Later this week I should be posting the first entirely new chapter of In Search of the Final Freedom that I’ve written in several years. It had started as just an introduction to the existing Chapter 45, but once it approached fifty pages, I simply made it into a totally new chapter.
In it I explore the backstory of Bailey’s mother (DeeDee Hildebrandt) to which I’ve alluded in two other chapters. In particular, I go into how her church leadership on one hand took a very public stand against “sexual sin” while at the same time they facilitated what could be called sexual abuse of DeeDee as a young teenager. This isn’t a spoiler alert since I’ve already made reference to this before.
As I’ve been writing though, I realize some people might think I’ve gone to the deep end of fantasy world with some of what I describe in the chapter; yet, I’ve done no such thing. In fact, most of what you find happened to DeeDee is grounded firmly in things that have happened right in the religious communities in which I’ve been a part.
As with Marcy Marshal’s back story, I’m exploring the difficult line between taking the freedom of choice & action away from teens regarding their own sexuality to protect them, and when people (no mater their age) are exploited by those who hold power over them to strip them of their own agency. It is a very difficult subject where clear answers in any specific case are hard to come by.
But today I wanted to prep my readers with a few real events from Christian groups with which I have a personal connection.
Case # 1
In my “Our open marriage” narrative, I’ve made reference to the church I joined in Arlington, Texas back in the late 1970’s. At the time it was part of the fundamentalist evangelical vanguard of rapidly growing churches and provided my teenage self with firm answers in a world full of chaos. However, what only came to light much later was that the charismatic pastor who was building the church had come to Texas from Florida to escape prosecution for sexual conduct with an underage girl in the church where he was the youth pastor.
My first lesson in the abuse of spiritual power began while I was off in college. It seems a sixteen-year-old girl in our church (a close friend of mine) had come forward that he had been behaving in a very inappropriate manner. Rather than firing him, the church rallied to his defense and spent two years working to destroy the girl and her entire family because they would not take back the charges. This continued on until another friend of mine (I’d been his best man at his wedding), who had joined the church staff walked in on the pastor having sex with a young woman in the church office. Not just any young woman, a woman for whom he’d performed her wedding ceremony not six months prior.
In the next few weeks, three more young women came forward to say he’d had sex with them in his office as well. The point I really wanted to make here, is that to get to the Pastor’s office one had to go through the receptionist’s office. Clearly, he’d been having sex with young women in the church for years while any and all people who should have heard and inquired… did not. He’d used his influence to simply get people to look the other way at a church that took a very public stand against “R” rated movies and selling Playboy magazine in local stores.
In the aftermath, the church officials never apologized for attacking the first teenage girl, nor did anyone ever take any responsibility for facilitating the pastor’s systematic abuse of his spiritual authority. In fact, while the pastor resigned, there was no housecleaning. His son stayed on as associate pastor and the man who took over the church was a close friend of the former pastor. I say that because even when caught in the act, there was no institutional accountability, nor was the focus changed from condemning the “sins of the world” to “the sins within the church.”
This one is even bigger simply because the canvas was bigger. The pastor I spoke of above, had strongly encouraged me to go to a fundamentalist Baptist College just outside of Chicago. It was affiliated with 1st Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana which for the prior decade had claimed to have the “World’s Biggest Sunday School.” The pastor and chancellor of the college was a man named Jack Hyles.
Just a pic I shot in chapel one day at my college
The first time I began to see something was wrong was in my second year I got to know a few people who had grown up in 1st Baptist Church. Evidently, it was a very open secret that the youth pastor, who just happened to be the pastor’s son (Dave) had a long history, going back to when he was a teenager himself, of using his status to bed girls in the youth group. He’d continued long after he was on the church staff as Youth Pastor. The year I arrived at the college was thirty years old and a parent of one of the girls was raising quite a fuss. The solution was that his very influential father got him a pastorate of his own in Texas.
It just so happens that one of my best friends in college came from that Texas church, and his father was on the deacon board. A few years later he told me what had become of “Brother Dave.” Though he could have gotten expelled for telling me, it seems that my friend’s father had been one of those who confronted Dave Hyles about a suit case filled with hundreds of polaroids he had taken of nude high school girls over a period of decades… girls from both 1st Baptist Hammond and the new church.
Understand this was the early 80’s and the idea of sexual predators didn’t ring the same bells it does today. My friend told me that while they fired the man on the spot, they did not turn the evidence over to the police, rather they simply destroyed it out of fear of making the church look bad. In the cases of both churches, people with authority within the church helped him hide his crimes and to find new victims.
I say victims because whenever a man uses his power to strip away a girl/woman’s ability to freely choose to have sex, it is morally wrong, even if age is not an issue. This is not to say women can’t freely have sex with their pastor, teacher, therapist etc.; but that is not the point when we are talking about sexual morality. Even if the woman does not suffer any emotional damage, it is still abusive. Only in the last decade or so have western countries specified that in law, but it has always been wrong.
Years later I got to know a woman who had been in the church youth program when Dave Hyles was youth pastor and she told me that over the years a good many of her friends had confided to having had sex with the youth pastor when they were in high school. She was sure the reason he hadn’t hit on her was that she wasn’t pretty enough. But, for about ten years, the Youth Pastor systematically used his authority to get high school girls to not only have sex with him, but to allow him to take nude photos; yet nobody in the very large church organization stopped it. According to my friend, it was such common knowledge that girls wondered when it would be “their turn.” Understand that this is a church that would expel students from their high school (and from my college) for kissing. Adults had to have known but chose not to rock the boat.
Oh the story gets worse.
The year after I graduated from college, the school & church were rocked by scandal when a major Christian publication published an article exposing that Jack Hyles (the pastor) had not only been having sex with his personal secretary for decades; but he’d used his power to silence the woman’s husband and children who all knew. It seems (and was later confirmed) that a secret pass door was installed between his office and hers that was covered by a tapestry and so that they could do it in his office during the day.
Where the story gets really bad, is that soon after the article was published, students at the college were threatened with expulsion if they had copies of the article or spread the information that was in it. The entire college went into lockdown and in the next few months, any professor or staff member who would not sign a pledge that they personally repudiated the contents of the article were summarily fired.
I first heard about this scandal when the college sent a six-page rebuttal to the original article to every graduate (including me). I’d not even seen the original article; but in reading the rebuttal, it was filled with things I knew firsthand to be lies. Yet, I was expected to simply choose to “be loyal. In the end, the church and college survived (barely) by shrinking down to a very small insular core. The value of my degree became nearly nil (fortunately by then I’d started grad school elsewhere).
The last shoe to drop came years later. Jack Hyles remained pastor of the much-diminished church, and when he died his son-in-law (Jack Schaap) became pastor. I knew Brother Schaap because I’d taken two of the classes he taught (including hermeneutics). We had not gotten along well.
Some ten years later I found out that he had been arrested for transporting a sixteen-year-old girl across state lines for sex. It seems she was a girl in the church youth group and school and a staff member had driven her to Wisconsin to spend a weekend alone with him at a “spiritual retreat”. That is how he’d been caught. But he’d been screwing the girl for months right under the nose of the church staff; but true to form, nobody admitted knowing anything about it. From the investigation leading to his conviction, at least a dozen adults clearly had to have quite deliberately looked the other way.
Oh…. The girl was expelled from the church school for “immorality” and the girl and her family were asked to leave the church.
These experiences changed my life. Especially the first example because I had seen our pastor behaving inappropriately with my friend when she and he had come to my college for a youth conference; but I had not known what to do. I had not been there when she and her family had been viciously attacked and only learned about that after the fact. But to this day I hold the guilt for not acting when I knew I should. It has shaped my “take no prisoners” approach to ethics which characterized my career and infuriated my superiors.
That young lady (now a grandparent like me) survived and grew and built a life for herself.
So when you read chapter 45, realize I’m not simply making things up from thin air… and my experiences are just two that touched me personally. That kind of stuff is endemic to authoritarian religious environments.
But also keep in mind that life is complicated and people are resilient. Many people (such as DeeDee Hildebrandt) can find good and lasting value in circumstances that may well have been exploitative in nature.
Having been a soldier, I can tell you that all militaries exploit the teenage young men (and women) in their ranks. The long-term effects of what seventeen and eighteen-year-olds are put through are of little (or no consequence) to generals giving orders. In fact, they know full well that many of their young soldiers will be damaged in the process (the suicide rate for the military is very high even for those who never see combat). It is exploitation pure and simple. Yet, you can find many, many older people who are grateful to their military experience for making them the person they are. Keep that in mind when you read DeeDee’s narrative.