As the #MeToo movement continues to grow in prominence, sparking a national if not international conversation about sexual abuse, the abuse of power, and sexual violence against women, Christian churches are now being forced into accountability as further abuses come to light.
In 2012, 62-year-old Pastor John Wayne Hinton was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years and a maximum 60 years in state prison after he pled guilty to molesting at least four children under the age of 7, with one victim as young as 4.
But this was only the tip of the iceberg – Hinton had actually been molesting children for decades, including the 27 years during which he preached the Gospel at Somerset Church of Christ, a small congregation in rural Pennsylvania. According to Hinton, his life as a serial child molester began at the age of 13. In addition to grooming children and sleeping with them, Hinton took nude photos of them, raped them and hoarded child pornography.
It wasn’t until Pastor John’s own son and wife, Jimmy and Clara Hinton, exposed him that he faced any justice. Once his daughter Alex realized that she, too, was one of his victims, Clara immediately connected the dots and realized that “some of her husband’s quirks had become cover-ups for criminal behavior,” according to Christian broadcaster CBN News. When Alex informed Jimmy, he too, immediately believed her.
When they finally reported Hinton, authorities found enough evidence to charge him with 200 counts including rape of a child, indecent assault of a child, designing obscene materials, and possession of child pornography.
The disgraced pastor blamed an alleged lifelong rebellion against authority, claiming that he deserved leniency because “the tentacles of this type of thinking wrapped itself around my heart.” The court threw the book at him, despite his claimed regret.
Jimmy and Clara Hinton are now elders at Somerset Church of Christ, leading the charge in the new #ChurchToo movement, according to CBN, in hopes of reversing the damage of abusers like Pastor John.
In their own church, the two have been taking careful steps to shield children from the sexual abuse and lingering trauma their father and husband inflicted on previous generations of churchgoing youth.
In addition to locking empty classrooms, controlling the manner in which children and adults work together, and monitoring buildings while equipping classrooms with walkie-talkies, the two are also protecting children from nonconsensual physical contact such as hugs.
“None of us can walk up to a kid, pull a kid in and initiate that physical contact,” said Pastor Jimmy, who has served as Somerset Church of Christ’s pastor since the departure of his father in 2009.
In his blog, Jimmy notes:
“Survivors of abuse know all too well that church leaders have fully embraced a theology of love and forgiveness–at any cost. And these leaders demand forgiveness for abusers, including themselves. This poor theology has eroded God’s foundation of justice and righteousness (Psalm 89:14) and replaced it with a laid back Jesus who is carefree and embraces all equally (unless you are a victim of oppression, of course).
We need to do better. I will shout this from the rooftops. We need to teach better. We need to study better. We need to pray better. And, most importantly, we need to pray for the wisdom to discern who the ravenous wolves are and take action to remove them while protecting those who are like sheep without a shepherd.”
Clara also warns people to look out for the signs of an abuser, such as the strategy of testing people’s boundaries through “oddball behavior”:
“Pedophiles will test the waters to see how far they can go with a person or in this case a group of people … What can they do that’s totally off the wall and still have the command of the group?”
In retrospect, Pastor John loved to test people – and in so doing, he pulled the wool over his community’s eyes. Clara adds:
“What’s interesting in a sad, sad way is that he preached about such things, about being harmful to children. And he was a great dad … It was like he’s two people. He was this wonderful, loving, kind man and he was one of the most evil, vile men that ever was.”