Spin: Unpacking the 20/20 Expose of Abuse in IFB Circles


(haven’t seen the video? watch it on ABC or Hulu)

I know many of you were watching along with me Friday night as Elizabeth Vargas and 20/20 took on the stories of abuse in fundamentalism. There will no doubt be a lot of discussion on this so I thought I might start it off with a few observations and impressions that I took away. I actually recorded the episode as I was watching so I can go back and make sure that I actually saw what I thought I saw. Some of the moments were so jaw dropping that they require more than one viewing.

To preface everything that follows, let me say that I’m not a huge fan of the television news magazine style story. They simply lack the ability to present information with the same depth as written stories and rely as much on impressions gained from a quick series of carefully chosen images as on the actual spoken content. That being said, I’m not sure how anybody could watch this production and really call it less than fair.

Tina’s story is familiar to those of us on SFL. I covered it here almost a year ago. It’s admittedly not the usual content I cover here, but her story was so compelling that I couldn’t help but retell it. What I heard tonight on 20/20 was yet another confirmation that Tina’s story is not an isolated incident but rather a single episode among dozens of such stories that have been told and even more that as yet are hidden away by abusive IFB churches with domineering pastors and cowardly members.

I had a few issues with some of the statements made, especially those by Brian Fuller, now pastor of Trinity Baptist in New Hampshire, to whom fell the hapless role of being the solitary apologist for Independent Baptist Fundamentalists everywhere. He was in a bad spot and it was pretty obvious that he knew it and was trying gamely to put his transparency and kindheartedness on display. But as in any intense interview, a few missteps were inevitable and he did indeed make some.

For starters, he plainly stated that IFB churches are “not a network.” I actually laughed out loud when he said that because of how absurd it was. Chuck Phelps, the former pastor who was instrumental in mishandling and covering up Tina’s abuse still sits as vice-chairmen of the FBFI. The networks surrounding schools, large churches, major personalities, and other “camps” are legendary. The idea that every fundy church stands completely alone and separate, completely unaffected by all others is a popular myth, but a myth nonetheless.

When you consider that both Chuck Phelps and Matt Olson made Tina apologize for being raped and then both ended up being Presidents of different Fundamentalist Universities (Phelps at Maranatha, and Olson at Northland) you can see how the influence of these men is not isolated to a single church that is completely disconnected from the rest of the world. Hundreds of preacher boys graduate from those colleges being taught the same kinds of philosophies that these men practice. It’s a little hard to sell a defense based on the notion that thousands of abuse cases are isolated incidents. I can’t say I’m buying it.

When shown clips of Jack Schaap and others advocating child abuse, misogyny and other things, Fuller uneasily attempted to consign these to the “junk drawer” of fundamentalism — even though these types of teachings are rife throughout huge numbers of fundamental baptist churches. And Pastor Fuller’s discomfort grew even stronger when asked whether people in his own congregation were aware that some folks there were convicted sex offenders. He seemed hesitant and unsure of how to answer finally saying vaguely that “that information is available online” but dodging a response about whether or not the church takes it upon itself to warn its members. It was pointed out that a known sex offender (Tina’s step-father) was still singing in the choir in close proximity to minor children until Tina’s story went public.

If we needed any further evidence that this show did not go well for him we need only look at his personal blog. (Edit: the post has since been taken down without comment but you can still see it here)

[T]his gross, broad-brush characterization that all Independent Fundamental churches are filled with arrogant, “going for God” abusers isn’t fair, or true. It is actually dishonest and offensive. As a Dad of four and a pastor who loves his church family, I take protecting our children at Trinity very seriously and so do our people. They don’t look at me like the pope, the “untouchable.” I am accountable to them, financially, morally and spiritually. Our ministry not only has accountability, but we welcome it. Questions are solicited.

I hope what he says about his own church is true. If it is then I’m glad for it. But representing that as typical IFB practice is simply not true. As the victims and other church members who were interviewed repeated again and again, questioning isn’t normally encouraged. In fact, it’s forbidden. As one of the victims interviewed said: “You don’t question the ministry. You don’t question the pastor.” My darker side tends to think that this sputtering is Fuller’s attempt to keep some fundy cred in the face of saying some pretty non-fundy sounding things in the interview. He may truly find himself on the outside without a network if he’s not careful.

But as dubious as some of Fuller’s claims were, the real blood pressure raising moments of this interview were found in the written and spoken statements of Chuck Phelps. Phelps again and again attempted to characterize the relationship of the young teen girl with her rapist as “consensual,” “ongoing,” and even called it a “dating relationship” that “became sexual in nature.”

Now to be fair, the camera was cutting out a good bit so I’m not 100% sure of the context of all of Phelp’s on-camera remarks but he does clearly say “the church has always allowed heinous people under careful guidelines to be part of churches.” But Ernie Willis was not under careful supervision. According to the interviews most of the church didn’t even know that his ‘adultery’ was in fact the rape of a minor. The fact that Phelps is still in the ministry at all blows my mind.

It did not escape me that the Gibbs Law Firm (which is the for-profit side of the Gibbs family business, not the “ministry” of CLA) is who Chuck Phelps is using for his legal counsel according to a picture shot of the letter head. If that’s accurate, that tells me that the Gibbs clan doesn’t think that defending Phelps doesn’t rate “ministry status” but they’re still willing to take his money to give him legal advice. It figures that they would show up at some point.

On the whole I thought the story was sound. The premise was good. The victims were believable. The questions were provocative. What remains to be seen is how fundamentalism as a whole will react. I prognosticate a three pronged response.

1. The victims are all liars being used of Satan to try and tear down great men of God.

2. (as we’ve seen already) These crimes are anomalies and isolated incidents.

3. We’ve already forgotten about it. Let’s not dwell in the past! Hey, did you hear the great sermon our pastor preached last week about how liberals are destroying America?

Only time will tell whether denial and deception will manage to keep the battered sheep in line in fundyland after a little more of the truth has come out for the world to see.

8 thoughts on “Spin: Unpacking the 20/20 Expose of Abuse in IFB Circles”

  1. Our pastor showed the 20/20 piece to our church on Sunday night. I found it disturbing that stuff like this goes on. Nothing about the stories of the victims made me question their claims. The thought that things like this go on disgust me, especially that they occur in churches.

    I did feel that there was some slant to the piece. As you pointed out, there was only one person to act as an apologist. Additionally, I felt that it was inferred that this evil is somehow exclusive to IFB churches. It is not. It is possible that the fundy mentality increases the chances but it is not the only place that it happens. Fundies are now finding that the shoe is on the other foot. Having lambasted the Catholic church for sexual abuse, the dirty secret is that it happens within their own ranks as well.

    We need to also remember that we are not immune to this evil ourselves. I’m sure there are plenty of fundies who don’t believe this can/does happen in their ranks. We would be just as foolish to deny the possibility that it also happens in liberal/new-evangelical/what-have-you churches. The that-can’t-happen-here mentality is dangerous.

    1. The thing with just 1 representative is that is how the IFB handles scandals. At least once a year all 4 years I was at PCC they would make announcements about “if the news media ever asks you about anything related to the school, do not talk to them at pain of demerits, direct them to the school PR office”. Hard core fundies always try to control the flow of information to & from their congregation by running it through a single choke point, and do everything they can to delegitimize news organizations to the followers, and convince them to not talk to anyone, just keep quiet and let the pastor or PR guy handle it, and ignore the criticism.

    2. Controlling the flow of information is typical of pretty much every organization. When I was in the Civil Air Patrol we had classes on how to respond to journalists (don’t say anything and refer them to the PR guy). Every decent-sized company I have worked for has always stressed the importance of not sharing information with anyone that I was not authorized to do so (under threat of disciplinary action, including termination of employment). Politicians are famous for the PR spin their people can put on things.

      I’m not saying its right; I’m just saying that its not exclusive to IFBs. I’m also saying that claiming this is exclusive to IFBs is, I believe, disingenuous and pretty much the same as when they point fingers at other people and act like they are innocent. We should be taking the higher road.

    3. It doesn’t matter where else this type of thing has happened or could happen. The show was about what happened at a particular church that chooses to affiliate itself (even if only loosely) with the IFB movement.
      It would be idiotic for ABC to show the victim’s stories and then focus on the past or potential future problems of the Methodist churches.
      This type of abuse and cover-up is a problem at some IFBs. Not all. But I wonder if this happened at a “good” IFB church, how would they handle it? One would hope they would have the abuser arrested and give nothing but love and support to the victim. I’m sure if you had asked Phelps before this happened, “how would handle this scenario?”, he would respond correctly. But when confronted with the real thing, he buckled and acted despicably. He was allowed to do that because of the structure of the IFB. No accountability for the MOg.

      1. I think we agree more than we disagree on this. Maybe I was just being pedantic.

        There in little doubt that the situation at that church was handled the wrong way. I think part of the problem is that schools (especially Fundy ones) don’t teach how to handle them. However, the greater problem is that people abuse their positions, especially pastors, and have little or no accountability.

  2. Meant to mention this in the first post…

    My pastor also stated that he had watched both of the Schaap’s sermons used in the piece to see the context. His remarks about not listening to women on matters of theology were what they were (read: foolish and prideful). The clip where he criticized women for not taking care of themselves left out the preceeding comments where he was chastizing men for the same type of thing.

    I’m not defending the guy at all, just feel that context and presentation are important. I would say that I have not had a good opinion of Schaap since I was at a HAC youth conference in my teens where he got up after JH spoke and said we needed to buy his stuff and ‘get Jack Hyles in your soul’. Even back then I realized that kind of mentality was not good. Looking back, that was probably the first step in moving me away from the Fundie crowd.

    1. Just for the record in “chastises men also” in a VERY passing “and that’s true for men too” at the end of his rant, and had no business linking women’s bodies to the behavior of men, it’s classic manipulation of women, and enabling abusers, that just doesn’t translate even if he had spent equal time & effort criticizing men as well.

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