The official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention “trampled on” an abuse survivor who trusted her denomination to tell her story well, a speaker revealed during the closing session of last week’s “Caring Well” conference on the church’s response to sexual abuse.
Rachael Denhollander — an in-demand speaker on the topic since her role in putting serial sex offender and former U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar behind bars — told the story to illustrate that survivors’ fear of coming forward is well-founded, “because most of the time when they speak up, they are trampled on, and this has happened in the SBC over and over and over again.”
“In fact there is a very prominent survivor, a precious friend of mine, that this happened to just a year ago,” Denhollander said in an on-stage interview with Russell Moore, head of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which organized the national conference held Oct. 3-5 in Texas.
Denhollander described how Jen Lyell, an executive at LifeWay Christian Resources, made the hard decision to publicly disclose her story of being sexually abused by a former seminary professor in order to keep him from simply moving on to another ministry position to prey on others.
Trusting the SBC to “protect her and to handle her story well,” Denhollander said, Lyell reached out to Baptist Press, the denomination’s official news service overseen by the SBC Executive Committee, only to have phrases in her written statement such as “I was sexually abused” and “sexually acted against me” reworded as “a morally inappropriate relationship” and implying the situation was an adulterous affair.
Lyell, vice president of book merchandizing and publishing at LifeWay Christian Resources, added details in a lengthy statement posted online Oct. 7. The original story no longer appears in Baptist Press, but it is archived on other websites including Kentucky Today.
Lyell, who in March released the full statement she had given to Baptist Press online “after the inaccurate article went up and harassment began,” said she first notified Ronnie Floyd, head of the SBC Executive Committee, about problems with the story in June at the SBC annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama.
After correcting an author’s misunderstanding of her situation based on BP’s reporting, Lyell then asked Shawn Hendricks, the editor of Baptist Press, if the story could be removed. The request led to a meeting with Hendricks and Roger “Sing” Oldham, at the time the vice president overseeing Baptist Press since reassigned to his former job as vice president of convention relations.
Lyell said Oldham told her removing the story could have unintended consequences and that the practice is journalistically unsound. She understood and over the next few weeks sent e-mails to Floyd, Oldham and Hendricks asking them to keep the story online but to add an editorial note at the top of the article “acknowledging the inaccurate language they had used.”
“I stated that I would not draw public attention to the matter, but needed it corrected as it continued to result in harassment, misunderstanding and harm to me and LifeWay,” Lyell recalled.
After the initial meeting and three weeks of e-mails in which she provided every piece of documentation requested, Lyell said that Baptist Press spiked the story, without telling her and against her wishes, on July 30. The next day, she appealed to Floyd “to help me as a sister in Christ” and “simply correct an inaccuracy created by the Executive Committee.”
Lyell said Oldham followed up with an option of republishing the article as a new story “with an editorial note that was far from a correction and served as an editorial defense of their inaccurate language, even while acknowledging it had not been what I had reported.”
“I was told by Dr. Oldham that if I left things as they were that the article would stay offline, but that if anything were posted, it would include that editorial language,” she said. “Essentially, I was to be quiet or have the matter escalated without any correction. So I stayed quiet.”
Jonathan Howe, elected last month as the Executive Committee’s vice president for communications, released a statement Oct. 5 saying he has in recent days been made aware of the March 8 news story mentioned by Denhollander and “the decisions made by Baptist Press at the time of publication.”
“I’m also aware that the story omitted all references to abuse and a lack of consent to sexual activity and was framed as ‘a morally inappropriate relationship.’ This led to a general understanding that what happened between Dr. David Sills and Ms. Jennifer Lyell was a consensual affair. As I understand it, that is not accurate.”
“As the official news service for the Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press should be known for integrity, truth and accuracy,” added Howe, until recently director of strategic initiatives at LifeWay Christian Resources. “Ensuring that is my top priority.”
Lyell said she is friends with both Howe and Amy Whitfield, his co-host of the weekly podcast SBC This Week, who was named last week as the Executive Committee’s associate vice president for convention communications.
Lyell said she refrained from asking them to intercede on her behalf because “I knew they may end up working for the Executive Committee and saw the value they would bring to those roles” and “all of my options were fully exhausted prior to either of them being in a position to address it.”
Denhollander portrayed Lyell as “a survivor of horrific predatory abuse” who “instead of being surrounded with love and care and support was cast away as someone involved in a consensual affair.”
“That happened last year to one of your own by one of your own, including members of your Executive Committee, and that is to our shame,” Denhollander said. “The SBC has over and over again trampled on these precious survivors, and that is why they are afraid to speak up.”
“That fear is deserved, and it is up to you as members of the SBC to surround these survivors with care, to make sure that the truth is told, to understand what abuse looks like so that victims like Jen are protected and cared for, to hold your leaders accountable to not trample on these survivors and to understand that when you do, you are meddling in matters of life and death,” she said.
Lyell said the ordeal has been difficult, leaving her “physically deteriorated.”
“It is so unfathomable to understand how I could be spending hours upon hours dealing with this on my own in light of all the documentation, clarity and corroboration I have from Southern Baptist leaders,” she said. “I have grieved and questioned how I could have been so naïve to trust again and paralyzed with fear to speak because I cannot tolerate any more pain.”
“All I have wanted is to move on — to tell the truth and then serve God through the SBC,” Lyell said. “I do not understand how or why that has led to this, and I cannot express how painful it is that it has. I also cannot imagine the fortitude it has taken the men and women who have been trying to bring light to these dark places and solitary requests to simply be accurate for years and years. I am ashamed that I have not understood or cared about them enough.”