There are more skeletons coming out of the Southern Baptists’ closet. In some ways, this story hits harder than the others that have come out recently, because here there is evidence of ongoing interest in coverup.
Before we get started, here is a summary of the case:
In 1997, when Anne Marie Miller was 16, she was assaulted by then-25-year-old Mark Aderholt, a prominent member of the International Mission Board which works with the Southern Baptist Convention to send people all over the world to proselytize.
Miller didn’t realize that their “relationship” was inappropriate until about a decade later, in 2005, but when she understood the “the gravity of what happened,” she reported the crime to the organization’s leaders. She was told an investigation would commence and that her case would be turned over to law enforcement.
They lied to her.
Not only did they fail to report the assault to authorities, they gave Aderholt the opportunity to resign rather than be terminated. For years, he was able to work with the SBC without anyone knowing he was an abuser.
She only found out these details a few months ago. Miller reported the assault to police on her own, and Aderholt was finally arrested a couple of weeks ago on charges of sexual assault against a minor and indecency (sexual contact) with a child. He faces up to twenty years in prison.
When prominent Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson was ousted from his position as seminary president this spring, the seminary’s board of trustees—and other Southern Baptist Convention leaders and members—treated Patterson’s failure to report a student’s rape to the authorities (preferring to deal with it in-house) as though it were an abnormality, or something beyond the pale for a religious leader.
How to address sexual abuse, assault, and rape within the church has plagued conservative churches for decades. Many fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have argued that these crimes should be handled within the church—because I Corinthians 6 advises believers not to try cases against each other in court—and that Matthew 18 outlines how believers should handle sin committed by other believers.
None of Patterson’s comments or actions were terribly surprising to those of us who have been covering the church’s treatment of abuse. The most surprising aspect of the affair, to me personally, was that Patterson was asked to resign, and so quickly. That Patterson’s missteps were not out of the ordinary for Southern Baptist churches and leaders is underscored by Anne Marie Miller’s revelations regarding Mark Aderholt.
According to an in-depth story by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Miller was 16 and had just moved with her family to a new state when she contacted Aderholt about starting a See You at the Pole event at her new high school, where she was struggling to fit in (something she confided in him). Aderholt was a 25-year-old seminary student and youth pastor at a local church. The two first met at a MacDonalds in September, 1996.
After this, Miller began seeing Aderholt regularly; her mother believed he was introducing her to the students in his youth group and helping her make friends in order to combat her loneliness. He wasn’t. Instead, he was having Miller to his apartment and having sex with her. Miller believed that Aderholt’s interest meant that they were boyfriend and girlfriend, moving toward something serious. They weren’t.
Aderholt broke things off with Miller in April 1997, telling her that he needed to end things because he was going to get engaged to the woman he was dating (now his wife). During their sexual relationship, Miller remembers Aderholt commenting that there were teens in his youth group who were older than her. What Miller thought was serious meant something else to Aderholt, who never introduced her to his friends.
Miller did not recognize her involvement with Aderholt as anything but a relationship that didn’t work out until nearly a decade later.
By 2005, Miller had moved to Kansas and was the communications director and a volunteer at the student ministry at Westside Family Church in the Kansas City suburb of Lenexa, when one of the male staff members turned 25. She was sitting next to a 16-year-old girl when she realized: That was the same age difference as she and Aderholt.
It was the first moment she began to recognize that what happened was inappropriate and even an abuse of power. Not long after, when she had a Thursday off, she was cleaning the house and watching “Oprah.” The episode was about pedophiles.
As she heard about the grooming process that pedophiles use with their victims, she began to feel sick.
“It was exactly what happened with Mark,” she said. The man on “Oprah” described how a predator seeks out the new, lonely, vulnerable person. The predator gets to know that person and learns what her struggles are. Then, once the victim trusts the predator, the predator takes advantage.
Miller walked into the bathroom, looked in the mirror and splashed water in her face.
At this point, according to the Star-Telegram, “Miller looked Aderholt up and found he was a missionary with the International Mission Board.” The IMB is the missions board run by and affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. In 2007, on the urging of a friend’s father, Miller took the issue to the board.
Rather than reporting Miller’s allegations to the authorities, the IMB conducted it’s own invasive two-month investigation. Their investigation included questions about how Miller had dressed. The IMB’s general counsel asked Miller whether she had sex with subsequent boyfriends after Aderholt, wanting explicit detail. Miller was re-traumatized and forced into inpatient care. Nevertheless, the investigation concluded that:
It was “more likely than not” that Aderholt had engaged in an “inappropriate sexual relationship” with Miller, that she was still emotionally affected by it and that Aderholt was “not truthful” with International Mission Board personnel about it.
The board never called what Aderholt did to Miller abuse. Instead, they termed it an “inappropriate sexual relationship.” Why did the board find it inappropriate? Was it because of the ages and power dynamic between those involved? Or because any sexual relationship outside of marriage, according to Southern Baptist beliefs, inappropriate? There is a difference. The failure to ID what happened as abuse is a problem.
Aderholt was not terminated Instead, the investigation’s results were put on the agenda for the next meeting of the IMB’s trustees. Aderholt resigned before this meeting occurred. The results of the investigation were not publicized. Aderholt went on to serve in a variety of positions in Southern Baptist churches—most recently, associate director and chief strategist of the South Carolina Southern Baptist Convention.
And Aderholt continued to work with children.
Miller kept up with Aderholt’s career with concern. She contacted the individuals who had interviewed her at the IMB on and off over the years, asking how Aderholt could still pastor within the denomination, given what he had done. She never received any response to these emails. She blogged about what had happened to her, keeping it vague and leaving out names. She spoke at churches about sex and abuse.
While speaking before a church in February 2018, in the midst of the #metoo movement, Miller was convicted that she needed to do something. She reached out to the IMB. She she learned that the IMB had not reported Aderholt’s abuse to the authorities, and that Aderholt had been allowed to resign his position as missionary rather than being fired, something she had not realized. Miller decided she had to act.
11 years after the IMB investigation and 22 years after Aderholt groomed her, Miller went to the police. Aderholt was arrested on July 3rd and released on bail. Two decades after he groomed and abused Miller, he has been charged with sexual assault of a child under 17 and faces up to 20 years in prison.
Some time after the police began investigating Miller’s allegations, Aderholt resigned his position with the South Carolina Southern Baptist Convention. As before, he was not fired. The South Carolina Southern Baptist Convention released a statement noting only that Aderholt had resigned. The reasons for his resignation were not mentioned. If not for reporters (and Miller), they might have gone unnoticed.
After the Star-Telegram first reported on Aderholt’s arrest and detailed the charges against him, including mention of his (now-resigned) position within the SBC, the Southern Baptist Convention mouthpiece Baptist Press finally covered the story, listing the charges against Aderholt and outlining his career within the SBC. The Baptist Press article included the following statement by the International Mission Board:
The IMB told BP Aderholt served with the board from 2000-2008. The IMB learned about the charges against him from the Star-Telegram’s July 9 report, IMB spokesperson Julie McGowan said, adding, “It is our policy to cooperate with criminal investigations.”
In 2000, BP reported Aderholt and his wife Kristie had been appointed as new missionaries to the Central and Eastern Europe region.
McGowan said in written comments that “IMB has a zero-tolerance policy against sexual misconduct that is shared with all personnel. If anyone has knowledge of a case involving sexual misconduct, we strongly encourage them to come forward, and we provide multiple avenues for them to report. When we are informed of possible cases of sexual misconduct of any kind, we investigate those situations immediately and, if warranted, take the appropriate action to report it to local authorities and remove individuals from IMB employment.
“IMB has a process by which any church, SBC entity or other employer can request information on former personnel they’re looking to hire by contacting us at email@example.com,” McGowan said. “Details of how we seek to cooperate with our partners in this resource can be found at (imb.org/for-churches/abuse-harassment/), along with IMB’s statement on our zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment and abuse. We actively encourage all churches — and any potential employers of former IMB personnel — to utilize this resource.”
That’s right—the IMB was asked for comment, as Aderholt’s previous employer, but did not reveal that they knew about the charges against him all along. When the Star-Telegram contacted the IMB to ask about this discrepancy, the IMB claimed that they had meant that they first learned about the criminal charges against Aderholt from the Star-Telegram’s report. This is highly disingenuous, if not deliberately misleading.
How did the IMB have room in their statement to go into detail about their zero tolerance policy for sexual misconduct (note: not sexual abuse), but not room to mention that the board had investigated Aderholt? Or that Aderholt had resigned as a missionary for the board amid this investigation? Or that the IMB had known of the allegations against Aderholt for a decade, and not reported them to the authorities?
They’re still dissembling.
Once confronted with their role, the IMB asserted that they did not report the abuse to the authorities, despite it being legally actionable, because, when asked, Miller told them that she did not intend to press charges. Miller says that, while she did not intend to press charges due to the emotional distress reliving the situation was causing her, she had been under the impression the entire time that the IMB had contacted the authorities to make a report. She says she was shocked when she learned that they hadn’t.
Here is how Miller put it in a recent blog post:
When I signed off my blog in May 2017, I never thought I’d be writing on this platform again. I definitely didn’t expect a year later, in between my daughter’s diaper changes and first steps, I would be meeting with detectives and going back into inpatient trauma treatment.
I didn’t know I would learn Mark Aderholt, the man who sexually abused me when I was sixteen years old–whom I reported to the International Mission Board in 2007–was not reported to local authorities (contrary to their policy mentioned in a recent statement). I didn’t know I would learn he had an opportunity to resign instead of being terminated (also contrary to their recent statement). Here is an email from the IMB’s General Counsel, stating Aderholt was not terminated from his role and was not reported to authorities. [email dated April 16]
The collision of learning about Aderholt’s upward mobility and increased responsibility within the SBC, potential access to vulnerable people groups with his travels, and the IMB’s failure to report both to authorities and within the SBC spurred me to make a personally difficult and necessary decision: reporting him to law enforcement.
In its disingenuous statement—which misled grossly through omission—the IMB claimed that it has a system in place by which, during a hiring process, churches can ask the IMB for information on former personnel. This raises questions. First, how do churches check the background of new hires? Second, does the IMB have the duty to ensure that this information is disseminated rather than sitting on it until asked?
There is another issue to address as well—just how did the IMB understand Aderholt’s abuse of Miller? Every statement the IMB has issued suggests that they saw Aderholt’s actions as a moral lapse akin to premarital sex or adultery, and not predatory behavior, or grooming and abuse—note their use of terms like “inappropriate sexual relationship” and “sexual misconduct.” What, then, would the IMB have told a church that did reach out to them for background on Aderholt? That he had had a sexual moral lapse? Or more?
Regardless of the answer to these questions, the IMB not only did nothing as churches hired Aderholt in pastoral positions, as well as as the South Carolina Southern Baptist Convention hired Aderholt. The IMB also failed to respond to Miller’s 2011 email asking how Aderholt was able to hold such positions after what he had done, suggesting a lack of interest in answering that question, or an interest in burying the case.
And, well, look what the Star-Telegram dug up:
Mark Aderholt had a job in leadership at a Southern Baptist church within two months after he resigned from the International Mission Board following an investigation into sexual abuse allegations.
[Aderholt] resigned from the International Mission Board in January 2008, after the investigation concluded he had “more likely than not” engaged in an “inappropriate sexual relationship” with Anne Marie Miller when he was 25 and she was 16.
By March 2008, he was employed as the executive pastor at Central Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., according to web archive staff photos from the church’s website. Aderholt’s bio said he came to the church “after serving as an IMB missionary for the past ten years.”
Two months after Aderholt resigned from his position with the IMB, ostensibly in disgrace, he was hired as the executive pastor at a Southern Baptist church. Where was the IMB and it’s zero-tolerance policy then?
The IMB would be far better off admitting that they messed up—something that they have not yet admitted in any way—than continuing this charade. And it’s not just the failure to report—according to Miller, one reason she wasn’t comfortable going to the police in 2007 was that the invasive and unnecessary questions the IMB investigators asked her about her clothing and conduct as a teen sent her into a tailspin.
And, on top of all of this, the IMB responded to news of Aderholt’s arrest not only by deliberately not letting on that they had known about the allegations for a decade—had investigated the allegations—and yet had done nothing to prevent Aderholt’s rise within the denomination, but also by tooting their horn about their wonderful, excellent (and apparently completely ineffective) zero tolerance policy on “sexual misconduct.”
This isn’t just tone deaf. It’s an ongoing interest in coverup.
On top of everything else, the IMB repeatedly says “sexual misconduct” and not “sexual abuse”. This matters because groups like the Southern Baptist Convention frequently lump premarital sex and sexual abuse together as though they are the same thing, when they are not. As a result, abuse can be treated as no different from a consensual moral lapse, erasing any consciousness of abuse as abuse and eliminating the need for precautions to prevent known abusers from abusing again in the future. .
Out of everything discussed above, I find the International Mission Board’s initial failure to acknowledge that they had been aware of the allegations against Aderholt for over a decade most shocking. This omission suggests an ongoing interest in covering up what happened and a complete lack of (and lack of interest in) transparency. This in turn suggests that improper handling of abuse and sexual crimes within the church is not a problem that existed in the past and has been solved, but instead a problem that is ongoing.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s reckoning is yet incomplete.
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