With the ink barely dry on a Southern Baptist Convention resolution apologizing for past failures in handling abuse allegations, the SBC International Mission Board is facing charges that it recently allowed a credibly accused sexual predator to slip through the cracks.
In 2007, the IMB conducted a two-month investigation into allegations that Mark Aderholt, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate appointed as a missionary in 2000, as a 25-year-old youth pastor sexually abused a 16-year-old girl in 1996 and 1997.
The probe found evidence that Aderholt “more likely than not” had “engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship” with the teenager and “was not truthful” with the assessment team about the extent of their relationship. But that didn’t stop him from climbing the denominational ladder.
Aderholt resigned as a missionary before the results of the investigation were turned over to the agency’s board of trustees. He found a job at a Southern Baptist church within two months before moving on to become associate pastor of missions and evangelism at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a congregation once best known as the home church of President Bill Clinton.
Gary Hollingsworth, senior pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church since 2007, left in 2016 to become executive director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Six months later Aderholt joined the staff of the 2,100-church state affiliate of the SBC.
The IMB investigation included two days of interviews with Aderholt’s accuser in October 2007. The woman, a former blogger, author and speaker named Anne Marie Miller, says she learned only months ago that the IMB didn’t report its findings to the police 11 years ago.
She contacted law enforcement officials in Texas, a state with no statute of limitations for serious sex crimes involving minors, sparking a criminal investigation. Rumors circulated earlier this summer that Aderholt had been placed on administrative leave by the South Carolina Baptist Convention during the investigation, but inquiries to the convention’s communications department went unanswered.
The Baptist Courier, the South Carolina Baptist newspaper, reported June 19 that Aderholt had resigned as the convention’s associate executive director. Hollingsworth said he received the resignation “with a heavy heart” but did so “based on the importance of staying focused on the convention’s vision statement.”
Aderholt was arrested July 3 on charges of sexual assault of a child under 17 and two counts of indecency with a child. If convicted he faces up to 20 years in prison. He was booked into the Tarrant County Jail July 9 and released the following day on $10,000 bond.
Aderholt, 46, denies the allegations, just as he did when first confronted about them by the IMB in 2007.
The IMB says it did not report the abuse allegations because Miller said she was not interested in pressing charges. Miller, diagnosed in 2010 with PTSD resulting from childhood abuse, says she remembers feeling at the time that if the criminal investigation was anything like her two days of interviews with the IMB, she didn’t think she could handle it.
Miller says regardless of her emotional state at the time, the IMB ignored mandatory reporting laws. It is unclear what, if anything, the IMB told Aderholt’s future employers.
“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 protected],” agency spokesperson Julie McGowan said in comments published by Baptist Press. “We actively encourage all churches – any potential employers of former IMB personnel – to utilize this resource.”
McGowan said the IMB has a zero-tolerance policy against sexual misconduct and is cooperating with civil authorities.
Advocates seek “Justice for Anne”
This week a group of victim advocates launched an online petition calling on SBC leaders to establish a clergy abuse database and protocols for disclosing allegations of sexual misconduct. The denomination turned down a similar request in 2008, citing autonomy of the local church.
The group, which includes organizers of a recent “For Such a Time as This” rally at the SBC annual meeting in Dallas, is also promoting a letter-writing campaign asking IMB trustees to fire an attorney who in 2007 advised Miller to seek reconciliation with her alleged abuser.
“At this point, I would advise you to let it go,” attorney Derek Gaubatz counseled in an e-mail exchange with Miller dated Dec. 3, 2007, published online by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“Forgiveness is up to you alone,” said Gaubatz, who had been hired as IMB general counsel earlier in the year. “It involves a decision by you to forgive the other person of the wrongs done to you, just as Christ has forgiven you.”
Gaubatz, who previously worked for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, credited God with his insight, “working through the teaching I received at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in D.C.”
He recommended that Miller learn more about her interest in “healthy churches” by checking out resources offered by 9 Marks Ministries, a parachurch group led by Capitol Hill pastor and Calvinist leader Mark Dever.
(In 2013 Dever joined Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler and another ministerial colleague in a statement of public support for C.J. Mahaney, a pastor friend named in a class action lawsuit alleging systematic concealment of abuse that was thrown out of court due to statute of limitations.)
Gaubatz said as recently as April 16 of this year that he thinks the “thoughts on forgiveness and reconciliation” he offered 11 years ago “are still true today.”
“How can Mark still pastor inside SBC churches like he is? Isn’t there some checks and balances with something as serious as what he was terminated for?”
An e-mail from Miller to Gaubatz in 2011 asked: “How can Mark still pastor inside SBC churches like he is? Isn’t there some checks and balances with something as serious as what he was terminated for?” According to the Star-Telegram, Gaubatz did not reply.
The “Justice for Anne” form letter urges IMB trustees to formally apologize to Miller and fire any personnel “who knew of Aderholt’s abuse and did nothing to prevent him from continuing to serve as a pastor and missionary.” The activists also request that the board reimburse Miller for the cost of counseling she has received to deal with the trauma of her abuse and for the IMB to “publicly release the names of any other SBC leaders whom the IMB knows are sexual predators.”
The advocates say instead of handling Aderholt’s case internally, the IMB should have enlisted an outside third party to conduct an independent investigation. During their interview, the advocates say, the IMB asked questions that implied Miller was partly responsible for her abuse. “In particular, the assessment team asked inappropriate questions about her sexual history,” the group says on its website.
They say the IMB did not appropriately inform Miller that the allegations against Aderholt constitute a crime and “took no steps to investigate” whether he might have abused others in his capacity as an overseas missionary in countries known for sex trafficking.
The 2018 SBC resolution on abuse calls on all persons to “act decisively on matters of abuse, to intervene on behalf of the abused, to ensure their safety, to report allegations of abuse to civil authorities according to the laws of their state.”
It encourages church and denominational leaders “to be faithful examples, through their words and actions” and for pastors and ministry leaders “to foster safe environments in which abused persons may both recognize the reprehensible nature of their abuse and reveal such abuse to pastors and ministry leaders in safety and expectation of being believed and protected.”
The Baptist Courier published a letter July 18 from two South Carolina Baptist Convention leaders affirming Hollingsworth’s handling of the events leading up to Aderholt’s resignation.
“In Dr. Hollingsworth’s job interviews with him, Mark Aderholt never mentioned any abuse claim against him,” executive board chair Tommy Kelly and convention president Marshall Blalock said in the joint statement.
“The hiring process involved a comprehensive background investigation, including a criminal history check, a credit check, and employment references, all of which were impeccable,” the duo said. “No sources gave any indication of any negative information about Mr. Aderholt. He served well in his position here and there was absolutely no indication of any claim of abuse in his past.”
According to Baptist Press, Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Oklahoma, made a motion at the 2018 SBC annual meeting in Dallas calling on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to study expanded resources to help churches protect themselves from sexual predators. By rule the motion was referred to trustees of the SBC moral concerns agency led by Russell Moore.
Burleson also made the motion in 2007 asking the SBC Executive Committee to study the feasibility of a database of clergy convicted, credibly accused or confessing to sexual abuse that convention leaders recommended against.
Burleson was among the speakers at the non-sanctioned June 12 rally outside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Dallas Convention Center.
The lead planner of the For Such A Time As This Rally, Cheryl Summers, is one of the four activists spearheading the Justice of Anne petition and letter-writing campaign. The others, according to their website, are Ashley Easter, founder of the Courage Conference; Eric Price, a graduate student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; and Brad Sargent, a curriculum writer and futurist who once worked for Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and has been writing about the abuse of power in religious institutions since 2008.