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.

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

    1. You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole, nor can you paint such widely diverse independent churches with such a broad brush. It’s somewhat uninformed to put the Hyles Anderson crowd of today with that of Northland International University. There were some pretty major instances of dishonest journalism in the 20/20 report, as Phelps did indeed report to both police and child services, so please note the other side, as stated by documented reports at http://www.drchuckphelps.com/index.html

      1. I did read that site. I’ll take it seriously if and when he actually uses the word “rape” to describe what happened to Tina. Until then, I have no respect for him.

      2. the brush was a bit broad, but that doesn’t mean the facts of the situations at hand can be ignored. If you want to pretend that hyles and northland have really been all that far apart in the past, well, go for it, but the distinctions are lost on most. I was concerned that the rather indistinct description of “The IFB” would give folks who should sit up and pay attention an excuse to write off the whole thing, as it looks like you have. The Phelps site is an embarrassing attempt to justify sinful arrogance.

        1. It also gives his side of the story, but nothing to back up what he says. In other words, you only have him saying yes, I did indeed call the police. He has no proof in the form of a statement from the police department backing him up.

  1. this seems to be a classic example of what happens when church members anywhere and everywhere put a man on a pedistal only God should be put on … and im new here but i see ur point i fall into he fundie side of many things but the idea of legalisim is not one of them and if people spent the time in there bible studying the dispensationalisim they claim to uphold they would be ashamed of there gross abusr of Gods word…at the end of the day im a kjo kind of guy its unequivical to me… i know i know theres a whole forum for that but to me this case is simple if the bible were your final athourity rather than the man in the pulpit this abuse of church power dosnt happen :shock:

  2. Umm… Did you bother to go to Phelps website or read the documents from Tina’s mother.
    Have you read the police reports?
    Didn’t think so. Try googleing sex abuse in public schools. I’m betting you’ll find more then 2 or 3 examples.

    1. I worked at a IFB day school with less than 100 students for 2 years. During that short time, a married youth pastor had an affair with a 23 year old teacher and a teacher had an inappropriate relationship with one of the female high school students while his children and pregnant wife waited at home. If we put that into percentages, the IFB school is no better, if not worse than public schools regarding such shenanigans.

        1. What IFB church was this, or at least what city was it in? I am curious for my own info.

    2. Darrell, you forgot response #4: “Don’t talk about abuse in IFB churches because there’s WORSE abuse in [the Catholic church, public schools, etc.]”

      1. After watching the 20/20 show, I was left feeling very upset but there were holes and still unanswered questions for me in regards to Tina. I was thankful to have read Chuck Phelps and Tina’s Mom’s statement. That cleared some things up for me. What happened to Tina was AWFUL but what Tina’s Mom had to say explained more to me of what 20/20 failed to reveal.

    3. sorry…not buying tina’s mom’s defense of phelps (a man who called this a “dating relationship” snf “consensual” and presented ernie’s (adultery) and tina’s (immorality) church discipline as 2 seperate issues…deception and LIES!!!

  3. The show aired Friday night, and now it’s Monday.
    I didn’t comment on this deal until I had a chance to watch the 20/20 segment and read the over 450 (!) comments posted here. For whatever it may be worth (2 cents?), here’s my take on the whole deal:

    There are a specific issue and a general issue here.

    The specific issue is how churches respond to sexual abuse, especially when minors are involved. Churches are, in my view, human institutions comprising fallible human beings. That means every person in a church sins, and some of them will even commit serious crimes. Sexual abuse has been reported among groups of Fundamentalists, Mormons, Catholics, liberal Protestants, Mennonites, Orthodox Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others too numerous to name here. What distinguishes one faith group from another on this issue is not whether or not abuse ever happens, but how the group and its leadership respond to it. We’ll leave how other groups respond for another day. There is abundant testimony that many IFB churches (I’m not saying all of them), including their leaders, respond by trying to cover up or smooth over the whole thing, and/or by blaming, and even punishing, the victims of abuse. This is unconscionable. The God and the Christ of the Bible are on the side of the oppressed, not of helping their oppressors. As the old saying goes, the task of the Church is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. These are blatant cases of the Church acting to comfort the already comfortable while further afflicting the afflicted.

    The more general issue 20/20 raised was that IFB teachings tend to support the abuse of women and children. Based on the sermons I’ve heard through links on this site, the book excerpts presented, and the testimony of IFB survivors, I’d say that the normative behavior in IFB circles amounts to severe abuse, physical, emotional, and otherwise, of women and children (and at least some men). Furthermore, the IFB’s bizarrely puritanical approach to human sexuality would seem to be a major obstacle to development of healthy sexual attitudes by IFB young people. Again, this may not be true of every IFB congregation, but these philosophical underpinnings seem to be much more systematic and pervasive than the simple inability to deal effectively with cases of sexual assault.

  4. I was formerly (until I moved to another city) on the Administrative Council of a church that had, at different times, two registered sex offenders as members. The pastor made sure of the church leadership (staff, committee chairs, Sunday School teachers) knew of these men’s histories. When they were released from prison, we welcomed them back into the church as brothers (which, in Christ, they were). We also quietly made sure that they never volunteered with children or youth in any way, and that they were never alone with minors on the church grounds or church activities. Their punishment, in our view, was up to the civil authorities, and ultimately to God. Our job was to make sure children and teens at the church were safe. There was never a problem in the church involving these members.

    There are ways to deal with these things, besides the extremes of pretending nothing happened, or expelling and shunning the person who did wrong.

    1. It had been taken down when the above was written.

      If it’s back up then that has happened over the last few hours.

  5. In these Last Days and Endtimes I fully expect to see more stories like the 20/20 piece coming forwards from the hidden shadow of professing Christendom into the light of day. IFB Churches are great at proclaiming the Word of God but clearly forget that Numbers 32:23 also applies to any concerted effort at covering up sin that transpires in their own Church and as a consequence of their leadership actions in responding to it. My family and I attended an IFB Church for over 17 years and when molestation and wrongdoing took place it almost destroyed the Church,and I stood up in a Church Business Meeting and opposed the actions of molestation. 2 separate men stood up and accused me of attacking the Pastor when all I was doing was trying to defend the children and young people from such horrible acts. People who I thought I knew and who thought projected the Love of Christ turned on me and defended the cover-up and wrongdoing. I left the Church that night and for my Family and I it was worse than a divorce to leave. But God showed me He was in control, because within the year one of the men who had stood up and railed against me for “attacking the Pastor-” was arrested by Police for molesting his own daughter. I personally shudder to think of the awful memories multiple thousands of young girls and boys must have having suffered at the hands of both molesters and their own so-called Church leadership when such incidents are exposed or uncovered . Satan is in the Sanctuary in many Churches and instead of opposing what he is doing, the so-called Pastors and Church leaderships are acting as if they are above the Law in defiance of State Law and Statute,and exempt from being held accountable for not protecting children, young girls and young boys from molesters and pedophiles. Ironic isn’t it ? The IFB and the Roman Catholic Church have something in common…they both help destroy children in defiance of the very words of The Lord Jesus Christ spoken of in Luke 17:1-2. When the Rapture does come, many across professing Christendom are going to clearly bust Hell wide open!
    Chaplain Bill Herrmann,Survivor IFB

    1. Thank you for defending the powerless even at personal cost to yourself and your own family in obedience to Scripture.

      I think many churches need to heed Isaiah 1: “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

    2. Powerful testamony. That is why the Gospel is so necessary for daily living, that Christ is the focus of all we do and all we are. Not in a exterior, facade, put-on showy sort of way, but in truth, in our being.

      thank you for the stand you have made.

    3. Your experience sounds eerily close to what happened in the late 1980s/early 1990s in the church I grew up in. While I was only a child, I remember our business meeting and ensuing circumstances, although my sister and I left the meeting 1/3 to 1/2 of the way through. My parents talked about a man (possibly more than one–the memories are somewhat vague) who strongly disagreed with the pastor and who actually left during the meeting, as well as the fact that one of the men “stood up for” the pastor was eventually arrested for molesting his own step-daughter (a girl I knew). Could that have been you? Without being too specific in a public place, was the church you left in South Carolina?

  6. Um. 500?

    This has been quite the discussion. I’m wondering if there’s more to come from 20/20. I’d think that a year-long investigation would have garnered more info than was shown last Friday. It’s provoked a lot of discussion, and hopefully some eyes have been opened.

  7. In the 20/20 piece I saw one case of abuse and alot of creative editing of sermons and interviews. How does one abuse case and a few pastors translate into all independent baptist churches? Does abuse take part in independent baptist churches? yes but not all/ Does abuse happen in public schools? yes bur not all. Is abuse happening at the hands of men? yes but not all. I believe those who are abusers have some serious problems and need help, they are destructive. Those who are bitter can be just as destructive. What does painting broadstrokes do for victims of abuse?

    1. Chuck, I agree that it was lumping way too many different groups into one convenient group. Abuse in some circles does not translate into a problem with abuse in all IFB circles.

      At the same time, please don’t minimize what other people are saying by calling them bitter. We shouldn’t judge their motives, just their conclusions.

    2. Yeah, abuse happens all over, but what is being called on the carpet now is the organization’s reaction to the individual’s actions.

      The Catholic Church has had major abuse problems. But for the most part the Church is dealing with it publicly and are trying to purge abusers and cooperate with law enforcement. When they don’t is when they get called on the carpet by the media.

      Furthermore, the 20/20 show was asking the good question of whether or not the leadership structure & atmosphere of an IFB church are particularly condusive to abuse be it mental/spiritual, physical, or sexual.

      “Those who are bitter can be just as destructive.” As a rapist? Are you seriously saying that? The bitter card has been played out already, anyways.

    3. Chuck, you might want to watch the program again. Although it spent the most time on one case (Tina’s), several survivors of abuse from IFB churches were interviewed on-camera, and other cases of IFB men (many of them pastors) who had been convicted or pleaded guilty of sexual crimes were cited. Nobody says this happens in every IFB church. But it would be foolish not to think there’s a bigger problem here than just a few isolated cases.

  8. I don’t have the experience to really post here, but the IFB pastor they’ve interviewed is naive at best.

    1. At best. I don’t think he’s behaved despicably, just about anyone stuck in that position without having been responsible is going to look bad, and be defensive. Being an IFB, he has no clue what being defensive is or why he should stop being so defensive. They consider it a virtue. I feel kind of bad for him, but not much, cause is still carrying water for the problems, and like they said in the interview still hiding the sex offenders from the current members. Naive or not, that’s all kinds of wrong.

  9. Just to let you know. I love my church. It’s an IFB church. And I can’t really identify myself with any of the IFB churches that were mentioned in the 20/20 interview.

    I don’t care if you judge me because of a label. Ironically that’s what fundies get accused of a lot.

    Yes, my church has problems just like your church. Luckily problems are dealt with with Truth and love at my church. Truth that can only be found in the Gospel and the Bible. I wish you can rejoice with me in God’s grace and how He is working in our church but I understand if you want to put me and my church in the same group that abuses and rapes women and children just because I got to an IFB church.

    And yes we are all responsible for creating an environment that either breeds abuse and rape or discourages abuse and rape. If accountability and transparency is missing than you will hear more stories like Tina. Unfortunately churches are run by sinners. I do not think any church is above sin. We can only pray that we are trying our best to put accountability and transparency in place so that we can avoid situations like Tina and many others who have encountered wolves. I do not think God will deal lightly with those people.

  10. Here is a critique of the ABC “20/20″ program indicting Independent Fundamental Baptist churches, written by Dr. Charles Surrett, Academic Dean at Ambassador Baptist College. Dr. Surrett is also a professor and teaches Logic, so he approaches the 20/20 report from an interesting perspective.
    Fallacies of Logic: An Analysis of ABC’s “20/20” View of IFB – http://goo.gl/lfy3R

  11. Melody, I cannot buy the “cycle of abuse” theory; I think that the reason that the children of alcoholics and drug abusers often repeat this behavior will turn out to be organic, rather than learned. I am neither a social scientist nor a statistician, but I have never heard credible evidence that those who are abused, esp. sexual abuse, are more likely to be abusers.

  12. Man has so corrupted the “Church” that anymore folks just ought to worship the Lord in their own homes and read the Word on their own. “Church” has become a big business with power hungry men seeking to control the flock. I was in the Calvary Chapel system for 15 years and saw what unbridled “authority” with no oversight and accountability can do to pastors. No more Church for me. If that is a sin on my part for no “gathering with the brethren” then let God judge me.. I believe I have His mercy.

  13. IFB – By definition Independent Fundamental Baptist Churches do not have a group/organization that is the head of us. We are responsible/accountable to the Pastor and the church. We are Independent. To use a broad stroke and cover all IFB’s this way is offensive. I was also very upset with the one sided presentation of this. What of the all the police reports the mother and pastor filed? The fact they weren’t acted on until recently? It feels like ABC is trying to depict IFB’s in a negative view much like they did all of Islam. Perhaps we are the next ‘evil’ group they are going to blame everything on.

    1. We are Independent.

      Organizationally but not practically.

      Are we to believe that the pastor of your church belongs to no fellowship, owes deference to no school, and is completely and utterly ignorant of the activities of every other IFB church? Hardly. There are many ties that bind these churches together. The explicit refusal to acknowledge abuse in other churches within the same camp is generally one of them.

  14. I wonder how many critics of IFBs on here have even been to one, let alone, been members of one? I attend an IFB. In fact, I am church webmaster (yes, a female webmaster!) Our church, like many IFBs, takes extra precaution to ensure the safety of ALL members- female and male. And are we to believe that the state wherein the 20/20 reports allegedly happened is unwilling to investigate such serious allegations? If that be so, why isn’t that state being held accountable as well as the church/recovery program these girls went to?

    Ive attended three IFB churches in a twenty year period of time. All three had good Pastors, who were not legalistic or nutty. The word “fundamental” has gotten a bad rap in recent years, courtesy of “fundamentalist Islam” and movie crap depicting any Christian who believes in the Bible to be a whacked out Carrie White style Mom. Which, in and of itself, smacks of religious bigotry. A religious bigotry which wouldn’t be tolerated if aimed at Muslims, or Jews, or Methodists, etc.

    Each IFB is completely independent, hence INDEPENDENT in the name. That means they run autonomously and, to be honest, makes it much more difficult to do a cover up (how bout them Catholic priests, eh?) Each one is held accountable. Each one is financially independent as well, so they dont have unlimited financial resources to aid in cover ups, either.

    I hope that people will talk with some IFB members outside of the internet. Go to your local IFB or call the preacher. Ask to meet with him and get a feel for who most IFB are and what we are about.

    1. If you actually took the time to read here for a little while you’d learn that almost ALL of us were ot only members of IFB churches but active members in good standing.

      We know what we’re talking about.

    2. Darrell is right. I was a member of a large, BJU orbital Fundamentalist Baptist church. They were independent all right. So independent that, although they used AWANA for a children’s program, they refused to join in on any of events that would allow them to rub shoulders with neighboring churches (such as leader training seminars and AWANA games). They didn’t want to get stained by the “world”.

      Trinity in NH is one such church. Chuck Phelps is a BJU grad. This is the mentality that permeates the whole kit and kaboodle – sin is out there and we mustn’t let it touch or stain us. When in reality, the sin is inside, and makes us act in ways that violate Christ’s command to love.

      What Chuck Phelps did, he did to keep his reputation (and Ernie Willis’s) unstained. Unfortunately for him, truth will out, and he’s now well splattered with the sticky mud of lies and half-truths. And fortunately for Tina Anderson, truth will out, and justice prevailed, vindicating her.

    3. Dear Leah,

      I was taken to an IFB church as an infant and in church every time the doors were open from ages 0-17, then went to BJU for six years, then married and served as youth pastor’s wife for 8 years and senior pastor’s wife for 10 more – all IFB churches. I’ve also taught in IFB Christian schools.

      Want credentials? We’ve got them.

    4. I attended an IFB church all throughout my childhood (got perfect attendance EVERY year from 5-12th grade ~ probably also before that, but that was when they started keeping track as far as I know) I also went to, and graduated from Hyles Anderson College and my husband was on staff at an IFB church for several years after that.
      Until God graceously revealed Himself to us and released us from that bondage and destructive life. I know you think that what you are telling us is the ONLY and RIGHT truth, I used to feel the exact same way. I hope and pray that some day God brings you out of the IFB movement as well. Three churches with pastors who aren’t nutjobs isn’t a very strong argument.

  15. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s Christian Fundamentalists who give Christian Fundamentalism a bad name.

    Not that “fundamentalist” Muslims (the quotes are because they don’t call themselves that) and hack sereenwriters don’t, each in turn, make themselves look bad, but Fundamentalist Christians discredit themselves with no need of outside help.

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