An investigation by the Forth Worth Star-Telegram has uncovered more than 400 allegations of sexual misconduct at nearly 1,000 churches and organizations affiliated with the independent fundamental Baptist movement across 40 states and Canada, in which 168 church leaders have been “accused or convicted of committing sexual crimes against children.”

To understand how such widespread abuse perpetuated over decades, in which “at least 45 of the alleged abusers continued in ministry after accusations came to the attention of church authorities or law enforcement,” the investigation uncovered a culture of fear and secrecy in which pastors punished accusers and used their connections “to help abusers find new churches, the Star-Telegram found.”

The independent fundamental Baptist movement grew in the 1950s and ’60s; there are more than 6,000 loosely affiliated network of churches across the United States.

The church rules by fear, ex-members say. Since pastors were chosen by God, and represented the church’s relationship with God, questioning or challenging a pastor was akin to going against God. As a result, pastors had God-like authority over members, influencing decisions that included who they can date, what job offer they accept, or even where to vacation.

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Ex-members who spoke to the Star-Telegram describe a cult-like dynamic in which pastors have God-like power and status. One ex-member told the paper:

“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.”

In the independent fundamental Baptist community, pastors are the ultimate authority and council:

“Any issues, even legal issues, go to the pastor first, not the police. Especially about another member of the church,” said Josh Elliott, a former member of Vineyard’s Oklahoma City church. “The person should go to the pastor, and the pastor will talk to the offender. You don’t report to police because the pastor is the ultimate authority, not the government.”

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Challenging a pastor’s authority, members believed, would make God angry, and transgressors would pay a price. Some “ex-members said they believed that if they disobeyed the pastor or left the church, God would kill them or their loved ones,” the Star-Telegram reports.

Another woman, Lisa Meister, tried to kill herself after her youth pastor, Mark Chappell, allegedly assaulted her as a teen. She was forced to apologize to the congregation to “repent.”:

“It wasn’t said, ‘This man preyed on this girl,’ ‘This man violated this girl,’” Meister said. “It was put out before the church as two people who sinned together. Like I was just as guilty as he was in the eyes of the church.”

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Chappell, meanwhile, went on to a different church and is currently a pastor at the Freeway Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona.

Rhonda Cox Lee, one of the many alleged victims Dave Hyles, son of prominent pastor Jack Hyles, said that Hyles“alternately promised her that they would be together once she turned 18 and warned her not to tell anyone in the church because if she did, the church would split, America would go to hell, and the blood of the unsaved would be on her hands.” Jennifer McCune, who alleged that Hyles raped her when she was 14-years-old, “still wonders 36 years later if God punished her by giving her late husband cancer.”

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In 1985, Hyles was investigated for the death of an infant; during a grand jury hearing, he pled the Fifth Amendment and the case remained unsolved. Today, he runs “a ministry for pastors who have fallen into sin” with the support of the Family Baptist Church in Columbia, Tennessee.

This dynamic is, sadly, not new, nor is it exclusive to the church. The Star-Telegram’s investigation illustrates how a culture of fear, isolation, and unchallenged patriarchy created a toxic environment that enabled powerful men to prey on vulnerable children for years. But over time, more victims are coming forward to tell their stories and demanding they be heard. Read the rest of the report here.