How the Church Conspired to Cover Up My Sexual Abuse
Nine years ago this week my father found me in a bathtub full of bloody bathwater, my wrists slashed by a razor blade. The ER doctor said I that while I had cut deep enough and in the right direction, my blood clotted so quickly that it thwarted my suicide attempt. During the subsequent mandatory 24-hour psychiatric evaluation, I blamed my actions on fear of failure and career stagnation. In reality, I was severely depressed. I had been living for years in a perpetual hell of anxiety, self-loathing, and debilitating anxiety. Left to fester for the better part of the a decade, those sinister beasts will get the best of any man. This is the story of what led to that event, and how I became who I am today.
I first knew I was “different” when I was about 11 years old. And by that, I mean that when the other boys were beginning to show interest in girls — like we’re taught is normal — I didn’t. Those feelings never came. I didn’t know what gay was in fifth grade, but that didn’t stop other kids from calling me a faggot through elementary, middle and high school.
I eventually learned what being gay meant from a video series about homosexuality that the youth pastor at Audubon Park Baptist Church made us watch when I was in seventh grade. The videos featured “Doctor” James Dobson, the founder of the rabidly anti-gay hate group Focus on the Family.
For decades, The Southern Baptist Church has systematically brainwashed young people into believing being gay was perhaps the most unforgivable sexual sin — a vile sickness. Church leaders taught us back then that HIV and AIDS were physical manifestations of an abominable disease. Queers had it coming, we were led to believe. The church also taught that homosexuality was curable through the now-debunked practice of “gay conversation therapy,” too.
Because of this toxic atmosphere, I never once considered confessing to anyone that I felt “different.” The mere thought of it made me physically ill.
Despite the otherness I was hiding, I was otherwise a relatively goofy, happy-go-lucky teenager. My family joined Immanuel Baptist Church in Germantown, Tenn., in early 1997 and I became actively involved immediately. (Immanuel later moved to Collierville and changed its name to Life Church at Schilling Farms in the early aughts and later The Church at Schilling Farms.) At school, I guess you could say I was a “Jesus Freak.” A goody two-shoes. I didn’t have a ton of friends there because I spent most of my time at church and with church friends.
Not long after we joined, several families from Cherokee Baptist Church began attending Immanuel. A college student, Carl*, came along with those refugees from Cherokee and joined Immanuel. Our youth pastor hired him as an associate youth pastor.
A lover of music, film, and theatre, Carl was tasked with managing drama programs for our thriving youth worship services. He also occasionally led Tuesday night Bible studies and helped with an intense, summer-long program for the most dedicated students called “Students Entering an Awesome Life of Service” — S.E.A.L.S. (a la Navy SEALs).
Carl was my mentor in S.E.A.L.S. Everyone in the program was assigned homework each week. We would get together to go through these assignments, which included Bible studies, accountability sessions, and prayer. I stayed in his parents’ East Memphis home one Friday night. We discussed Romans, Chapter 1, from what I recall.
Here’s what else I remember:
I remember that his dad drank Milwaukee’s Best beer, and there was lots of it in the fridge.
I remember him “accidentally” flipping to soft core porn channels on the TV and feigning surprise and embarrassment.
I remember him telling me I had to sleep in the bed with him because his mother worried that “oils” from my skin would damage the carpet or the upholstery of the couches.
I remember him saying his mom would be up early in the morning to vacuum.
I remember his creepy waterbed.
I remember heavy blankets over all of the windows in his bedroom. “To keep the sunlight out,” he said.
I remember his hot breath on the back of my neck when I woke up around 2 a.m.
I remember the horror I felt when I realized his hand was grasping my private parts.
I remember the texture of his short, stubby fingers.
I remember convincing myself that this was all a misunderstanding — convincing myself that this was just a bizarre sleep behavior (like sleepwalking).
I remember him eventually letting go of my penis after I made not-so-subtle “waking” movements.
I remember going back to sleep only to wake back up to much more aggressive groping — his hands in my underwear, his fingers between my butt cheeks.
I remember the moment I realized it wasn’t a misunderstanding at all.
I remember praying for this nightmare to end, for sunrise to save me — knowing full well that the cloth barricades on the windows had created a makeshift fortress of darkness and despair.
I remember every detail as if I am still locked in that dungeon.
I remember the final conclusion of those early morning hours. But I’ll spare you the gory details.
Some days it is as if I am still lying in that bed, frozen for all time: my eyes sealed shut, my mind racing, my entire being violated. There I am, still trembling in fear and shame on my bedroom floor in the days thereafter. I distinctly recall that my mother made chili, one of my favorite meals, the next day. The persistent, sour nausea in the back of my throat and gut kept me from eating that night … and for days.
The toxic theology of the Southern Baptist Church led me to believe that I brought the assault onto myself — that God was punishing me for being gay. I was completely and utterly ashamed. Before the incident, I had already prayed several times that God would “fix” me. That He would cure me of my homosexual desires. After my assault, those prayers rose to a crescendo of unrelenting, tear-soaked pleas for relief.
Now, you may be wondering if I told anyone I was molested by a church employee. No, I didn’t. Not at first. I was afraid that if anyone found out, I would be outed as a queer to my family, my friends, and my church. You see, anxiety was creeping in and consuming me. Crippling depression took over my psyche, like a virus commandeering an operating system.
Another thing I vividly remember: Sleep was easy. Waking up was the real nightmare. Each moment a tailspin of unyielding angst and paranoia. To be awake was to be paralyzed and desperately afraid.
Eventually I found out that there were other victims — all with nearly identical stories. That’s when we finally told our parents that we’d been molested. We decided that we had to tell our youth pastor and senior pastor, Thomas*. Carl was removed from his leadership position immediately by our youth pastor and asked to leave the church.
Thomas told our youth pastor not to speak about the matter to anyone and that he would handle the situation from there on out. Thomas told us that he demanded that Carl go to counseling, and that he had written a confession letter (meaning everything was supposedly on the record). Thomas said he was going to hold a meeting with all youth parents. He also insisted that the most important thing we could do as Christians was to forgive Carl and to be faithful to the Church.
We took Thomas’s word that he was handling the situation. We were kids, and we looked to him as our spiritual leader for guidance. Therefore, we opted not to press charges based on Thomas’s claims. My overwhelming fear of being out was crippling in the wake of a prospective media firestorm.
Had we only known what was really going on.
On October 17, 2015, I was catching up with an old friend (and fellow victim) while I was back home for the Memphis vs. Ole Miss football game. (Go Tigers!) We started talking about everything that happened then: our regrets, our anger, and how our lives have been inextricably linked to those events.
My friend told me something that made all of those feelings of nausea, fear, and anger come flooding back. Apparently, Thomas told him some time later that it was all different for me — that because I’m gay, I wanted it to happen and liked it. In other words: I had it coming. (Sound familiar?)
In the following months, we victims got together and began to investigate what really went on at Immanuel Baptist Church in the late 90s. What we discovered was shocking. All of those promises Thomas made were lies. Instead of protecting us, he, a CEO, methodically swept the rampant abuse in his church under the rug. He schemed to make sure that everyone kept their mouths shut. He lied to make us believe Carl was being held accountable. He manipulated all of us — the victims, our parents, and even our youth pastor — into believing that by following his pastoral advice we were honoring God.
Statistically speaking, it’s very likely Carl has abused others. Research estimates that serial child molesters may average as many as 400 victims in their lifetime. Four. Hundred. How many others were abused before me? Since? That I have to ask that question terrifies me.
On October 23, 2015, we collectively sent Thomas a detailed, more-than-gracious letter (signed by me) seeking answers. Did he really say that because I’m gay I had it coming? It was an excruciating ordeal to pen that gory five-page note, but it was something we had to finally do.
I eventually received a reply from Thomas, postmarked November 20, 2015. From inside sources, we found out that Thomas had allegedly met with Southern Baptist Convention attorneys, who presumably vetted his letter’s language, comically denying any knowledge of my sexual assault. He was claiming legal innocence for his negligence. Failure to report is indeed a crime in Tennessee. In his response, Thomas had the audacity to say, “I hope you are able to find forgiveness in your heart for those who have disappointed you in the past.” The man could teach a PhD seminar on how to gaslight victims of abuse.
That week we learned that before responding to me Thomas had not only shared my letter with Southern Baptist Convention attorneys, but also with church staff, elders (like a board of directors), his family, and various other allies. We also found out that The Church at Schilling Farms had begun negotiating a merger with Highpoint Church, a Memphis megachurch with a Collierville campus. Thomas shared my letter with the leadership of Highpoint Church, as well.
Here’s where things get interesting: On Sunday, November 23 — the very same week I received Thomas’s answer — Andy Savage, teaching pastor at Highpoint Church, made an unexpected merger announcement at the Highpoint Collierville campus.
During this speech, Savage went out of his way to say the following: “Just so you know, because some of you have friends in the community who may go to Schilling Farms, there’s nothing sinister going on at The Church at Schilling Farms. Nothing bad’s taking place. I assure you. Here’s what’s going on: God has orchestrated two great churches to come together and do something better than we could have done on our own.”
Why does this matter? Previously billed as a merger, the deal turned into an outright acquisition. A real estate deal. I suspect that these two churches merged in order to give their institutions, including Thomas, sanctuary from any legal recourse from their victims.
I’ve been reminded seemingly daily over the past year about my trauma. Whether it’s rape culture in general, high profile court cases like Brock Turner, or the repugnant Republican nominee for the White House who literally bragged about sexually assaulting women on tape.
What happens when sexual abuse intersects with years of homophobic dogma, systemic moral bankruptcy, and institutional failure? Me, desperate and despondent, in a tub full of bloody bathwater. Sexual abuse is literally a matter of life or death for victims. A sexual violation may not end in murder, but if it leads to alcoholism, drug addiction, debilitating depression and anxiety, or god forbid, suicide — what difference does it make? That’s a distinction without a difference. Let me be absolutely clear: abusers and those who aid and abet them have blood on their hands.
I refuse to be silent or silenced for one more second.
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I’m telling this story to give strength to other potential victims to step forward with their experiences. While the statute of limitations expired long ago for me, others may be able to take legal action and receive justice. I want people who have been in my shoes to know that I believe you and I believe in you. You are valued and you are loved. Please know that you are not alone and that none of it is your fault. If you need help speaking out and telling your story, I am here for you.
I want people like Carl to know that their deeds do lifelong damage to innocent people like me and that their actions are unforgivable. You are nothing more than cowards and weaklings trying to assert dominance. We are not afraid of you. We see you. We will name you. We will hold you accountable. One way or another, you will be exposed.
I want Thomas to know that what he did is unacceptable and unequivocally immoral. I want the Church to know that its knee-jerk instinct to protect itself over assault victims is shameful and odious. Please hear me loud and clear: Any faith that prioritizes institutional power over justice is fraudulent. Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer famously declared that “silence in the face of evil is itself evil.”** He was right. You are evil indeed.
*Names changed because, unfortunately, we live in a society that allows criminals to sue victims for defamation
**There is a dispute about the actual source of this quote