abuse
Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. (Courtesy of LMPC)

One Church Gets It Right: Lookout Mountain’s Model Response to Sex Abuse Allegations

By Steve Rabey

Often when churches hear allegations of sexual abuse by their staff, they minimize the abuse and attack the whistleblower. But recently, one church in Tennessee did the exact opposite, earning the praise of abuse survivor advocate Dee Parsons, who’s blogged about abuse claims for 12 years.

“The reason my blog exists is because of how badly churches respond to these problems,” said Parsons in a recent interview. “But this church responded very well.”

For decades, the claims that a former youth intern had abused boys at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, remained buried. But when pastor Brian Salter first learned about the claims in 2019, his response was swift and thorough.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press, which recently published a 2,400-word piece highlighting Lookout’s response, dubbed Lookout’s response as “a new approach to allegations of child sexual abuse.”

Churches and ministries can follow Lookout Mountain’s model by focusing on these specific steps.

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Transparency

After Rev. Salter received a phone call informing him that Paul Warren, a youth ministry intern at the church, had acted inappropriately with teenage boys at the church in the early 1980s, he went into action. He soon found that the accusations had been aired in the church in years past, but never fully investigated.

At each step in the long and complex two-year process, Salter and church leadership were open about what they were doing.

As the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported, “the leaders of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian chose to be radically transparent about what happened and how it was being handled. They sent letters to their congregation. They held virtual town hall events. And, when the investigation was complete, they made the final report public.”

Communication

Church leadership regularly shared information with relevant parties. They sent letters about their investigation to all church members 18 and older. This resulted in additional members coming forward with accusations. This further complicated the investigation, but it led to important discoveries, too. The church also sent letters to Warren’s current and former employers.

Some organizations strictly limit communication, fearing that sharing information may expose them to additional legal liability, but Rev. Salter and church leaders felt more communication was better.

Independent investigation

Many churches and ministries believe they can handle investigations of sexual abuse internally, but this approach rarely works, and often feeds skepticism about the results.

Instead, Lookout Mountain hired Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE, a Virginia nonprofit that has emerged as the leading investigative organization. GRACE conducted a 14-month investigation that involved 32 interviews with witnesses and victims, and extensive document research. When GRACE issued its final report, the church made that readily available, too.

During the GRACE investigation, Warren defended his explicit sexual talk and masturbation sessions with young boys as “good Christian counsel.” Warren has not responded to media requests for comment.

Community

In addition to the regular information it disseminated in print and on its web site, the church also held regular town hall meetings where members could discuss the information together.

In some cases, church leaders used the town halls to share new information. In other cases, leaders expressed their feelings about the whole process. As Rev. Salter said during a January, 2021 town hall: “It’s heavy. It’s dark. It’s tragic. Hurt is everywhere. But pray for us.”

Justice Deferred is Still Justice

How far back into the past should a church go to root out sin? In many cases, churches wash their hands of old, bad news.

“What usually happens in situations like that, is that the church claims that they have no responsibility for something that happened 35 years ago,” Parsons said. “Lookout Mountain didn’t do that.”

At a January town hall, Rev. Salter owned the church’s responsibility for the abuse, stating: “What we are dealing with is unreconciled and largely overlooked criminal activity by spiritual leaders, and that is especially heinous.”

The crimes had been overlooked by previous pastors and leaders, even though accusations regularly arose.

As the church explored misbehavior by Paul Warren in the 1980s, they got a surprise. They found that Anthony Marcano, a youth intern who served Lookout Mountain in the 1970s, was also accused of sexual abuse. That complicated the investigation, which found that both men had gone on to work in public settings with young people: Warren at other churches, Marcano in public education.

Dee Parsons, who began her work with The Wartburg Watch after her own Baptist church failed to address abuse, acknowledges that some believers seem to think that decades-old transgressions should be left alone. But she says even decades-old sin should be exposed and addressed.

“Justice is justice, no matter when it happens,” she says.

Parsons recently posted an audio blog about a woman who confronted her Methodist abuser 40 years after the fact. Even though the statute of limitations had expired, the woman  was allowed to pursue the case because she was a minor when she was abused. The case went forward, and the offender has been arrested.

While Lookout Mountain acted quickly on its investigation into Paul Warren, Warren remained a pastor at Abbott Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore until earlier this year. Both Abbott and Lookout Mountain are churches affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

When Salter first learned about the allegations in 2019, he sent two letters to the Chesapeake Presbytery, which oversees PCA churches in the Maryland area. The letters detailed the allegations and notified church leadership of the investigation.

The Chesapeake Presbytery issued a statement to the Chattanooga paper saying that Warren had been dealt with appropriately: “Mr. Warren was investigated, convicted, and deposed from his ministry through an ecclesiastical judicial system.”

Rev. Salter, who declined an interview, isn’t celebrating the church’s response, but continues to mourn the sin and crime that took place in the past.

“I’m real sensitive to our ‘doing it right’ being a badge of honor because I don’t think that should overshadow what was wrong,” Salter told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “I don’t think that should overshadow the pain. I’m real hesitant for credit. These terrible things happened in our institution.”

Steve RabeySteve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.

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8 thoughts on “One Church Gets It Right: Lookout Mountain’s Model Response to Sex Abuse Allegations”

  1. I just don’t get why churches struggle with this issue. It shouldn’t be an embarrassment, it should be an outrage.

    This “there, there” approach to abuse wanders so far from the Biblical imperative to love God and love others that it’s not even in the same ballpark.

    I’m glad a church got it right and I pray with the deepest pleading that other churches look to this, instead of looking for loopholes.

    Jesus never said this would be easy.

  2. howard makely

    Maybe it’s time that the church give it’s children and youth back to their parents here they belong. We see the disastrous results of this experiment. Parents, forget about your million dollar mansion and your two Porsche driveway and rescue your children from hell.

  3. Bravo!

    There are other churches that are also doing this right, but often the coverup scandals do get the coverage.

    Sexual abusers are often incredibly cunning and manipulative. I have no doubt that those abusers of the 80’s didn’t stop when they left the church. Abusers function best in the dark. The cure is the light of day.

    They investigated to the limits of the church’s ability, hired private investigators with expertise in this area, took ecclesiastical action, and also notified legal authorities to investigate further.

    They covered all the bases.

  4. “Lookout Mountain” is such an appropriate name for this church, at this time, under Pastor Salter. I can’t remember another example of a church operating with such openness, transparency and authenticity. In fact, the vast majority of churches and church system operate in secrecy, with a lack of authenticity due to a priority on protecting the reputation of the church and church finances. And I say this as a former pastor for 20 years, seeing the way the church system operates. My senior pastor wanted me fired for being “insubordinate” because I kept reporting the abuser’s activity to the church system (this was before states rolled back their statute of limitations so the police could not do anything about the molestations the pedophile admitted to that were in the past…yet the allowed him to have continued involvement in children’s ministries/access to children. If was I was pastor again, and I had to deal with an abuser, I would immediately set up an interview with the largest newspaper in the area because fear of bad press is one thing that churches will respond to, even if it is superficially going through the motions… While they may not change as a system, they will, at a minimum, remove the offender/abuser to avoid bad press and to look “good” in the eyes of the community, while they put out a letter to the public stating that “the safety of our children is our first priority,” EVEN WHEN their LONG-TERM pattern of behavior has been to avoid dealing with the abuser, thus passively conspiring with the abuser at the expense of the children and their safety. With prayers of thanks for one pastor who is truly a light on a hill, looking out for the well-being of those who were abused as children in the past and the well-being of the children who could be abused in the present.

  5. Why is the “church” (as in many churches and many church systems who value their reputation and finances and looking good without having the goodness of God/the integrity to speak truth to protect children) the safest place on earth for many abusers? Because pedophiles need two things: [1] Access to children [2] Adults in denial.

    Gavin de Becker has written a book, Protecting the Gift, about this very subject of keeping our children safe, beginning with our need to not be in denial. While his words are strong in an effort to wake us up, I fully support them and I encourage you to purchase the book. This is especially true when he shares with us a sobering statistic about the average child molester victimizing between thirty and sixty children before he is ever arrested.

    “Of all the approaches you might take to enhance the safety of your child, do you suppose that ignorance about violence is an effective one? How about denial? Does it enhance safety?…

    Understand that nearly 90 per cent of sexual abuse is committed by someone the children know, not by strangers….The denier doesn’t have to consider this because it’s so easy to replace that unwelcome thought with a warmer one like ‘Not in this family.’ Yet, one in three girls and one is six boys will have sexual contact with an adult, so somebody must be responsible. You can be certain that where it is happening, a denier is sitting in a box seat watching the performance that precedes the crime, watching a predator snake his way into a position of advantage, watching an adult persuade a child to trust him. During the beginning of sexual abuse, deniers will volunteer for the job of designing theories to explain the onset of a child’s sleep disturbances or eating problems or sudden fear of that same adult she like so much just a week ago.

    Speaking of sexual abuse of children, though it is not always committed with force, I treat it as an act of violence throughout this book. That’s because for the child victim, it has the same results as violence: demoralization, depression, repression, loss of belief in the ability to protect oneself, fear of people. Not all sexual abuse is committed with sinister intent and not all results in physical injury-but it is all violence nonetheless.

    If a discussion requires exploration of these hard realities, the denier will first try to wriggle away. ‘Talking about a those things, you just bring them on yourself.’; or ‘Yes, I know all about that stuff; can we please change to a happier subject?’ Under pressure, he or she will acknowledge a given risk, for as a seasoned veteran in a long battle with reality, the denier has learned that appearing to get it, to really get it, is the best defense against unwanted knowledge. And the denier is not stupid-to the contrary, there is brilliance in the creative ways that his or her children can be excluded from the discussion….

    The final verse you hear as a denier scuttles away from responsibility is also the most offensive: ‘Well, kids are resilient. When bad things happen, they bounce back.’

    Absolutely not, says reality, they don’t bounce back. They adjust, they conceal, they repress, and sometimes they accept and move on, but they don’t bounce back. I fact, contrary to the apparent belief of some people, children don’t bounce at all.

    If I seem hard on denial, I have my reasons. Once could say that true responsibility, moral responsibility for the bad things people do to children, must lie with the offenders. Fair enough. But understand that the offender is also a denier, a criminal who chooses not to see the roots of violence in himself, chooses not to acknowledge the road he is on even when it’s clear where it will carry him, and choose not to stop himself. Then later, most offenders choose not to see the cruel impact of the behavior they allowed to occur. And they won’t be alone in those choices, because for virtually every cruelty done to a child, there is an audience of deniers that stays seated, sees the signals and quickly closes their eyes.

    Deniers, more than any other people, have it in their hands to protect our children and change our nation…

    Intuition is knowing without knowing why, knowing even when you can’t see the evidence. Denial is choosing not to know something even when the evidence is obvious. It’s easy to see which of these two human abilities is more likely to protect children from violence.” (Protecting the Gift pages 15-17).

  6. Frances Christenson

    Thank you for writing an article about a church getting it right. I was talking to a friend today about all the bad news coming out of the evangelical world and how depressing it can be. This gives hope and also gives us a model to emulate in response to this problem.

    Thank you again for covering this topic from all angles. I love to hear about solutions.

  7. Devon Bechtel

    I am glad that the Roys Report has also written about church’s doing the right thing instead of always reporting the negatives about churches and Christian leaders failing. We need to hear the success stories as well. Not all churches fall into failure mode about abuses.

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