Faith and Religion

Dozens accuse Independent Fundamental Baptist church of abuse coverups

Former members of the Independent Fundamental Baptist church are demanding justice after years of alleged sex abuse and coverups.

Dozens accuse Independent Fundamental Baptist church of abuse coverups
Scripps News
SMS

Former members of Independent Fundamental Baptist churches from across the country took to Hammond, Indiana, in protest this weekend.

"There is a reckoning that needs to happen here, and it is gone on for far too long," Esther Gallarday, a former Independent Fundamental Baptist Church member, told Scripps News.

A 2018 Investigation from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram shed light on more than 400 allegations of abuse across 160 churches.

Rumblings and lawsuits against the Hammond location, the largest in the nation, began as far back as the 1990s

Today, accusers from IFB churches nationwide say they are still looking for accountability.

"My husband was kept on staff at a church despite the fact that he admitted to being a domestic abuser," Gallarday said.

Gallarday, who was raised in the church, says she was taught women were to be submissive even in moments of abuse.

"Everything goes back to the pastor; the pastor says the husband is the authority, so if the husband is the authority of the home, the men are enabled basically to do whatever they would like to do and basically get by with it," she said.

The allegations of verbal and sexual abuse are resurfacing since the release of Investigation Discovery's docuseries, "Let Us Prey: A Ministry of Scandals." The program features the stories of people like April Avila.

"I was sexually abused from the age of 13 all the way until I left for college around 18 by the youth pastor of the church I attended," Avila said.

Avila recalls attending a service of a former pastor who was accused of sexual assault.

"They pushed out that girl. They stood by the pastor. And I sat there, and I thought, 'I am never coming forward because this is how the church will treat me,'" she explained.

Defenders of the church say Independent Baptist churches are just that — independent — and it's wrong to blame the entire group for the actions of some.

"Not every Independent Baptist is affiliated with this stuff, but the base teaching is there," said Eric Skwarczynski.

Skwarczynski is the host of Preacher Boys Podcast and says he's interviewed hundreds of victims over the years. He's also a former member.

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"Around the time I was in high school, I discovered that a predator was shuffled to our church from another ministry, and when I started raising awareness about it, the staff started turning their back on me and really getting upset that I was bringing this up," he recalled.

At First Baptist of Hammond, protesters are demanding transparency from the current pastor and a move to formally denounce past leaders.

Scripps News reached out to the First Baptist of Hammond. They didn't reply to our request for an interview but did send us a statement saying:

"It is important to first acknowledge that any statement we provide will never offer full healing for the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual harm that some have caused in the 136 years of our ministry. We want to be clear: We grieve and have remorse for any victim, we abhor abuse of any fashion and we acknowledge the lifelong harm that abuse has on the lives of people. We are committed to providing a safe place for men, women and children to worship our Lord Jesus Christ. Though we cannot speak with full knowledge of situations over the 13 decades of our church's history, under the current leadership, we have taken every allegation seriously and will continue to report any allegation of abuse to the proper authorities. It is our firm belief that the church should be a place where people are loved and accepted and where victims are supported."

Protesters say it's about more than the Church; they also hope to bring attention to statutes of limitation laws for sex crimes, which vary depending on the state and the offense.

"There are many who have not been able to pursue justice because the difficulty of coming forward as a child," Skwarczynski said. "They come years later, where going to police is not going to solve the problem."

"This is a much bigger picture where victims need to stand for victims," Avila said. "If I had somebody that I saw stand up for that girl all those years ago, I would hope that I would have been able to feel safe enough to come forward."