For years now, as the sex abuse scandal shifted to various Protestant denominations, we knew that many of the victims hoping for justice told their stories to other church leaders… only to see their abusers face few, if any, consequences. In some cases, the pastors were allowed to resign without further comment. Sometimes, they went right back to the pulpit.
But there was a place where the victims’ stories were taken seriously, and investigated, and shared with a wider audience.
They stepped in when church leaders would not, and their articles forced some of those churches to take real action.
While clergy sex abuse within the Catholic Church has been in the headlines for years, it’s only more recently that abuses within Protestant churches have started to draw mainstream media attention. Much of the credit for this quickening churn goes to a circle of bloggers — dozens of armchair investigative journalists who have been outing abuse, one case and one congregation at a time, for over a decade now, bolstering their posts with court records, police reports, video clips of pastors’ sermons, and emails, often provided to them by survivors.
Most of these bloggers are women; many come from churches that teach women’s submission and deny women’s spiritual authority. “Investigative blogger women started a revolution at their kitchen tables,” says pastor Ashley Easter, who hosts the Courage Conference, a Christian, survivor-focused gathering. They have advocated “for victims of abuse from where they were, where they could find a platform — blogs and social media.”
In addition to women bloggers are the former evangelicals who left their churches after being exposed to one too many toxic leaders and theological teachings. While many of them are still Christian, others have left the faith entirely, in part because of the abuse they endured.
Recently, a younger cohort of “ex-vangelicals” and online activists have joined the fold, and in late 2017 #ChurchToo started to trend on Twitter. In turn, a wave of secret-smashing tweets blossomed into reported pieces at publications like Mother Jones and the New Yorker. Yet the bloggers who built the foundation for this activist network are known mainly to church abuse survivors and reporters covering these stories. To the rest of the world, their efforts have mostly blended into the joint backgrounds of the clergy sex abuse scandal and #MeToo.
These bloggers are not paid journalists, per se, but their blogs have been used as source material when journalists write about abuse in churches. For all intents and purposes, the bloggers (which include but are not limited to Dee Parsons, Ashley Schnarr Easter, and Julie Anne Smith) function very much like journalists.
The Wartburg Watch started as a few-times-weekly critique of patriarchal theology, comments on news stories featuring church hypocrisy and posts about Parsons’s and Martin’s experiences. But over the intervening years, as the blog grew in scope, Parsons developed certain habits: She talks to survivors at length, sometimes holding back stories for years until the survivor is ready or she is convinced of the accusation’s veracity. If a survivor alleges the accused is a registered sex offender, Parsons checks the registry. If there are court records, victims are usually eager to turn them over to underscore their story, and when such documents exist, there are usually other people she can talk to, such as a detective on the case, to confirm details. Her posts are littered with the term “allegedly.” As she wrote in one post, “Sorry for all the alleged but lawyers really like that word.”
As many abuse survivors know, justice is not guaranteed to be exacted by the court system.
While these posts don’t guarantee that abusive church leaders will end up in jail or facing any kind of criminal punishment, at the very least, it helps establish a public record of offenses that will follow them for the rest of their lives. The elders at these churches may want to wipe away the culprits’ sins — and keep them from the congregations’ eyes — but the internet is a place where victims get their say.
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