When she was 14, Susan Codone was at church camp standing by a tetherball pole with the youth minister of her Baptist church in Birmingham.
The youth minister told her that God was calling her to help him with his ministry in a “very special way.” As they talked, he wrapped the rope attached to the ball around Codone, tying her to the pole.
“Would you heed God’s call and help me in my ministry,” Codone recalled the minister asking her. “I said ‘yes, of course.’”
The minister then kissed her. The kiss was the start of 22 months of sexual abuse by leaders of the Birmingham church that no longer exists, Codone said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer on Friday.
She said when she tried to tell the church’s pastor about the abuse, he blamed her instead of the youth minister. The pastor would eventually sexually abuse her, too, Codone said.
Earlier this week, the 51-year-old senior associate dean of academic affairs at Mercer’s medical school campuses, told her survivor story to a room full of Southern Baptists in her hometown and the very city where she was abused.
Codone said telling her story to those gathered at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting helped her move forward after years of keeping what happened mostly to herself.
“What was taken from me was restored by (the Baptist) church,” she said. “That, to me, is somewhat of a miracle. ...This is a full circle move of God.”
After hearing Codone’s story and those of other women, the SBC voted to make changes to its bylaws and constitution that could address the widespread allegations of sexual abuse and concealment perpetrated by church leaders and volunteers — one of the first steps in the SBC’s reckoning with that past.
‘He started it with flattery and attention’
Codone said the abuse began during that tetherball game. On the way back to the cabins, she said the youth minister told her to keep quiet about what happened.
She said he had been grooming her well before that first instance. He constantly paid attention to Codone — telling her she was special, gifted and so on. But the compliments eventually stopped, she said.
“He started it with flattery and attention,” she said. “But it really (evolved) into threats and intimidation.”
She said she knew she needed to tell someone, and she didn’t trust anyone at her church except her pastor. When Codone told the pastor about the abuse, he blamed her.
“He reacted very badly,” Codone said of the pastor. “He told me that I had brought this on myself; that it was my fault; that I should have stopped it earlier.”
The pastor fired the youth minister. Then, the pastor began sexually abusing her, Codone said.
She recalled that the pastor was eventually fired for an affair with a Sunday school teacher, and a few years later, the church shuttered. An independent congregation bought the property and another church with a different name now operates there.
Her abusers went on to work in other churches, she said.
“No one really knew what they’d done, and there was really no mechanism to have that information shared,” she said. “At the time, I was very young and didn’t know who else to tell. More or less, I decided that there was no point in trying to tell anyone.”
‘My faith in God didn’t waver’
For a long time, it was difficult for Codone to walk into any church. She attended, but it was hard to look at a church staff member and not wonder what might be hidden.
However, her faith in God didn’t waver. She said, she had an encounter with God early in life and understood that God was greater than any man or church. That sustained her faith during difficult times, she said.
“Even when the abuse occurred, even though I knew nobody would believe me, I knew that God did,” she said. “I knew I could rely on that.
“I knew that he saw me. I knew that he knew what was going on. I knew that he would ultimately bring me the resources that I needed. That was kind of an immature faith, but that faith has continued to grow over the years.”
Sometimes, it takes decades for God to work, she said.
The movement to address sexual abuse allegations within member churches of the Southern Baptist Convention has occurred alongside movements in secular society like the #MeToo movement.
The 2018 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas came in the wake of several scandals in which prominent leaders were accused of or admitted to inappropriate or illegal behavior toward women.
J.D. Greear was elected the new SBC president at that year’s convention. A few weeks later, Greear announced the formation of a sexual abuse study group that would report its findings at the 2019 convention in Birmingham.
Outside of a few friends and her husband, Codone had not yet gone public with her survivor story. Finally, she said, she felt compelled to act.
“I thought, finally the church is paying attention, and finally, it’s time for me to be a part of this and to tell my story and somehow help make the church a safer place,” she said.
Another milestone in the movement to address sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches came following the first article of an investigative series published by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News in February 2019.
The news organizations found 400 officials in Southern Baptist churches, including pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers and volunteers, had been credibly accused of sexual abuse. They left behind more than 700 victims.
Codone shared her written story with the SBC study group in March 2019. The statement includes the chronicling of her abuse, the Southern Baptist Convention’s failures and what she thought should happen next.
She said she doesn’t regret not coming forward sooner. The broader culture, she said, was not ready for these stories then.
When the #MeToo movement started, Codone wanted to maintain her privacy. But she admired and respected the efforts of other women who spoke out, and it did make it easier for her to come forward. Her message, she said, goes beyond that. She said she is calling the church to action and making sure everyone is working to keep the church safe.
“What I thought as a better hashtag was #AllOfUs because it will really take all of us to protect the church, to be responsible for the church and make the church a safe place. It’s not so much about me,” she said.
‘This has been my small way of changing the world.’
Last month, Codone learned that her written statement would be used as the opening for the SBC study group’s findings on sexual abuse.
The 52-page report was published June 8 and included interviews with hundreds of sexual abuse survivors, church leaders and national experts. It was more than 10 months of work meant “to begin to educate our churches on the abuse crisis, equip our churches to care well for survivors, and prepare our churches to prevent abuse,” according to the report.
On June 10, during a panel on the eve of the SBC annual meeting, Codone publicly told the story about her sexual abuse by leaders of the Birmingham Baptist church for the first time. There were about 1,200 in the crowd listening as she spoke.
“It was absolutely empowering because I looked out at that crowd and knew that there were pastors and church members and survivors in that crowd. And I knew that everyone was on the same team with me,” she said. “It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”
The Southern Baptist Convention voted to amend the constitution to allow the denomination to expel churches over issues of sexual abuse. It also voted to amend its bylaws to create a committee that will handle misconduct allegations. Unlike bylaw changes, constitutional amendments require votes at two consecutive annual meetings, the Tennessean reports.
The convention, along with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also launched a training curriculum and the “Caring Well Challenge,” which calls for churches to participate in a year-long initiative aimed at preventing predatory behavior and caring for survivors, the Baptist Press reports.
Codone said the SBC may have additional plans to address abuse.
“There are (Baptist) churches in Georgia with sexual predators still on staff,” she said. “I think (the SBC) has more plans beyond that that will come out over the next year.”
Codone, who has worked at Mercer for 17 years, said coworkers have sent her kind words since she came forward.
She’s received messages from friends back in Birmingham. Her home church in Macon, Ingleside Baptist, has been supportive as well, she said.
Codone said she feels this has been her way of helping change the world.
“The culture ... of constantly changing the world — that is our mission,” she said. “This has been my small way of changing the world. To be a Mercerian and change the world by speaking out to make the church a safer place.”