‘As is typical of sex abuse victims, I thought what happened was my fault’
I was only 13. I was in eighth grade at…
One Sunday in April 2020, Josh Henley, then the full-time minister for the Holladay Church of Christ in northwest Tennessee, preached on “Consistent Christianity.”
Henley, who also served as a volunteer basketball coach at a nearby school and as a session director at a Christian camp in the Oklahoma Panhandle, delivered the message online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If you’re preaching something and teaching something, and you’re living a different way, that’s being inconsistent.”
“When we talk about losing our influence, you don’t know the influence you have on some people,” he added. “You may never know it, but you are influencing somebody every single day. Somebody is watching you, what you’re doing, what you’re saying, what you’re posting on Facebook or Twitter or social media.”
Henley, 32, was arrested June 18 on Tennessee state charges: three counts of statutory rape by an authority figure and one count of aggravated sexual battery.
In the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, Henley also faces these federal charges: sexual exploitation of a minor, receipt-distribution-possession of child sexual exploitation material, enticement and solicitation of a minor and interstate transportation of a minor to engage in criminal sexual conduct.
Henley has entered a “not guilty” plea, according to C. Mark Donahoe, his defense attorney.
Once the investigation is concluded, the next step will be disclosure of discovery, Donahoe said. Discovery is the process of the prosecution sharing evidence with the defense.
“We will evaluate that and go about preparing the defense of the case,” he said.
Prior to his arrest, Henley had moved to a youth ministry position with the Washington Avenue Church of Christ in Evansville, Ind.
That congregation terminated Henley’s employment immediately after his arrest.
“On behalf of our entire church family, the Eldership at Washington Avenue Church of Christ is praying for accountability, healing and justice in light of the recent arrest of Joshua Henley who served as our youth minister for the past three months,” church leaders, who declined an interview request, said in a statement.
“On behalf of our entire church family, the Eldership at Washington Avenue Church of Christ is praying for accountability, healing and justice in light of the recent arrest of Joshua Henley.”
“Mr. Henley’s employment with the church has been terminated effective immediately, and he has been relieved of all duties and responsibilities,” the statement added. “We take the allegations against Mr. Henley very seriously and will fully cooperate with law enforcement in connection with all investigations. We are heartbroken by this news, and our prayers are with all involved.”
Henley — full name Joshua Burton Henley — also had previously worked as the preacher for the Elkhart Church of Christ in Kansas, according to a church Facebook page. That page also mentions him serving in 2018 and 2019 as director of a session for children ages 9 to 13 at Black Mesa Bible Camp in Kenton, Okla. Several years ago, Henley also served a short time as the youth minister for the Central Church of Christ in Hereford, Texas, about 50 miles southwest of Amarillo.
Henley grew up going to Black Mesa Bible Camp and later served as a counselor there, fellow youth ministers told The Christian Chronicle. He attended Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City intermittently between 2007 and 2009, the university said.
“Black Mesa Bible Camp is happening this year and here is the link you need to sign up!!!” Henley posted on Facebook on May 3 this year. “Please like and share! Let’s have an awesome time at camp this year!”
In July 2018, he wrote on Facebook: “About a week out from Black Mesa Bible Camp!! If you have kids from the age of 9-13 send them out!! we play sports and go on hikes and study Gods word!! so sign up online and come on out!!”
The charges involve Henley’s alleged behavior with three minors whom Henley knew through the basketball team at Holladay Elementary School and the Tennessee church, according to federal court documents.
Court documents list the minors’ ages as 12, 14 and 15 at the time of the alleged offenses, which court records indicate took place between the fall of 2017 and June 2021.
On June 18, Henley was returning with his family and one of the alleged victims to Tennessee from Indiana when he was arrested on state charges at the Benton County line in Tennessee. The Benton County Sheriff’s Office seized his iPhone and Apple Watch at that time, according to court records.
A June 25 federal criminal complaint filed by FBI Special Agent Eric McCraw reported that a minor female in Benton County, where Holladay is located, had disclosed that Henley had engaged in sexual contact with her on multiple occasions.
One incident occurred at Henley’s home in Benton County in August 2020, and another incident happened in a hotel room in Oklahoma while Henley was traveling with the victim’s family in February 2021, the federal affidavit stated. Other incidents occurred in person and through texting, FaceTime and social media, and the minor reported that Henley’s sexual behavior toward her began when she was 12, the complaint said. The minor also indicated that Henley had engaged in similar behavior with other girls her age.
The evidence listed in the complaint includes a video provided to investigators by another minor female victim. This minor said Henley had used her phone to record sexual contact between her and Henley, the complaint said. The video shows a birthmark of Henley’s as well as the minor’s face, according to McCraw, who is assigned to the Memphis FBI Child Exploitation Task Force.
After Henley’s arrest, a third minor female was interviewed. She said Henley had engaged in sexual activity with her more than once in Benton County, and also at his home in Indiana the week before his arrest, the complaint said. This minor had traveled with Henley and his family to Indiana to help with Vacation Bible School at Henley’s new church. Henley was arrested as he drove into Benton County when driving the minor back to Tennessee with his pregnant wife and 2-year-old child.
While searching the cellphone that had been in Henley’s possession, investigators found Google searches conducted the night before and the morning of Henley’s arrest. The searches included the phrases “how many years for child molest,” “how long does a molestation case take,” “if you send a bad text can the company delete your messages,” “if you had deleted a text message, does the receiver still get/see the message,” “can you be convicted on text messages” and “how hard is it to delete a message forever,” the complaint said.
“We moved him to a federal facility for his safety and for the safety of others. We thought that would be better all the way around.”
Initially booked in the Benton County jail on a $500,000 bond, Henley was later moved to a federal facility in Jackson, Tenn., and his bond was increased to $1 million. The investigation is ongoing.
“We moved him to a federal facility for his safety and for the safety of others,” Benton County Sheriff Kenny Christopher told the Chronicle. “We thought that would be better all the way around.”
According to a Holladay Church of Christ leader who did not wish to be named, Henley was the sole full-time minister at the congregation for four years.
“He worked with the youth, and he did the preaching,” the church leader said. “We don’t know what’s going on right now because there are too many unknowns. He’s been accused, but he hasn’t been convicted. We’re just trying to do the best with what we’ve been given.”
Messages left with the Elkhart church were not returned. No one at Black Mesa Bible Camp could be reached for comment.
The author of “The Devil Inside,” Hinton is the son of a former Church of Christ minister who is serving a 30- to 60-year sentence for sex crimes against children. Hinton said that as shocking as abuse cases involving ministers can be, they are incredibly common.
“There’s research that shows especially in conservative churches, you have an explosion of abusers who were steeped in the church,” he said. “I think there’s an inherent culture of submission and intimidation in conservative churches. People are too afraid to speak up because of this.”
As an advocate, Hinton is contacted regularly by people who have suffered abuse at the hands of church leaders.
“We have hundreds of ministers in the Church of Christ abusing children,” Hinton said. “These victims are begging me not to say anything publicly. Most of them have reported abuse in the church and have been silenced. It is an epidemic in the church.”
Christine Parker is the president and executive director of PorchSwing Ministries Inc., a ministry to survivors of church abuse.
She said while the “stranger danger” concept has value when teaching kids how to be safe, it has unfortunately resulted in the culturally held belief that a sex abuser is typically a “creepy-looking scary guy.”
In reality, a sex abuser can be anyone.
Related: A perpetrator in the pews
According to the Child Sex Abuse Prevention and Protection Center, there is no sex offender profile.
Parker said the “stranger danger” mentality was taking hold around the same time of the rise of purity culture in evangelical churches. While purity culture teachings emphasize saving sex for marriage, they don’t typically provide tools for minors to know what to do if they are assaulted, Parker said.
“Abusers can be anyone: family members, neighbors, friends, doctors, coaches, youth leaders or clergy members. Many times these ‘respected’ abusers remain undetected.”
“Abusers can be anyone: family members, neighbors, friends, doctors, coaches, youth leaders or clergy members. Many times these ‘respected’ abusers remain undetected,” the Porch Swing Ministries Inc. website said.
About 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience sexual abuse at some point in childhood, and 91 percent of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For churches to begin making their congregations safer, an important first step is a shift in thinking, Parker said. While survivors of abuse have to eventually realize that not everyone is an abuser, people who have never experienced abuse have the opposite task.
“Non-survivors live in a world where nobody is an abuser,” she said. “They have to learn that while not everyone is an abuser, anyone might be an abuser. There are abusers out there and we can learn to see them.”
Hinton said another important step would be a fellowship-wide database of sex abusers in the nearly 12,000 Churches of Christ in the U.S. and thousands more congregations around the world.
This database would contain the same information that already exists in sex offender databases, but it would make it easier to locate registered sex offenders in specific congregations.
Hinton helped some friends launch a database for Baptist churches in February 2020, and it already lists 700 offenders — most of whom are ministers. But Hinton has found congregation leaders in the Churches of Christ to be hesitant when it comes to launching a database.
“Even when churches know they have registered sex offenders, they hide them in the church.”
“Even when churches know they have registered sex offenders, they hide them in the church,” Hinton said. “I get emails from elders saying that it’s not fair because the guys did their time. The elders make ‘covenant agreements’ with these offenders, and those are like making deals with the devil because there’s never just one victim. Ever.
“And church members have no idea. I hear from church members who say they had a sex predator in their church, and the leaders knew. Of course they knew. We shouldn’t be surprised this is an issue in the church.”
Such a registry would be limited since it would only track registered sex offenders.
“These are only good for people who have already been caught,” Parker said. “But we can teach people how to identify abusive behaviors before abuse even happens. People of all ages are being victimized in churches.”
Parker commends her home state of Tennessee for recently passing a law against clergy members having sexual relationships with church members — regardless of the church members’ ages. By passing this law, Tennessee joined the group of 14 states in which such relationships are criminal acts.
“The power differential erases the power for people to give consent,” Parker explained. “It’s abuse. We really have to stop calling them affairs in churches.”
Churches also need to strive for more empathy and understanding when it comes to church abuse survivors, Parker said.
“They often don’t go to church, but it’s not a matter of faith,” she said. “It’s a matter of safety. Even if it’s a different church. If things happen to you in that setting, you will want to avoid similar settings. Softening our posture toward abuse survivors is something our churches really need to work toward.”
As for the allegations against Henley, the case is currently at a standstill as authorities investigate alleged incidents in Indiana and Oklahoma, Sheriff Christopher said. At a hearing on July 9, Henley waived his right to a preliminary hearing.
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• Jimmy Hinton is a speaker, author, blogger and podcaster on sexual abuse in church settings. He also works as a consultant on church sex abuse issues. For more information, visit www.jimmyhinton.org.
• Christine Parker’s organization Porch Swing Ministries Inc. offers resources for survivors of church abuse. For more information, visit www.porchswingministries.org.
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