Joy Evans Ryder was 15 years old when she says her church youth director pinned her to his office floor and raped her.
“It’s OK. It’s OK,” he told her. “You don’t have to be afraid of anything.”
He straddled her with his knees, and she looked off into the corner, crying and thinking, “This isn’t how my mom said it was supposed to be.”
The youth director, Dave Hyles, was the son of the charismatic pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, considered at the time the flagship for thousands of loosely affiliated independent fundamental Baptist churches and universities.
At least three other teen girls would accuse Hyles of sexual misconduct, but he never faced charges or even sat for a police interview related to the accusations. When he got in trouble, Hyles was able to simply move on, from one church assignment to the next.
Hyles’ flight to safety has become a well-worn path for ministers in the independent fundamental Baptist movement.
For decades, women and children have faced rampant sexual abuse while worshiping at independent fundamental Baptist churches around the country. The network of churches and schools has often covered up the crimes and helped relocate the offenders, an eight-month Star-Telegram investigation has found.
More than 200 people — current or former church members, across generations — shared their stories of rape, assault, humiliation and fear in churches where male leadership cannot be questioned.
“It’s a philosophy — it’s flawed,” said Stacey Shiflett, an independent fundamental Baptist pastor in Dundalk, Maryland. “The philosophy is you don’t air your dirty laundry in front of everyone. Pastors think if they keep it on the down-low, it won’t impact anyone. And then the other philosophy is it’s wrong to say anything bad about another preacher.”
The Star-Telegram discovered at least 412 allegations of sexual misconduct in 187 independent fundamental Baptist churches and their affiliated institutions, spanning 40 states and Canada.
Twenty-one abuse allegations were uncovered exclusively by the Star-Telegram, and others were documented in criminal cases, lawsuits and news reports. But victims said the number of abused is far greater because few victims ever come forward.
One hundred and sixty-eight church leaders were accused or convicted of committing sexual crimes against children, the investigation found. At least 45 of the alleged abusers continued in ministry after accusations came to the attention of church authorities or law enforcement.
Compounding the problem is the legal statute of limitations. For many alleged offenders, the statutes on the crimes have expired.
Many of the allegations involve men whose misconduct has long been suspected in the independent fundamental Baptist community. But most of their victims have not publicly come forward, on the record, until now. Even pastors have for the first time — in interviews with the Star-Telegram — acknowledged they moved alleged abusers out of their churches rather than call law enforcement.
From Connecticut to California, the stories are tragically similar:
A music minister molested a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina and moved to another church in Florida. Another girl’s parents stood in front of their Connecticut congregation to acknowledge their daughter’s “sin” after she was abused by her youth pastor, beginning at 16. This year, four women accused a pastor in California of covering up sexual misconduct and shielding the abusers over almost 25 years.
To understand how this systemic, widespread abuse could happen again and again, some former members say it is necessary to understand the cult-like power of many independent fundamental Baptist churches and the constant pressure not to question pastors — or ever leave the church.
“We didn’t have a compound like those other places, but it may as well have been,” said one former member who says she was abused. She requested anonymity because, like many others, she is still intimidated by the church.
“Our mind was the compound.”
‘Men of God’
Current and formers members say many independent fundamental Baptist churches rule by fear.
Pastor Jim Vineyard was an expert in the tactic.
Vineyard had a tattoo snaking around his forearm and liked to talk about the days he said he was a Green Beret. He began his preaching career under Dave Hyles’ father, Jack, in Indiana and left to begin his own church, Windsor Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
Former members in Oklahoma City remember the story about a photo of a dead man Vineyard kept in his desk. It was a favorite of Vineyard’s to tell from the pulpit.
In one version of the story, the picture was of a man who voted against Vineyard coming into the church to pastor. The man subsequently got into a car crash and broke his neck.
Or there was this version: The photo was of the son of a Windsor Hills family who told Vineyard they were going to leave the church. Vineyard warned them: If they did, God would punish them. They left, and the son died in a car crash.
Defy Jim Vineyard, the message went, and God would punish you.
To go against the advice of the pastor of an independent fundamental Baptist church is almost unthinkable. The “man of God” is chosen by God and is the church’s direct link to him. To question the pastor is to question God.
“I see a culture where pastoral authority is taken to a level that’s beyond what the Scripture teaches,” said Tim Heck, who was a deacon at Faith Baptist Church in Wildomar, California, and whose daughter said she had been abused by the youth pastor there. “I think the independent fundamental Baptists have lost their way.”
Many pastors build authority through fear and interpretation of Bible verses. Children learn the story of Elisha and the she-bears: As the prophet Elisha walks up the path toward Bethel, a group of children surrounds him and makes fun of his baldness. Two she-bears emerge from the woods and maul 42 of the children. The lesson: Don’t challenge the man of God.
Even if they leave, some ex-members wonder for years whether bad events in their lives were caused by an angry God. Jennifer McCune, who came forward this year to allege that Dave Hyles raped her when she was a 14-year-old in Texas, still wonders 36 years later if God punished her by giving her late husband cancer.