Christa Brown of Tennessee has for years called on Baptist churches to set up an independent panel to evaluate allegations of sexual abuse by clergy — such as the youth minister who sexually assaulted her as a teenager — and to keep predators from striking again at another church.
Pastor Jimmy Hinton — a Somerset Church of Christ pastor who confronted his own pastor-father about the sexual abuse that landed the latter in prison — has worked to educate churches on the ways child molesters manipulate fellow believers into trusting them with their children.
Melanie Jula Sakoda has made it her own mission to hold Orthodox Christian churches accountable for sexual abuse by their priests and others.
All of them agree on this: A future Pennsylvania grand jury could find as much evidence of sexual abuse and cover-up among other religious groups and youth-serving organizations as a current statewide grand jury is expected to find among Roman Catholic dioceses. That grand jury is expected to release a mammoth report if it clears ongoing legal challenges by individuals identified in its report.
"Some people assume this is a Catholic problem," Hinton said. "It's not, not at all. There are plenty of Protestant and nondenominational churches that cover up abuse and knowingly pass abusers from church to church, or quietly dismiss a known abuser and don't bother to check up on the abuser and don't know where they settled."
Too many Protestant leaders deny the seriousness of the crisis, are too quick to forgive and restore a predator who speaks the lingo of repentance, and try to contain scandal, he said. And so they allow pastors or other offenders to reinvent themselves in a new church somewhere else.
A grand jury investigation would find plenty of evidence that it's every religion's problem, he said.
"One of the things I see is, through investigations, eventually you'll get people who are honest — whether that's accidentally or whether somebody is just fed up with the way leadership handled cases of abuse," said Hinton.
And youth-serving organizations, beyond religious ones, are also implicated. In April, the director of the Allentown-based Cadets drum and bugle corps resigned after nine women accused him of sexual harassment and assault over decades, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"The practice of covering up for predators is not limited to the Catholic Church, or even to religious groups," said Sakoda, of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The cases of Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, both serial pedophiles convicted on numerous charges of sexual abuse of children, "are examples of institutional cover-ups outside of faith communities."
Evangelical Protestants have been swept up in the #MeToo movement. A Memphis megachurch pastor resigned over sexually assaulting a teen girl years ago when he was her youth minister.
Two of the most venerated leaders in the nation's largest body, the Southern Baptist Convention, have been felled by scandal. Paige Patterson was fired in May from his Texas seminary presidency for callous treatment of victims of domestic and sexual assault. His longtime ally, lay leader Paul Pressler, also of Texas, faces allegations of sexually molesting teen boys in his youth group.
A sprawling investigation into all kinds of religious and secular youth-serving organizations would be a challenge to conduct.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office declined to comment when asked whether a broader investigation were merited.
The attorney general would need to spare investigators on a long research project that, like the Catholic investigations, may yield lots of history but not many prosecutions due to the criminal statute of limitations
Further, few religions are as centralized or as fastidious about record keeping as the Catholic Church. Each diocese has archives of personnel files and other records, including candid internal documents that bishops and other administrators never assumed were going to be made public. That's a potential target-rich environment for investigators.
While some religions have similar hierarchies, many of their records are kept at headquarters in other states, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses in New York and the Mormons in Utah. Others, such as Baptists and the network of independent congregations known as the Churches of Christ, are decentralized and have no uniform protocols for saving records.
That said, victims' advocates say there is a gold standard for such a sweeping investigation: The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia. The multiyear investigation by this organization, which employed hundreds of staffers, revealed a "national tragedy" of astonishing scope.
It heard stories of abuse from more than 8,000 victims and heard reports of abuse in more than 4,000 youth-serving institutions of all types. Catholic institutions were the most common, but abuse also occurred among Anglicans, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Salvation Army, Presbyterians, other Protestants and Orthodox Jews as well as in various youth-detention centers, child-care centers, orphanages and other sites.
"The sexual abuse of children has occurred in almost every type of institution where children reside or attend for educational, recreational, sporting, religious or cultural activities," the report said. Worse, the police and other institutions set up to protect children often did not believe their reports of abuse or take them seriously.
"It is now apparent that across many decades, many of society's institutions failed our children," it said. "Our child protection and criminal and civil justice systems let them down."
Unlike a grand jury, it was formed to find facts, not press charges.
But advocates want something similar in this country.
"The Australian commission, to me that's one of the wonders of the world," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest and longtime advocate for victims. Commissions "spared nothing, and they fearlessly examined every denomination."
The commission found common threads in the enabling of abuse across all kinds of religious traditions. They include: authoritarian control over members; a naive belief in the power of repentance and forgiveness among serial predators; and a distrust or fear of outside authorities investigating their crimes and spreading scandal.
While hierarchies such as the Catholic bishops have one way of enabling abuse, the lack of any centralization can also breed abuse, said Brown, of Tennessee. She led the Southern Baptist branch of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a group originally formed by Catholic victims that later expanded its advocacy to other religious groups.
Brown, herself the survivor of abuse by a Baptist youth minister, has long called for something akin to a truth-and-reconciliation commission on such abuse.
"Whether it's an attorney general's office or some other outside organization or somebody who has the expertise and training to do that kind of thing, yes, it is needed," she said. "A church denomination or Christian ministry must look outside of itself."
Typically, she said, when a victim reports abuse by a minister, the congregation's response is to defend him out of loyalty.
While Baptists guard their congregational autonomy, they do cooperate in such areas as missions and seminary education, and there's every reason for Baptists to create an independent entity that can investigate, issue findings and maintain a public list of credibly accused abusers.
Some might be afraid of liability if such a panel accuses someone who hasn't been found guilty in a court of law, "but the answer to those potential liability concerns cannot rightly be that churches simply stay quiet, let reported abusive pastors move on, and leave kids at risk," she said.
Similar lack of accountability exists among independent Pentecostal and other churches, she said.
Robert Hoatson, an advocate for abuse survivors such as himself, hopes there could even be a U.S. investigation similar to Australia's.