During the fall of 2017, along with the rest of the country, Jules Woodson watched the Me Too movement play out in the media. As women came forward to expose the predatory behavior they’d survived, the Colorado Springs-based flight attendant reflected on a night in 1998, when Andy Savage, the youth pastor at her local church in her hometown of The Woodlands, Tex., offered her a ride home. At some point, Woodson says, Savage passed the turn to her home and drove down a dirt road, where he reached a dead end and switched off the headlights. He unzipped his jeans and asked Woodson, then 17, to perform oral sex. A few minutes later, she says, Savage jumped from the truck, fell to his knees and told Woodson she must take what happened to the grave.
The next day, terrified and traumatized, Woodson told the church’s assistant pastor what happened; she says he asked if she’d “participated.” While Savage continued as youth pastor — even leading a True Love Waits event encouraging youth to abstain from all physical contact, not just from sex — Woodson sank into shame and a deep depression. Although she retained her faith, she eventually left the church.
Twenty years later, Woodson found Savage’s email and sent him a note with the subject line: “Do you remember?” She asked if he recalled the night he was supposed to drive her home — “and instead drove me to a deserted back road and sexually assaulted me?” She signed off with “#metoo.”
When Woodson Googled his name, along with “sex abuse in church” and “youth pastor sex abuse,” she found a blog dedicated to Christian survivor stories called the Wartburg Watch; there, she read a post about an alleged abuse coverup at a church affiliated with Savage’s current church. About a month later, Woodson submitted her own first-person account about her abuse to the Wartburg Watch and a similar Christian survivor blog called Watch Keep. When the blogs simultaneously published her story, Woodson figured that maybe a hundred people would read it — but by that afternoon, the posts had spread enough that Savage responded with a statement. On the website of the Highpoint Church in Memphis — where he worked at the time — Savage described a regretful “sexual incident with a female high school senior” 20 years prior. For his mea culpa at church that Sunday, Savage’s congregation gave him a standing ovation. Within days, Savage responded to Woodson’s email, saying, in part: “I am genuinely sorry for the pain this has caused you and I ask for your forgiveness.”
Woodson soon found herself at the center of a media storm. The hashtag #JusticeForJules bubbled up on Twitter. On a CNN commentator’s radio show, Savage described the incident as an “organic sexual moment.” The New York Times ran a news story the next week and, two months later, a video piece in which Woodson detailed her story. Eleven days after the video came out, Savage resigned from Highpoint Church, acknowledging that his “relationship” with Woodson was “not only immoral, but meets the definition of abuse of power.” The same day, Savage emailed Woodson to again apologize and to say his initial in-church statement and the church’s response were “defensive and self-serving.” (Savage did not respond to my requests for comment.)
Savage’s ouster was a direct result of Woodson’s posts on the Wartburg Watch and Watch Keep, blogs that are part of a larger constellation of “Christian watchdog” outlets. 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.”
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.
The Wartburg Watch is run by Darlene Parsons, a 65-year-old former home health nurse who goes by “Dee” online; Watch Keep was founded by Amy Smith, a 50-year-old Houston mother of four. Both sites have covered numerous stories of abuse in recent years. Posts on both blogs, for instance, helped a missionary’s wife in Dallas put pressure on her church after she said she was disciplined for requesting an annulment (her then-husband had admitted to watching child pornography and being attracted to children, according to a report Smith obtained from the missionary organization where he worked at the time). And a Pennsylvania minister resigned three months after a woman alleged on the Wartburg Watch that he’d molested and raped her 40 years before, when he was a teenager and the woman was a child. Parsons believes her post had something to do with his resignation, as the minister’s attorney reached out with a letter demanding she stop writing about the man. She was unfazed: “I knew I didn’t do anything wrong, so I wasn’t worried about it,” she told me.
Parsons, one of the first watchdog bloggers, isn’t a trained journalist — but she hawkishly covers any credible allegation of church-based abuse she finds. It’s no wonder, then, that a year ago reporters for the Houston Chronicle contacted Parsons and Smith — along with others in the watchdog blog world — for the paper’s joint investigation with the San Antonio Express-News that uncovered 700 sexual abuse victims over a 20-year span in Southern Baptist churches. Much of what Parsons and Smith had to offer had already appeared on their blogs.
Parsons runs the Wartburg Watch from the kitchen of her brick Colonial outside Raleigh, N.C. Online, she’s forceful and fearless, tagging celebrity pastors, churches and Christian publications alike; her Twitter profile photo is the Church Lady, Dana Carvey’s famously prim, purse-lipped and piously judge-y “Saturday Night Live” character. Parsons is nervous to meet a reporter in person, she admits, offering me a plate of cookies while her three rescue pugs skitter across the tile floor. It’s hard to fathom that this suburban mom of three, with her tidy cardigan and sensible bob, is the same person online haters have called “the Wartburg witch,” a “feminist heretic,” an “e-pharisee” and a “minion of Satin [sic].”
In 2006, leaders at Parsons’s former church, Providence Baptist, called in Parsons and other parents for a meeting. A seminary student and church volunteer who led a youth Bible study, Brian “Doug” Goodrich, had been found with a child in a local park. That child, it seemed, was not the only suspected victim. “We’re so sorry there were some boys who were harmed,” Parsons says she recalls the church leaders saying; she also remembers them saying they hadn’t received any prior reports of wrongdoing and that, “if you have any information, let us know. The police are involved.” The church leaders asked the parents not to talk among themselves to figure out which boys had been victims, to protect their privacy. (Parsons’s son had soccer practice during Goodrich’s Bible study and wasn’t part of the core group of boys who regularly interacted with Goodrich.)
A few weeks later, a friend and fellow congregant, Janet Wilson, told Parsons her elder son was one of the boys involved. Parsons was afraid to talk about it, since the parents had been instructed not to; besides, she trusted the matter was being well handled by law enforcement and the church.
In 2007, Goodrich was convicted on 10 charges of statutory sex offense, indecent liberties and first-degree sex exploitation, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Wilson was understandably distressed during the investigation, and after the conviction she stopped by Parsons’s house, wracked with guilt. Wilson wished she’d done more, she told Parsons, because the church leaders had known about Goodrich before the 2006 incident. In 2005, Wilson says that she and her husband had described incidents with Goodrich to two youth pastors. Goodrich had exposed himself to a group of boys, including Wilson’s eldest son, at church camp, Wilson told Parsons, and encouraged them to reciprocate.
At the time, Wilson had been too embarrassed to tell anyone else about the flashing, or about the conversation with the youth pastors in which she and her husband reported Goodrich’s behavior. But Wilson knew her son was not the only boy hurt by Goodrich’s abuse. “My kids were okay,” she told Parsons that day, “but I feel terrible that these other boys have been harmed.” Wilson told me, “I felt guilty because the church knew about it. They didn’t feel guilty, but I did.”
Parsons was appalled — and decided to do something about it. She, Wilson and a few church friends wrote a letter to the church elders reminding them of the earlier incident. She expected the pastors would say they’d made a horrible mistake. When they didn’t, and the church instead began an internal investigation, Parsons and her group wrote another letter to the entire congregation. Fed up, Parsons and her cardiologist husband, Bill, left Providence Baptist to join another church.
(Goodrich’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. Brian Frost, senior pastor at Providence Baptist, confirmed that the church’s internal investigation was motivated by Parsons’s group letter, and said church policies have since changed: Now, any report or allegation of abuse by an employee or volunteer triggers a leave of duty until an investigation is completed, and all allegations of abuse must be reported to police.)
During their second week at the new church, Parsons says, she saw a man she knew to be a convicted pedophile. (His wife used to teach at her kids’ school, so news of the man’s conviction had circulated among the parents.) “I thought God was playing a joke,” she says. Two churches, two convicted sex offenders. She remembers thinking, “God, this is really not funny.”
Parsons decided to turn to the Internet. She would start a blog dedicated to exposing hypocrisy in the Protestant church. She called her friend Wanda Martin, who would go by “Deb” on the blog and who’d likewise stood with Wilson. Together, they launched the Wartburg Watch, naming it after Germany’s Wartburg Castle, where, starting in 1521, Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German and hid from Pope Leo X’s condemnation. (Wanda Martin stepped back from the blog last year.) “I assumed no one would read it,” Parsons says. “Of course, no one did read us for a while. But we were getting it all out of our system.”
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.”
Parsons received advice early on from a lawyer she knew who had tried clergy sex abuse civil cases on behalf of victims. Their conversations made her unafraid of litigation. She quoted back his advice: “In order to get sued, they have to prove that I lied, and I knowingly lied in order to cause malicious harm to another person, and that I’m doing it not for the greater good.” Her buoyant voice grew firm as she told me, “I never lie when I’m writing on these blogs. I am dead serious about what I write.” She does not consider herself much of a writer, though, telling a Vermont-based reporter, “I struggle through every post to write in such a way that people don’t think I’m a moron.”
In April 2010, Amy Smith started a blog, where she posted recipes and reflected on faith and patriotism. On October 12, 2011, she posted a recipe for pumpkin chocolate chip muffins. The next day, her blog joined the Protestant watchdog community — and soon became one of the Internet’s most relentless outlets exposing church sex abuse.
For over a year, Smith had been quietly pushing an investigation into John Langworthy, a youth minister Smith knew growing up. Smith’s family attended Dallas’s Prestonwood Baptist Church, where Smith interned in youth ministry and her father was a deacon. Langworthy had lived with her family for about a year when he’d been a minister at Prestonwood; Smith even played the flute in Langworthy’s wedding. In 1989, when Smith was a sophomore at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., she heard rumors about sexual misdeeds involving Langworthy, who had been fired and left Prestonwood. (Mike Buster, Prestonwood’s executive pastor, says that Langworthy was terminated after church leadership heard a rumor that he behaved in a “crude and inappropriate way with a male high school student,” but that no evidence of molestation was presented.)
Smith didn’t press for details until 2010, when she Googled his name and discovered he had been serving for decades at a Baptist church in Mississippi, as well as teaching elementary and high school. “I was just terrified,” says Smith. “There’s so many more possible victims and kids at risk.” But when she called and emailed the church, the school system where he taught, the Mississippi Department of Education and even Prestonwood Baptist back in Dallas, she was unsatisfied with their responses.
She Googled “Baptist sex abuse” and connected with Christa Brown, a blogger who ran a site called Stop Baptist Predators, and with a group called Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a Catholic-specific advocacy organization. “I’m not Catholic; I’m Southern Baptist,” says Smith, “but the common denominator of the way abuse was handled and was covered up was the same.”
Smith posted (anonymously) about Langworthy on blogs, including Stop Baptist Predators; she also contacted reporters at the Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi and Dallas’s Channel 8 News, and kept them apprised of her efforts while she talked to men she’d known Langworthy was close to as boys. She’d originally reached out to these men via Facebook message, and they told her how they’d wrestled with coming forward. When a church member captured a cellphone video of Langworthy confessing at the altar at his new church that he’d had “sexual indiscretions with younger males” before moving to Mississippi, the church member sent it to Smith, who forwarded the video to the reporters. In the video, Langworthy described seeking forgiveness from his wife and family and receiving counseling. He also said that, through God’s grace, there had been “no sexual impropriety” while serving at the Mississippi church, and referenced blog posts that had surfaced “concerning these indiscretions.” He was resigning due to stress, he said, much of it caused by revelations about his past.
On Oct. 13, 2011, the day after the pumpkin muffin recipe post — and two months after the Langworthy story appeared on TV — Smith came out about her involvement in the case. Her lifestyle blog took a hard turn as she revealed her efforts to, as she put it, “shine the light of truth on this admitted pedophile.” (In January 2013, Langworthy pleaded guilty to molesting five boys between the ages of 6 and 13 in Mississippi in the 1980s, before he’d worked at Prestonwood. But the entirety of his 50-year sentence was suspended under a plea agreement. Langworthy could not be reached for comment, and is registered as a sex offender in Mississippi.)
With that post, Smith’s recipes became a discordant prelude to a flood of sex abuse posts that included screen shots of emails to pastors reporting allegations, links to recorded voice mails, and uploads of police documents. Smith’s efforts eventually drew Parsons’s interest, and Parsons emailed Smith to ask if she could profile her on the Wartburg Watch. “I was stunned that someone would want to write about me,” Smith says. After that, she and Parsons kept in touch, and their kinship led to shared investigations and common enemies. In 2015, an anonymous package was mailed to over 20 pastors, Baptist leadership, reporters, SNAP leaders and bloggers, including Parsons. In a 23-page, rambling defense of Langworthy — with attacks on Smith’s character and her reasons for pursuing the Langworthy case — the writer stated he or she was “dead serious” about stopping Smith.
Attempts at intimidation have taken other forms. Brown, a church abuse survivor and former appellate lawyer who started the Stop Baptist Predators blog in 2006, says she has received hate mail for years; commenters and faith leaders alike have called her “Jezebel,” “an opportunist” and “spawn of Satan.” After years of battling church leaders to acknowledge abuse and develop a database of known clergy sex abusers — plus receiving a double cancer diagnosis — Brown decided to quit blogging at the beginning of 2017 and now writes occasionally for outlets like Baptist News Global and Ethics Daily.
The Wartburg Watch has garnered its share of trolls, too. In 2017, someone sent an anonymous letter accusing Parsons of questioning male authority in the church, causing “dissension in churches” and “defam[ing] the Church, the Bride of Christ” to various leaders and staff — even the janitor — of her current conservative Lutheran church. Other copies went to denominational leaders, a community board on which Parsons and her husband sit, and colleagues of her husband’s. The pastors at Parsons’s current church were surprised by the letter — she hadn’t yet told them about her blog — but were supportive and worried only about her safety. A seminary leader wrote a prayer for her and sent Bible verses to encourage her family. “God had given me a wonderful, unexpected gift,” she wrote on the Wartburg Watch. Her family had finally “found a church that we love and pastors who we can respect and trust.”
The bloggers themselves can, of course, be at risk for litigation. Julie Anne Smith, for instance, created a church-critical blog — and was then sued by her former pastor.
Julie Anne (not related to Amy Smith) attended Beaverton Grace Bible Church (BGBC) in the greater Portland, Ore., area from 2006 to 2008 with her husband and seven children. She says expectations for church members included men’s authority over their wives and children’s behavior, and rules on modest dress. After Julie Anne and her husband questioned such teachings — culminating in their decision to leave the church — she found the world of watchdog blogs online, where she stumbled on descriptions of pastoral control. She began to understand her own experience as one of spiritual abuse — defined as church leaders using their position of authority to control others through shame, belittling, guilt, shunning and coercion.
Years later, Julie Anne wrote Google reviews recounting the harm she believed the church had caused her family and claims about sex offenders having free rein in children’s areas. The reviews were removed. (It’s unclear why, although Google restricts reviews that include child sexual abuse imagery.) Frustrated, Julie Anne called Parsons, whose blog she’d been reading. Parsons reassured Julie Anne that she’d get through it and encouraged her to start writing. Soon after, she launched a site called BGBC Survivors, where she described the pressure and manipulation she’d felt.
Within days, Julie Anne received a summons. Her former pastor, Chuck O’Neal, was suing her, her daughter (who’d also left a negative Google review), and three other online commenters for $500,000 for defamation. Then O’Neal started a counter-blog, True BGBC Survivors, about surviving allegations and slander online and in his community. When I spoke to O’Neal recently, he denied Julie Anne’s characterization of him, describing her blog and accusations as “the curse of my life.” To be accused of abuse, he said, “is a hanging,” adding, “They just have to get it into the press. … What’s in the press, it just destroys you.”
O’Neal’s suit was dismissed five months after filing, but by then an ABC affiliate’s story of a pastor suing a blogger had gone viral. Some days, Julie Anne’s site had 17,000 hits. Today she runs one of the most-cited watchdog blogs, Spiritual Sounding Board, where she covers a range of church-based abuse. “It does put us at risk for lawsuits, [since] we’re looking at the whole picture of harm that’s being done,” she says. “[But] those are the kinds of stories that I like to take, since there’s so much at stake.”
Thus far, watchdog bloggers have mostly come from white, conservative churches. The lack of survivors of color in the stories the bloggers share is conspicuous. After “slavery and since Jim Crow, black folks have been trying to be seen as respectable by white folks,” says Lyvonne Proverbs, a pastor, poet, incest survivor and blogger who speaks and runs retreats for black Christian women as part of her #WereSurthrivors (survivor + thrivers) platform. She suggests this tendency to protect reputations includes “not airing out one’s ‘dirty laundry’ ” and an impulse among black Christians “to refuse to witness the grotesque in our communities.”
She sees deep shame in black religious spaces that carry evangelicalism’s legacy of patriarchy and white supremacy, and where women are often made to privilege black men “because they have it so hard.” Black girls are sexualized, often viewed as older than they are, and blamed for their own abuse, she says. Privately — not publicly on her blog — Proverbs has helped two women write notes to their perpetrators. Despite working actively in this space, she’d never heard of the Wartburg Watch or Watch Keep before I asked her about them. She told me “there is a critical chasm” between white and black evangelical women, whose churches rarely talk about race.
For those who do tell their stories on sites like the Wartburg Watch or Watch Keep, the blogs offer the power of exposure — but exposure doesn’t carry the force of law or necessarily lead to changes in church leadership. In October, Parsons wrote about a 1997 case in which a girl was abused, beginning when she was around 14, by a teacher at her Pennsylvania Christian school. The teacher, John Longaker, went to prison in 1998 on charges related to sex acts with the girl, including involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and indecent assault. Parsons wrote on the Wartburg Watch that Longaker “was released and is now serving as the sole pastor” of a Vermont church.
The survivor, Kelly Haines, has struggled with mental illness related to her trauma and the knowledge that Longaker was still preaching. She says she’d contacted his small Vermont church five years ago to no avail. Because “nobody did anything,” says Haines, “at that point, I just thought, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.” Then the pastors at her current nondenominational church — who “love Dee and love her work and love what these bloggers are doing for survivors,” says Haines — suggested Haines reach out to the Wartburg Watch to share her story.
After talking to Haines, Parsons called Longaker and chronicled their debate on the Wartburg Watch: He insisted he was innocent; said his lawyer told him to plead guilty and he’d get only probation; argued that Haines was out for revenge; and said that he and his wife were the real victims. Parsons asked if he understood the trauma Haines “suffered at his hands.” Longaker didn’t answer Parsons directly, but instead told her the apostle Paul was forgiven and went on to become a church leader. Parsons later posted additional stories from another alleged victim of Longaker’s who’d contacted her, and this past January, the Longaker story was picked up by the Burlington Free Press and USA Today in a piece that linked back to the Wartburg Watch. The story began: “No one conducted a background check when a small church in southwestern Vermont hired a pastor in 2010, a Burlington Free Press investigation has found.”
The attention was a mixed blessing for Haines. The press and comments on social media were generally supportive, she says, but Longaker is still listed as the sole pastor on the church’s site. (Longaker did not return repeated calls for comment.) Haines feels empowered, she says, but that “does not mean I’m going to stay empowered, because the abuse has changed everything in my head.” What she does have now — between the bloggers and other #ChurchToo advocates — is “an army of people who are so supportive, who are there.” “The Dr. Oz Show” contacted Haines, and she and Jules Woodson — the survivor whose Wartburg Watch story led to the resignation of pastor Andy Savage — were taped together for an upcoming episode.
Woodson has undergone a dramatic transformation herself since coming forward. She’s an increasingly vocal advocate for other church sex abuse survivors, and this past winter, she felt ready to attend a new church. When she met with the pastor to tell him her history, he was supportive and kind. In April, Woodson told me she is healing, finally, although there are “still times when I’m taken back to that dark place and I cry for that little girl.” It’s hard to communicate to others the power of her relationship with Parsons, she says. “I’ve essentially entrusted my life to her, you know?” says Woodson. “She, in turn, has supported me unconditionally and has made me feel safe for the first time in 20 years.”
For years, sex abuse survivors within the Protestant church have quietly carried painful burdens. Some of the pain is now being redistributed — back to the accused and to the pastors who kept their secrets. Yet there’s a burden, too, in being the one to tell the truth, to call for justice in the midst of trauma and secrecy. Parsons was never molested, never hurt as badly as the survivors with whom she works. But she continues to be fueled by anger at those who hurt others.
Parsons told me about a quote from C.S. Lewis that she considers a driving force in her life. It reads, in part: “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.” She and her fellow watchdog bloggers keep returning to their computers because the stories keep coming. In the process, they lighten others’ loads by risking the same reproach, fear and self-doubt the survivors feel. And isn’t that the measure of a church anyway? Not thousands in pews, or secrets held in shame to protect the powerful — but a community of people, with shared faith, who care enough about one another to build sanctuary.
Sarah Stankorb is an Ohio-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Marie Claire and other publications.