With a rise in clergy abuse cases coming to light in the #MeToo era, some church leaders are becoming transparent with congregants, rather than sweeping allegations under the rug. More than a dozen investigations of the Catholic Church were announced last year in the United States, with other scandals among Southern Baptists and evangelical churches.
Experts broadly agree on best practices for church leaders to come forward in abuse cases, but a lack of data and the historical underreporting of sex abuse in the church can make it difficult to know how to address it.
“This issue should never be behind us,” said Boz Tchividjian, executive director of the nonprofit Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. “It should always be on our radar screen.”
Tchividjian, a former child abuse prosecutor and grandson of famed evangelist Billy Graham, founded GRACE to help churches respond to allegations of sexual abuse and prevent it from happening again. He describes fighting abuse as a “cultural transformation” in churches that could take generations.
The first steps to take when abuse is suspected or reported are clear, experts say: Church leaders should contact law enforcement rather than rely on internal investigations. Accused people should step down from positions of power. Despite Christian dogma to the contrary, victims and perpetrators shouldn’t necessarily reconcile, or be encouraged to.
Responsibility for handling abuse cases extends beyond church leadership. Experts say congregants should be prepared to support victims during a reconciliation process that might not have a tidy ending. They might also need training in how to prevent or report sexual abuse.
“Churches want an easy way out — watch an online video, take a quiz and, boom, you’re a safer church,” Tchividjian said. “That’s a false narrative.”
In 2010, the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe found himself looking for a way through one such scandal that some thought he never should have taken responsibility for.
Rowe, who is now the bishop of the Episcopal dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York, encouraged survivors to come forward with stories about his predecessor, who had abused girls as young as 10 over more than 20 years. Rowe said he was criticized for acknowledging the allegations, for which his diocese took hits to its reputation and its pocketbook.
The diocese repented and tried to do right by its victims, he said — while for those directly affected, it could never do enough. Rather than move past the scandal, he said it is “now an important part of who we are.”
“It can’t be the focus of our life and ministry,” he said, “but we must keep it in front of us.”
A new face in a time of crisis
In Lauren’s case, her abuser was swiftly caught and convicted as her struggle with PTSD began. She reached a settlement with her Virginia church, but feels abandoned by a faith community she once felt part of.
“Every single thing in life comes back to Derrick,” said Lauren, 20. “I don’t know about normal love. . . . It’s just ruined everything for me.”
Derrick Ryan Trump came to Greenwich Presbyterian Church near Nokesville, Va., in 2010 and was named director of youth ministries. Then in his early 20s, Trump planned Sunday school classes, youth group meetings and mission trips. He often taught a church training course on sexual harassment, according to documents filed in Fauquier County General District Court in Virginia.
Trump, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, came to Greenwich at a difficult time in Lauren’s life. Her parents had recently separated.
“With my dad gone, I was left very vulnerable,” Lauren said. “I started talking to Derrick. Once a month, I’d meet him in his office. He slowly became a huge part of my life.”
In court documents, prosecutors said Trump kissed Lauren for the first time on May 17, 2016, at his Fauquier County home. That night on the phone, they discussed sex. Trump was 28. Lauren, 16.
The next day, Trump picked Lauren up at Panera Bread. He drove her to his house and sexually abused her, prosecutors said. Afterward, he dropped her off at Panera, where her mother picked her up. They attended church with the youth group that night “like nothing had happened,” according to court filings.
“Before they had sex, they discussed that what they were doing was wrong,” prosecutors wrote. “The defendant stated that he was willing to face the consequences for his actions.”
The secret didn’t last long. Within two weeks, the physical contact was over. Trump told Lauren he had “a sex addiction,” according to court documents; he told his wife and Lauren’s mother, Cherie, about their contact on May 27, 2016. Cherie was appalled and contacted police.
“I was in shock,” Cherie said. “It was like I was not even in my body.”
Trump was fired from the church. He faced criminal charges of taking indecent liberties with a child by a person in a custodial or supervisory relationship in Fauquier County, where he lived, and Prince William County, the location of the church. His home was searched, and bedsheets were taken as evidence. He was assigned a risk score indicating he was a lower-level sex offender, and in November 2016, he pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a child.
Trump’s attorney, Nadir N. Tawil, said it “looked like love” to his client, adding that Trump confessed to the crimes and apologized to Lauren and the church. “This destroyed him,” Tawil said.
In January, Lauren’s older sister filed a police report claiming Trump sexually assaulted her in 2014, two years before his arrest in Lauren’s case. Prosecutors declined to bring charges, saying the statute of limitations had passed.
At Greenwich Presbyterian Church and in the Griffis home, a cycle of anger, recriminations, denial and healing was about to begin.
'We were being shunned'
The family never returned to services. Lauren was discouraged from going on a mission trip, she said. As the Griffis family tells it, some church peers stopped speaking to her, unfriended her on Facebook and told her that she “ruined” the youth group.
“It was clear we were being shunned,” Cherie said.
Lauren said she felt compelled to speak out, worried the congregation might think of her as the “other woman” in a “love story” with a married man when she was the victim of a sex crime that resulted from failures in Greenwich’s leadership.
The church didn’t respond to specific claims the Griffis family made, but said in a statement that Greenwich “remains attentive to the profound impact that our former youth director’s sexual abuse has had upon Lauren.”
The statement continued: “As Lauren tells her story, we pray it will deepen her own healing journey and that her courage will help other victims of sexual abuse find hope and strength. From the beginning of this sad ordeal we have expressed transparency and confidentiality. Out of respect for Lauren and her family, we remain circumspect in offering public statements. We continue to stand with Lauren and all survivors of sexual abuse, and pray for the end of this scourge upon the broader church and society.”
As Trump’s case wound through the legal system, Lauren attended Camp Cadi, a week-long summer camp for young survivors of sexual abuse, in Dallas, Ga.
Amy Barth, a therapist and sexual abuse survivor who founded the camp in 2005, said the focus is on giving girls “ the childhood they lost at the time of the abuse.” Mornings are devoted to therapy, and afternoons are like “regular camp,” she said.
“It’s harder to heal when you’re older,” she said. “The more skills we give them — coping skills, the knowledge that other girls experience the same things — we get them grounded, and it’s less likely they will have the same level of PTSD.”
Lauren said she left the camp with “a very different mind-set.”
“I am realizing everything that happened to me and everything that church did and didn’t do to protect me,” she said. “I said, ‘I want to hire a lawyer.’ ”
She called Pennsylvania attorney Nate Foote, who represents crime victims, including survivors of sexual assault.
Lauren’s case caught his eye because he is originally from nearby Manassas, he said. He also thought the case was viable: Greenwich was an institutional defendant, and Trump an admitted abuser.
Lauren said she had asked for $350,000 and a public apology. She got a private apology and $40,000, after costs and fees. She got a new car. She got Paddington, her PTSD dog, who cost $2,000 and an additional $3,000 to train.
Soon, the money was gone and Trump was out of jail, living a few miles away. Without her old church and her friends, Lauren had to find her own way forward.
'Preach it on a Sunday'
After Trump’s arrest, the Griffis family expected to return to friends, family and their church community. It didn’t feel that way.
“Very few people have spoken to me over the past couple of years, but when they have, it has been nothing but disrespect, re-victimizing, shaming, concern for Trump or asking why I’ve acted the way I have,” Lauren wrote in an email. “None of them protected me, and what’s worse is, no one supported me after it happened.”
Don Meeks, Greenwich’s pastor, grappled with whether Lauren should address the Greenwich community about her abuse. Trump had abused Lauren on his watch.
“None of us knew what we were looking at,” he told Lauren and her mother as they sat across from him at a Virginia Starbucks. During the meeting, which was attended by a Washington Post reporter, he called the abuse “part of a broken world we live in.”
Lauren invited The Post to the meeting, saying she wanted a reporter to witness Meeks’s atonement.
After the lawsuit, he was the one who privately apologized to Lauren for the abuse she suffered at the church. This was a new era, he said — a “#MeToo, #ChurchToo” era in which allegations against powerful men had raised awareness about sexual assault.
“I’m paddling as fast as I can to catch up,” he told Lauren. “You’re feeling you are silenced. That was never my intention. I’m in a tight spot as a leader. . . . I’m not asking for your sympathy; I’m asking for your understanding.”
Lauren thought she should come to church and tell her story.
“I’d love you to preach it on a Sunday morning,” she told Meeks.
During the meeting with Meeks, Lauren said church parishioners “look at me like I’m the other woman. I need some way to express my side of the story.”
Meeks said the story was alive at Greenwich. Policies had been reviewed. He was meeting with church elders to discuss it. He needed time to educate others as she was educating him.
“My commitment from the beginning has to be — and this is not to get in front of the story — is to tell the truth,” he said.
Before Meeks left the coffee shop, he told Lauren and Cherie the conversation would continue, if they wanted it to. Lauren and Cherie haven’t been back to church, a place Lauren says triggers symptoms of PTSD after her experiences.
“If you never want to talk to me again, I get that,” Meeks said.
Breaking years of silence
The Rev. Ashley Easter, grandchild of two pastors of a Baptist church, said she knows what it’s like to leave a church behind. She was taught that “women were to be in submission” and said she was sexually harassed by a Christian author as a teenager.
“It wasn’t until I was 21 — when I was introduced to equality for women from a biblical perspective — that it helped me break free from this toxic patriarchal ideology, to come to grips with the ways the patriarchy influenced abuse I experienced,” she said.
Now ordained through the Progressive Christian Alliance, a network of liberal Christians founded in 2008, Easter is the founder of an annual conference for sexual abuse survivors. Abuse should be a regular sermon topic, she said, noting that one-third of women and one-sixth of men experience abuse.
“It should be a normal part of church,” she said. “I think an ongoing conversation is something every church should have whether or not they had a big scandal. We talk about missions all the time. There’s no reason we can’t talk about people who have been hurt.”
Christa Brown , a survivor of sexual abuse who has written about sex crimes in Baptist churches, said those abused in faith communities face “an extra dimension of spiritual harm.” Prosecution is rare, and even when perpetrators go to prison or churches offer recompense, it might not help victims, Brown said.
“It’s a soul-murdering kind of offense,” she said.
Lauren has jobs as a dance teacher and an assistant for a real estate agent, but “triggers are everywhere,” she said. She’s working toward a bachelor’s degree online, uncomfortable with communicating with professors in person. She rarely goes anywhere without Paddington, and she doesn’t sleep much. She can’t have an intimate relationship, she said.
Even prayer makes her think of Trump.
“She’s not comfortable with prayer,” Cherie said. “Derrick ruined it for her.”
Her PTSD can be a problem at work, at school — in any situation involving physical contact or involving a man. It doesn’t help that her abuser shares a surname with the president of the United States.
She can imagine a time when she can advocate on behalf of victims of sexual assault. The legal system dealt with Trump while keeping her an anonymous victim. Church members dismissed and excluded her, she said, and wouldn’t listen to her or her family.
“I wanted my voice to be heard,” Lauren said. “Everyone got a voice. I did not.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.