’ve made themselves available to us immediately. I’ve relied on their expertise, in addition to other counsel.
Sunday, March 3 had been planned as a vision-casting service for Rehoboth. Instead, it was spent in mourning over what had been learned.
“In order for us to look rightly into the future, we had to pause and look at the past. As we walked through this with our church body Sunday, we acknowledged that while worship includes celebration, it also can include lament. There were a lot of tears that this could happen to any child, tearful that this had happened within their church family. Others wept because they remembered David.
“Moving forward, this is a reminder that churches must do everything possible to prevent these crimes.
“And if they do happen we have to be transparent, be mournful, hold the guilty accountable, and walk together as a family to heal.”