The Reporter Who Investigated Sexual Harassment in His Own Evangelical Christian Newsroom

On March 15, the magazine Christianity Today published a report that shocked the evangelical Christian world. The story, titled “Sexual Harassment Went Unchecked at Christianity Today,” took the publication to task for failing to act on more than a decade’s worth of sexual harassment allegations against two leaders.

Just a half hour earlier, CT had published a full internal report on their failings, alongside a mea culpa from the organization’s president and CEO, Timothy Dalrymple. The sudden revelations floored many evangelicals, who were both heartened by the transparency and saddened by the news of yet another Christian institution that had failed to protect vulnerable employees. And CT is not just any Christian institution: The magazine, founded by Billy Graham in the 1950s, is commonly referred to as “the flagship magazine of American evangelicalism.” CT’s own reporting had uncovered some of the biggest sexual misconduct stories in the evangelical Christian world in recent years. So it was not surprising that the response to the report was heated. While most people celebrated the story’s publication, some within the evangelical community responded by dismissing the allegations as minor, and some outside the community pointed to the story as proof of rot at evangelicalism’s core.

To learn what it was like to report on his own workplace and face off against the failings of his own community, Slate spoke with the story’s reporter, CT’s news editor Daniel Silliman. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: What did you find in your investigation?  

Silliman: I found that two department heads sexually harassed women at Christianity Today over a period of about 12 years. The sexual harassment ranged from unwanted touching, to inappropriate comments, to men with power over women’s careers saying how sexually desirable or attractive they found them, to men indicating they were hoping for an affair with someone who had less power than them in the organization.

And the organization didn’t do anything to check them or discipline them. They let it happen. Things were reported to human resources, and it seems that HR wrote up reports and then sent them to the executives. At the executive level, there was essentially no policy on how to deal with this kind of sexual harassment. There were, maybe, verbal warnings. But there were no actual consequences. And there was no record of warnings, which meant that incident after incident was treated as isolated, or as an aberration. Rather than the fourth time, the fifth time, the 10th time.

How did you get started with this story?

I started working at Christianity Today in 2019. In 2020, I started investigating abuse allegations against Ravi Zacharias, who led the world’s largest apologetics organization, and found a bunch of abuse there. It was fairly explosive, and suddenly a lot of people were talking to me about abuse. So reporting on abuse in Christian ministries and in evangelical churches became a specialization.

Then, last September, I got a message from the executive editor of CT, who asked if I could meet with him and the president and CEO, Timothy Dalrymple. They told me in that meeting that they had hired a consulting firm to do an external assessments of the culture and policies and practices of the organization, looking into how claims of sexual harassment had been handled. They didn’t name any names or give me any other information. Then they then asked me if I would be willing to report on it, as if it had been another Christian organization. If we believe sunlight is good, then it should be good for us, too.

Was there any question as to whether you would do it?

Kate Shellnutt, [the senior news editor], and I have talked before about abuse cases, and because we get so many tips,  we have to have some kind of metric for deciding, do we cover it? One thing we will ask when talking about whether or not to investigate an abuse allegation is if the person is a household name for our readers. But of course, it gets really tricky when you’re talking about yourself. Are we going to report on CT just because everyone who subscribes to CT knows CT? That doesn’t seem like a useful metric anymore. So we said, “OK, if this were another Christian organization, would we cover it?” And there was never a period where I thought, “If this were another evangelical magazine, I wouldn’t report this.” Because there’s real value in digging into and examining the structures that allow abuse to happen. As I started digging into the CT situation, I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to be a story just about managers or department leaders who misbehaved. It was going to be about an organization that didn’t hold them accountable.

Did you discuss any ground rules with CT’s management?

I did have two commitments right off the bat. One was that it would be independent. They gave their blessing to investigate, and that was going to be their last interference. The decision on whether to publish, what to publish, and how to frame the story would be left up to me and the senior news editor. The other was that they were committed to being transparent. Tim promised me that he was going to publish the external assessment.

How was this different from normal reporting?

It’s always a burden and a responsibility and an honor to have people trust you with traumatic things. We had conversations about how we were going to handle the fact that I was going to need to investigate colleagues and interview colleagues who are victims. The biggest part of it was explaining exactly what we were doing and the commitments I had from [management], because the situation was so unusual. It wasn’t totally different from how I would do things anyway, but a little bit heightened.

You were also part of the workplace that you were investigating. Did you personally know the people you were interviewing?

Some of them. With the two accused people—one of them I never met. The other one was leaving right as I was hired. I met him, I don’t know, three times.

The statement from CT’s president was published a half hour before your investigation. In the editorial there was a line that said, “Once this story is live, we will link to it here.” Was the publication coordinated?

Because of the lines of independence that we set up, I was not able to read the report from the external assessment until it was made public to everyone, in the same way that I wasn’t shown HR files or invited into investigative meetings. I had basically finalized the week before, and when the document was posted [with the president’s] editorial at the same time, I read the document, added what I found there to my reporting, and then we published. We knew it was coming, so that was our news hook: Christianity Today has had an external assessment and is now making it public.

Were you surprised by what you found?

It’s been a while since I’ve been surprised. As a child, I saw some abuse in churches and saw ministers using God to be bullies. Because of that, abuse was part of my basic understanding of how the world works and what happens in churches and Christian spaces. So I wasn’t shocked to hear about things at CT. I was saddened, but it didn’t fundamentally change the way I understood the world. Many people do this work, and it really makes them question their faith. That hasn’t been my experience; I came to Jesus after I knew that churches were sometimes terrible, evil places, and that ministers could abuse the religious power that they were given. My faith is in Jesus, and it’s in my understanding of Jesus as someone who took the side of victims against the side of power.

What has the response been like?

It’s been a lot. People are upset, people are sad. There’s a whole group of people who are interested in reforming evangelicalism, and they want to talk about what we can learn from this kind of report. There’s another whole group of people who reject evangelicals more generally, and they want to use the evidence as an argument for why all evangelicals are toxic, or why a particular kind of theology should be burned to the ground. I am also doing this work as an evangelical, so that adds a wrinkle. But it can feel complicated to read those kinds of comments.

And then inside Christianity Today, obviously a lot of people knew, and they were relieved. There’s some sadness, there’s a lot of people who didn’t know the bigger picture. And then of course, there’s pushback. There are people who were close friends with the HR director, and are like, “I don’t know if it was his fault.” Or people who maybe wanted a particular executive to take more of the responsibility. But pushback is part of what you’re signing up for.

Within the evangelical perspective, there is an idea that in any kind of personal conflict or disagreement or even harm, the ultimate aim for Christians should be the reconciliation of the two parties. And [one of the accused men] seems to be of the opinion that this is the correct Christian response to any kind of conflict, and even suggested that the kind of journalism that I do is not Christian—that a true Christian should not report stuff if it gets in the way of reconciliation. But a lot of evangelicals think that there are different types of conflict, and they should be treated differently. And the Bible has a lot to say about justice.

How would you describe the current moment with evangelicals and sexual misconduct? 

There’s a reckoning happening. The stuff that I’m reporting on is part of it, but right now, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination, is having this huge fight about what we owe to victims and how we fix it.

It really does seem like one of those moments. And there’s a larger conversation about reforming evangelicalism. There are a lot of people saying, yes, we need reforms, but I don’t actually know how. For me, at least, this kind of reporting is my answer to the question: We need to learn to be self-critical. We need to commit to telling the truth, especially when it’s hard. Abuse victims have things that the movement as a whole needs to hear. And, from my perspective, how well we respond to this moment—whether we succeed at truth-telling and self-criticism and listening—will determine what evangelicalism is in the future.

Every once in a while, people will ask: Do you feel like you’re betraying something? But self-criticism, self-examination doesn’t seem like betrayal. I believe in truth over tribalism, and in my experience, my Christian commitments and journalistic commitments go together. It’s accountability from a place of shared commitment [to the faith]. And I personally don’t believe you really care about abuse victims until you care about the ones in your own community.

Is there anything you want to make sure non-evangelical readers don’t mistakenly take away from this story?

When I first started reading the stuff out of Boston, it was easy for me, a dozen years ago, to look at the Catholic Church and think, “Oh, well, of course, this is the problem with bishops.” And it’s not true. It’s just everywhere that power exists. My initial belief was that there would be a clear connection between a particular theology and abusive activities and cover-ups. But I currently don’t see any evidence of that. I’m certainly critical of some of the theology that gets used to defend abuse, and I’m certainly open to having conversations about the rightness or wrongness of different theology. But I think if you look at the broader picture of abuse, you can’t escape it just because you think the right things. Everyone’s going to have to respond to it themselves, in their own contexts, and decide whether or not they’re going to be self-critical and tell the truth even if it hurts institutions they care about.

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