Content Warning: The following blog post contains descriptions of sexual abuse.
Last week, Becky Earnhart’s story of sexual abuse at the hands of William Austin Gardner sent shockwaves through the Christian community. Her courage in speaking out about the abuse she endured has inspired other victims to come forward, and legal action is now being taken to pursue justice. But as more victims come forward and share their stories, it is becoming increasingly clear that this abuse was not an isolated incident.
In a video posted on social media, Becky and her husband Jonathan recount the physical and sexual abuse that she suffered at the hands of Austin Gardner, who was the pastor of Liberty Baptist Church and overseeing Cartersville Christian School in Georgia. But the video was not just about sharing one survivor’s story. It was also about exposing a dangerous philosophy of ministry that has been taught and practiced by Gardner, his sons, and many others who are under his influence.
This philosophy is one of control, manipulation, cover-ups, and defying accountability when crimes are committed. It is a philosophy that has allowed Gardner and others like him to commit terrible crimes against vulnerable people without fear of consequence. And as more victims come forward, it is becoming increasingly clear that this philosophy has affected not just the victims of Austin Gardner, but many others who have suffered abuse at the hands of pastors and church leaders who operate under a similar mindset.
One of the most concerning aspects of this story is the way that the Christian community has responded to it. In 2004, when Becky and her husband first approached their church and other Christian organizations for help, they were met with silence. No one was willing to help them or protect them from their abuser. It is deeply troubling that even now, almost two decades later, victims are still having to ask for protection and justice.
But there are glimmers of hope. The current leadership at Vision Baptist Church and Vision Baptist Missions have reached out to the family and have assured them that they are prepared to cooperate in any way possible. They are preparing for a third-party investigation, which is an important step in the right direction. However, some on the board of Vision Baptist Missions continue to hold to the assumption that what they have been told regarding an investigation done by Macedonia World Baptist Missions in 2004 is accurate. This claim has been refuted by Jonathan, who has spoken to a leader who was present in the meeting where their accusations were first brought to the pedophile in 2004. The investigation conducted by Macedonia World Baptist Missions was insufficient, and they failed in their moral, ethical, and spiritual responsibility to conduct a true investigation.
The credibility of our churches and ministry organizations is at risk. The victims of sexual abuse deserve better than silence and inaction. It is time for the Christian community to take responsibility for preventing abuse and supporting survivors when abuse does occur. We must listen to the stories of survivors, take them seriously, and act to ensure that justice is done. No one should have to suffer in silence, and no abuser should be allowed to get away with their crimes. We must do better.