Let Us Prey: Big Trouble at First Baptist Church
A string of assaults and sexual crimes committed by pastors across the country have one thing in common: The perpetrators have ties to the megachurch in Hammond, Indiana.
(page 4 of 7)
The bombshell exploded with apocalyptic force in May 1989. The Biblical Evangelist, a magazine devoted to “historic evangelical fundamentalism,” published a series of articles accusing Hyles of a years-long romantic affair with his secretary, Jennie Nischik, who happened to be the wife of a church deacon, Victor Nischik. The articles also alleged financial improprieties, accusing Hyles of using church money to lavish tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts on Jennie, including a car, clothes, and home remodeling.
Sermons on the scandal rang out from pulpits across the country. Local papers, from the Hammond Times to the Chicago Tribune, featured the story, as did the tabloid TV news show A Current Affair. It was irresistible: The great Jack Hyles, the man of God, whose schools had dating rules so strict that you could earn a demerit by accidentally touching the end of a pencil held by someone of the opposite sex, was committing adultery.
Hyles thunderously denied the charges and denounced his accuser, Victor Nischik. He organized media boycotts and wrote letters savaging the local papers for reprinting “filth.” Hundreds in his flock rose to his defense. “You all are a bunch of low-down, rotten, filthy, stinking, scummy, garbage-dump stench type of characters,” the Tribune quoted one of them, Noel Shriovanth, as saying. “I wish God would . . . burn your building,” penned another, Kristen Conner.
Voyle Glover, an attorney and longtime church member, was not among the defenders. Disillusioned, he wrote Fundamental Seduction: The Jack Hyles Case. The 1990 book details the affair and many other misdeeds, including a “Watergate-like coverup” of affairs and sexual abuse at First Baptist.
The wrath of Hyles and his supporters again rained down. “I was called the Antichrist and worse,” Glover says. “I was threatened with physical harm, death threats.” His office was broken into. Excrement was left on his doorstep.
Some of the abuse that Glover described in his book—as many others would later allege—was perpetrated by Hyles’s son.
In the early 1980s, David Hyles, then in his 20s, was the youth pastor at First Baptist. Whispers began that he was having an affair with the daughter of a high-level administrator at Hyles-Anderson College. Backed into a corner by a he-goes-or-I-go ultimatum from the administrator, sources say, Hyles arranged for his son to take over as pastor at his old church, Miller Road Baptist in Texas.
The new pastor was soon kicked out after allegations that he had more than a dozen affairs with churchwomen, many of them married. His wife, Paula, divorced him. He returned to the Chicago area, to Bolingbrook, moving in with a woman named Brenda Stevens.
In 1985, Stevens’s 15-month-old son, Brent, was found lifeless in his crib. The autopsy revealed trauma and numerous broken bones in various stages of healing. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigated, but the cause of death could not be determined. At a grand jury inquest, David Hyles exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Stevens didn’t show. The case remains unsolved; Paul Ciolino, a former DCFS investigator now in private practice, says he is still pursuing leads.
Scandal followed the younger Hyles. He was chased from a job running the Sunday school at a church in Pinellas Park, Florida, over allegations of more affairs. But not before a child he fathered with Stevens died under odd circumstances. According to news reports, in March 1999 Stevens (by this time Hyles’s wife) told police that she mistakenly ran over the five-year-old, Jack David, who had rolled out the door of her car. She was never charged with a crime, nor was Hyles.
(Hyles did not respond to an interview request. According to a blog called Fallen in Grace, written by someone identifying himself as David Hyles: “I have no intention of defending myself. . . You [sic] diatribes on your filthy forums serve Satan’s purpose well.”)
As soon as one First Baptist–related scandal died down, another seemed to surface. In June 1991, a Sunday school teacher accused A. V. Ballenger, a 57-year-old deacon who had spent two decades in the church, of fondling a seven-year-old girl. Despite two eyewitness accounts, Ballenger denied the charge, was released on bond, and returned to the church. At Hyles’s prompting, the congregation gave him a standing ovation.
Ballenger’s March 1993 trial “was just inundated with people from that church” who supported him, recalls the prosecutor, Clarence Murray, now a Superior Court judge in Lake County, Indiana. At Ballenger’s sentencing hearing—delayed three years by appeals, during which time he resumed working in the bus ministry—two women testified that Ballenger also molested them when they were young. He got five years in prison.
The cases continued (see map, “How the ‘Gospel’ Spread”). In 1997, the parents of a mentally disabled 12-year-old sued First Baptist over what they alleged was a months-long pattern of rape and torture of their daughter. Among the accusations was a systematic culture of cover-up: “[Jack Hyles] negligently and carelessly has fostered . . . a system of secrecy in the church directing that matters of criminal violations not be reported to judicial authority for whom he openly preaches scorn, but to the church itself, meaning Jack Hyles.” The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
Another egregious case was working its way through the courts around the same time. In 1998, Joseph D. Combs, a former Bible teacher at Hyles-Anderson who had become a pastor in Tennessee, and his wife, Evangeline, were convicted on multiple charges of aggravated abuse, assault, and kidnapping of their adopted 11-year-old daughter. The girl told authorities that her father used biblical references to justify beating, torturing, and sexually abusing her. In 2000, Joseph was sentenced to 114 years in prison; Evangeline got 65.
Then there’s Chester Mulligan, a pastor who was ordained in Hammond by Hyles. Four years ago, he pleaded guilty to felony stalking of a 14-year-old girl while pastor of Central Baptist Church in East Chicago. He was sentenced to a year of probation. That experience didn’t cause Mulligan to rethink his career choice, however. His current job: pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Miami.