With a robust governing structure and a 400-page Book of Church Order (BCO) that requires strict standards for those in church leadership, the Presbyterian Church in America should be a denomination that’s good at handling abuse.
“I told friends I picked the PCA because I know I have somewhere to go if something goes wrong,” Kristen Hann, a former director of women’s ministry at Surfside Presbyterian Church in South Carolina, told CT.
She and other women in the denomination have found that was not the case.
The denomination meets for its annual general assembly this week and is marking its 50th anniversary. Over those decades, it has not experienced the reckoning with abuse that has occurred in the Southern Baptist Convention or the Catholic Church.
But survivors within the PCA say the denomination’s problems with abuse are just unaddressed. The denomination has not commissioned an investigative report like the SBC on its response to abuse cases.
At its denominational meeting in Memphis this week, PCA elders will consider a significant number of overtures (church legislation) related to abuse. Among them are two different proposals allowing anyone to be a witness in church courts for abuse cases—currently only those who believe in God, heaven, and hell are allowed to be witnesses. Another overture would require criminal background checks for new ministers and ministers transferring presbyteries or denominations.
Ordained male elders vote at the PCA meeting, while SBC messengers can be men and women.
The PCA, with its ostensible system of leadership accountability, may demonstrate how every denomination needs to have a reckoning with abuse from the outside. The denomination has the structure for abuse accountability in theory, PCA elders say, but not in practice.
The BCO is a thick document for governing a church, but “it doesn’t have anything in it to help us adjudicate any abuse cases or reports,” said Ann Maree Goudzwaard, who leads a church-based ministry in the PCA called Help[H]er for women in crisis. She has become a point person for women reporting abuse in the denomination, which is not a role she sought out. She receives daily calls from abuse survivors.
“People are still saying there’s not as much as we think there is,” Goudzwaard said. “It’s an avalanche.”
Last year, a denominational committee made up mostly of PCA elders as well as outside experts like Goudzwaard and Rachael Denhollander released a 220-page report with recommendations for how churches should handle domestic abuse and sexual assault (known as the DASA report). It was designed to be a resource for the PCA’s local church leaders. In the absence of a denominational reporting mechanism for abuse, victims have contacted the committee, which was not designed for that purpose.
The denomination made the committee’s report nonbinding, and committee members know of few presbyteries that have begun training based on the report. The abuse committee members have recommended that churches need third-party help when abuse cases come before them.
“The DASA report had phenomenally rich theology on abuse,” Denhollander told CT. The report has informed work on abuse in the SBC, she said. But the PCA’s court systems, which handle church discipline, are the denomination’s only mechanism for addressing abuse. Without change there, “in the PCA it's ultimately the same question as in the SBC: Will they allow the rich theology of justice and holiness that Scripture calls us to to impact their actions and systems?”
The PCA is not a denomination with top-down governance but rather a collection of local churches that form regional presbyteries that govern those churches under the BCO laws. How well an abuse case is handled depends on the presbytery.
Many presbyteries have put survivors through a procedural grinder that survivors say was worse than the abuse itself. Multiple cases CT reviewed that went through the church court process had thousands of pages of documentation, and sometimes stretched out for years. Laypeople were bewildered trying to file formal charges based on the BCO.
Male elders who make up presbytery leadership are adjudicating these cases, so victims often are cross-examined by a group of men who all know each other and may have no experience handling abuse cases. Some abuse advocates say that a presbytery can be an “old boys network” if elders are protecting their friends instead of listening to allegations.
In April, the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC)—essentially the supreme court of the PCA courts—unanimously exonerated PCA pastor Daniel Herron, who had sued for defamation two former members of his church who accused him of sexual harassment. The SJC declared him not guilty on the charges of harassment, his use of lawsuits against accusers, and his overall character as a minister. On Herron suing his accusers, the SJC ruling argued that church teaching in 1 Corinthians 6 and the Westminster Confession of Faith allows Christians to file civil lawsuits in certain cases.
The PCA’s church court process stretched on for nearly four years after the women brought their complaints about the pastor. The trial transcript for the hearing in the case ran for 1,966 pages.
The ruling is not yet public but will be announced at the general assembly this week.
SJC rulings are only binding on the parties involved, according to the BCO, but the rest of the denomination must give SJC rulings “due consideration,” which means a ruling in the Herron case sets some level of precedent.
From victims’ perspective, the denomination just gave a green light to pastors suing accusers for defamation. Several abuse victims and advocates CT interviewed said the ruling meant more victims would be afraid to report their abuse.
As the denomination wrestles with these big questions, stories from local churches show how its procedural approach affects people in the pews.
A bungled Presbyterian response to abuse
Kristen Hann, the former director of women’s ministry at Surfside Presbyterian Church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, lost her job last year after objecting to how the church handled an abuse case.
In 2021, Kappie Reynolds, a member at Surfside, reported that an elder groped her under her clothes, exposed himself to her, pulled her pants down, and attempted anal penetration. Reynolds requested that the elder’s name not be used in this story, as the case is still being litigated confidentially through the church court process.
The encounter, which took place at an acquaintance’s home, was “out of the blue,” Reynolds said, and they had a “platonic” relationship before. She did not report the alleged assault to the police. The first person at the church Reynolds confided in told her not to ruin the elder’s reputation, she said.
Surfside’s church leadership declined to comment on the case, saying “it would be unwise and reckless for us to discuss church discipline, member care, or employment matters in a public forum.”
Two months after the incident, Reynolds told Hann what had happened, and Hann and Reynolds reported the incident to Surfside’s pastor, Brian Peterson.
In the following weeks, Reynolds said no staff at the church other than Hann reached out to see how she was doing. Reynolds quit going to Surfside. For a time she could not get out of bed.
The accused elder, a lay leader and not on staff, was quietly stripped of his ordination in the PCA (something the session, a group of governing elders of a church, has the power to do) and asked to attend another church. But church leadership did not communicate the reasons to the congregation.
In the months that followed, Hann wanted the church leadership to talk about what happened with the congregation and bring in an outside investigator. They did neither. They consulted with one abuse expert but did not follow her major recommendations.
“They didn’t know how to navigate,” said Jeremy Reynolds, Kappie’s husband.
One year after the alleged assault and repeated confrontations over Reynolds’s case, the church leadership granted Hann a requested two month paid leave. But a month into the leave, the church asked Hann to resign, take severance, and sign a non-disparagement agreement and release from liability. She refused, and then was fired by email.
The months of fighting “makes you want to die,” said Hann. “They’re not listening, and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
In the fallout of Hann’s firing, the pastor finally held a meeting with the congregation and took questions about the elder who had been stripped of his office, saying he had confessed to “sexually deviant sin,” according to Hann’s husband, Aaron, who took notes on the meeting.
The leadership never described it as an assault. Peterson, the pastor, told the congregation that Hann and church leadership had an untenable working relationship because of the tensions around the handling of the case of “sexual sin.” They did not commission a third-party investigation, which Hann thought could have turned up more wrongdoing by the elder as well as addressed the pastor’s handling of the case.
Meanwhile, Reynolds figured out how to file a formal complaint under the BCO addressed to the presbytery. The presbytery ruled her complaint “out of order” on grounds that it “preceded the timely response from the proper court.” Hann has also filed charges in church courts, including a request for an investigation of Peterson’s handling of the case and treatment of the women involved. The SJC is now weighing charges related to the case.
Goudzwaard, who served on the denomination’s commission on abuse, said she no longer counsels victims to go through the church court process.
“It is not designed to help [victims],” Goudzwaard said. “I had a best-case scenario on a case, and it should have resulted in a deposition of a pastor and it did not. It had a GRACE [Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment] report, multiple witnesses.” Deposition in the PCA means a removal of ordination.
When hearing charges, presbyteries tend to say either that how a church handled an abuse case was within their purview or that there isn’t enough evidence, she said.
One church brings in third-party investigators
When one PCA church did communicate about an abusive leader and investigate, it found more cases of abuse.
In 2018, a student reported an unsettling incident with a PCA pastor to the student’s campus minister, who reported it to the pastor’s presbytery in Georgia. Once confronted, the pastor, Brad Waller, confessed to abusing men and boys in the congregation with sexual foot massages. The pastor’s church, Grace Church of the Islands, stripped Waller of ordination over the abuse.
The presbytery also communicated what happened to a PCA church where Waller served previously for more than a decade, Tates Creek Presbyterian in Lexington, Kentucky. Within 10 days of receiving the news, Tates Creek’s session met, and then they communicated the news to the congregation.
The church leadership received many stories of abuse in response. The church initiated a third-party investigation by GRACE. That approach was “scary for the session,” said then-pastor Robert Cunningham, but the vote was unanimous. In 2019, GRACE issued its report, which the church publicly posted.
“We didn’t do this through the church courts,” Cunningham said. “Presbyteries and elders–none of us are trained in abuse and trauma. … Bring in experts.” In other situations, he noted, “churches aren’t scared to reach outside the church and bring in the legal experts to tell them what to do!”
Tates Creek is the exception, abuse advocates say, while Surfside is more of the rule in the PCA’s response to abuse.
In the wake of her firing, Kristen Hann’s family had to move, and she now works at a Starbucks. Kappie Reynolds has gone through counseling and is recovering. Every Friday at 3 p.m., Hann now prays a litany for those abused in the PCA: “It’s what I can do.”
This article has been updated to clarify that witnesses in PCA courts don’t need to be Christians but must believe in God, heaven, and hell.