A survivor’s journey and the way Southern Baptists are responding to abuse


Simply hours after touchdown in Louisville on an early morning flight from Chicago on Oct. 10, 2002, Valerie Swope sat down with the previous pastor of the Southern Baptist church the place she attended youth group.

Swope, then 19, made the day journey from her faculty in Illinois to satisfy with Todd Robertson and inform him that she and the youth pastor at Bethany Baptist Church, Christian Watts, had been having intercourse beginning when she was 16.  

“I didn’t point out any of these items — the handholding, the groping, the kissing, all these items that had began since I used to be 13,” Swope mentioned about that assembly. “Now, to the detriment of all of us, we didn’t name regulation enforcement of any type.”

Two different Bethany Baptist leaders would be a part of the assembly shortly after, as did Watts.

Watts, then 31, acknowledged Swope was telling the reality in that assembly. Although, in line with all three Bethany Baptist leaders current that day, Watts emphasised Swope was 16 when intercourse started, the authorized age of consent in Kentucky on the time. 

“Figuring out what I do know now, then in that second, I’d have referred to as the police,” Robertson mentioned.

Inside days, the church had Watts resign. Inside months, he continued a profession in ministry elsewhere, now as pastor of Life Change Church in Tullahoma.

In the meantime, Swope has since recognized her experiences with Watts as abusive and has sought to share her full story extra publicly.

Alongside the way in which, she has acquired the help from Robertson and others whose understanding of clergy abuse has modified alongside many within the Southern Baptist Conference. 

Firstly, Swope’s journey is a narrative about her. Nevertheless it’s additionally a narrative of the SBC and the way it’s responding to a sexual abuse disaster.

Watts mentioned in an announcement he by no means denied having intercourse with Swope after she turned 16. Nonetheless, he mentioned, “this was not a state of affairs of grooming or manipulation.” 

Swope began sharing her story after a 2019 Houston Chronicle collection on clergy abuse within the SBC, which heightened many Southern Baptists’ sense of urgency to handle the problem. An ensuing third-party investigation by Guidepost Options concluded this Might and revealed a 20-year sample of SBC leaders ignoring abuse studies and resisting requires reform.   

Then, Guidepost and an SBC sexual abuse activity pressure beneficial a collection of abuse reform initiatives. Voting delegates permitted the suggestions at this yr’s SBC annual assembly in Anaheim.

Most lately, the SBC introduced the Division of Justice had launched an investigation into the denomination. 

These previous months have been equally momentous for Swope, who, seeing Guidepost’s investigation as one other wake-up name for the SBC, emailed her story to church buildings the place Watts labored, and to native and state Southern Baptist officers in Tennessee.

“This wouldn’t have been vital in any other case,” Swope mentioned. “It’s the one cause they care.”

The native and state officers in Tennessee emailed Swope again and, whereas coming off sympathetic, additionally they shared some surprising information: Three days after the discharge of Guidepost’s report, Watts’ church left the SBC.

Going through penalties

Watts mentioned the choice for his church to go away the SBC was unrelated to the discharge of Guidepost’s report.

“We have now at all times functioned as a nondenominational church,” Watts mentioned in an announcement. “We had stopped giving to the SBC months earlier than we withdrew from it.”

However Swope believes the choice sends a transparent message and produces the identical end result.

“An accountable individual doesn’t evade extra accountability. What’s the SBC making an attempt to determine? Extra accountability,” she mentioned.

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To Swope, it’s an echo of the previous.

Bethany Baptist had Watts resign and notified Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville the place he was a part-time pupil.

However Watts didn’t abide by a disciplinary settlement requiring him to remain at Bethany Baptist and bear counseling whereas leaders supervised his habits, in line with the interim pastor and board of deacons chairman on the time.

“He didn’t keep within the (church) physique, he didn’t search accountability from us,” mentioned John Matala, the board chair. “He didn’t observe by means of with it.”

Steve Wellum, the interim pastor again then and at present a Southern Seminary professor, echoed Matala’s evaluation. 

Watts additionally was allowed to learn a resignation letter to the congregation that described his actions as “an immoral relationship with an individual of the other intercourse,” in line with a replica The Tennessean obtained.

Swope mentioned the truth was that, when she was 13, Watts held her hand for the primary time whereas the 2 sat on a sofa at Watts’ home and have been watching a film. Swope was over that night time to babysit Watts’ younger daughter whereas Watts’ spouse was working late, Swope mentioned. 

“I can nonetheless keep in mind the flood of feelings: ‘Wow, he actually cares for me, I have to be particular, that is improper, why is he doing this?’” Swope mentioned in a private essay she later wrote in 2019.

Babysitting for the Wattses, which Swope began shortly after assembly her youth pastor and continued for years, and automobile rides residence after youth group have been the most typical areas Watts would spend alone with Swope.

Over time, Swope mentioned, handholding became petting and kissing and after she turned 16, intercourse.

Watts additionally wrote to Swope, typically saying “I like you” and “I’m pleased with you,” in line with copies of hand-written letters, emails and on-line chat messages obtained from Swope.

Watts didn’t touch upon particulars about his habits earlier than Swope turned 16. Nonetheless, he mentioned in his assertion, “I hope that you simply now see that these allegations are nothing greater than one other slanderous defamation try.”

New understandings

Swope didn’t share the total extent of her experiences in that 2002 assembly partly due a discomfort with disclosing graphic particulars with pastors and her mother, who was additionally current that day.

However she additionally noticed herself on the time as equally accountable as Watts. That understanding modified over time by means of counseling after which with experiences as a missionary in India, the place she participated in a younger grownup program for the SBC’s Worldwide Mission Board.

“I grew to become extra keenly conscious of the varieties of abuses that may occur,” Swope mentioned.

Nonetheless, she shared little, even folks she grew nearer with, similar to Robertson and his spouse.

However that modified in 2019 when the Houston Chronicle printed its investigation. Like many within the SBC, it was a name to motion for Robertson and others in Swope’s life.

“They’ve needed to go on their very own journey,” Swope mentioned. “So, simply as I’ve taken 17 years to totally perceive the abuse, it’s like additionally they needed to.”

By that time, Swope was residing completely in New Delhi, the place she continues to reside, and was largely faraway from SBC life.

Robertson despatched Swope the Houston Chronicle collection and shortly after, related her with different advocates and survivors of Southern Baptist clergy abuse, one among whom inspired Swope to write down out her story.

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“This was not an affair, these weren’t consensual sexual encounters, this was NOT simply an inappropriate relationship, this was abuse,” Swope wrote in a private essay in Might 2019.

Studying Swope’s written account was the primary time Robertson realized about Watts’ habits earlier than Swope turned 16, Robertson mentioned. It additionally led Swope to comprehend she was not sure if Watts’ actions might be topic to legal prosecution.

Robertson helped Swope file a report with Louisville police. The division launched an investigation that concerned Louisville and Tullahoma police confronting Watts, who admitted to having intercourse with Swope after she turned 16, in line with a replica of an e mail Swope acquired from a Louisville detective.

The Tullahoma Police Division mentioned it doesn’t have data from a gathering between an officer and Watts. Louisville police haven’t totally responded to a request for data.  

Although a felony in Kentucky immediately, prosecutors decided they couldn’t cost Watts due to legal guidelines on the time, in line with Swope. The Louisville police detective who led the investigation didn’t reply to request for remark.

Watts didn’t touch upon his conversations with cops however mentioned in his assertion, “it is very important word that an unlawful relationship by no means occurred.”

A profession in ministry

As Swope sought to boost consciousness about Watts, Watts continued a profession in ministry and together with his historical past at occasions identified. 

Bethany Baptist leaders notified the primary church he went to in Pennsylvania when he left Louisville.  

However a couple of years later, Watts utilized to a church in Owensboro, Kentucky that was initially unaware of Watts’ historical past till leaders adopted up with Bethany Baptist, in line with Chuck Fuller, Bethany Baptist’s head pastor from 2005-2010.

Fuller mentioned he briefed leaders on the Owensboro church about Watts, inflicting the church to reject Watts’ job software. Shortly after, Watts personally referred to as Fuller and mentioned he would sue the Bethany Baptist pastor if the identical factor occurred once more, in line with Fuller.

“To aim to do the labor to heal, to scrub up the mess that another person brought on after which to have him confront you…that was maybe one of the offensive issues I’ve ever skilled in pastoral ministry,” Fuller mentioned.

Fuller mentioned he spent most of his years at Bethany Baptist serving to the congregation heal from “institutional trauma” following Watts’ ouster.

Watts subsequently stayed in Pennsylvania and later began his personal church till shifting to Tullahoma, the place he labored at a church after which based Life Change in 2017.

Leaders of a Murfreesboro church that sponsored Life Change’s founding, and the board and a few congregants at Life Change find out about Watts’ historical past, Watts mentioned in his assertion.

“I’ve welcomed accountability and am a greater man for it,” Watts mentioned. “I’m a person of openness and authenticity.”

‘The primary to face up’

Within the time Swope has been sharing her story extra, requirements for pastors within the SBC have modified.

Voting delegates on the 2021 SBC annual assembly handed a nonbinding decision saying a pastor is not certified if they’re credibly accused of sexual abuse. Guidepost, when it completed its inquiry a yr in Might, beneficial methods the SBC can strengthen enforcement mechanisms for polices about sexual abuse and pastoral {qualifications}.

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Desirous to remind Southern Baptists in Watts’ orbit of those developments, Swope emailed her story to the Southern Baptist officers in Tennessee and church buildings the place Watts labored.

“I’m sharing this story with you…to make sure Christian just isn’t ready of energy and authority,” Swope wrote in her e mail.

She wasn’t the one one to say this. Robertson was amongst those that wrote letters corroborating Swope’s account, which she included in her emails. 

“Hasn’t Christian forfeited his proper to serve in vocational ministry? And may Life Change be allowed to proceed affiliation with the SBC, TBC, or the native affiliation if he continues to function their pastor?” wrote Robertson, who at present works for the Louisville Regional Baptist Affiliation. 

By the point of Swope’s letters, Life Change already quietly withdrew from the SBC.

If Life Change had stayed within the SBC, an analogous end result may need adopted a vote to oust the church from the SBC. That course of is seen as extra public, although. Nonetheless, it highlights the challenges with the denomination’s congregational construction. 

New requirements within the SBC have been first a supply of hope for Swope after which disappointment when she realized Watts was exempt.

However that disappointment is met with gratitude for Southern Baptists whose understandings have modified over time, together with those that acknowledge they may have performed extra for her 20 years in the past.

“It’s a full circle story. Unusually the people who have come out are those which were there all alongside,” Swope mentioned. “It’s what’s going to make them the primary to face up when this occurs to the subsequent woman in their very own church buildings and their very own lives.”

Liam Adams covers faith for The Tennessean. Attain him at ladams@tennessean.com or on Twitter @liamsadams. 



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