More on Covenant Presbyterian, Nashville

By | March 28, 2023
Covenant Presbyterian

In the wake of the horrific shootings at Covenant Presbyterian Nashville’s school, we wanted to update readers on our investigation into abuse of power at the church and provide some context.


First, to be clear, while we advocate for the inclusion of all persons in faith communities, we reject violence of every sort. This reminder is essential, as the school shooter allegedly is a transgender individual, and we make no secret of our support for the LGBTQ+ community. But nothing justifies violence.

We also remind readers that gender does not correlate with ethical conduct.

We’ve been working on the Austin Davis case for some time and need to catch up. We owe Davis a return phone from several weeks ago but have yet to connect due to several other breaking stories. Austin, we sincerely apologize for the delay and hope you forgive us.

It’s also important to be clear that Covenant is not PCUSA (the big Presbyterian denomination) but rather the smaller, conservative PCA. We say that not because it justifies violence, contempt, or bad behavior towards any denomination or faith community. Instead, we mention it solely because we have heard concern from several PCUSA churches named “Covenant” about possible confusion.

Nor is it clear if the churches’ differing stances on LGBTQ+ issues had a role in the shootings. Specifically, the PCUSA is welcoming, while the PCA is unwelcoming.

Neither do we know if allegations of sexual misconduct played a role in the shootings. Female active shooters are rare, and even rarer are shooters who are transgender. 

But we are trying to learn if this may have been an issue, as it is well-established that severe childhood trauma correlates strongly with mass shooting incidents. Thus, we wonder if the shooter was bullied as a child, sexually abused, or experienced other adverse events. Moreover, we note that she attended the school at one point and would have been a middle-schooler at the time of the big abuse scandal. Could she have been a victim? 

Again, an important point: Nothing justifies violence. We are investigating the case and seeking to understand what happened. We are not justifying violence or abuse of any type.

More on Austin Davis

We also remind readers that Austin Davis once had close ties to the church and school. He was a trusted community member until he complained about possible child abuse in the church.

From then on, the church played hardball and falsely accused Austin of being a threat. The result was multiple court cases, adverse publicity for the church, and a prime example of how many churches misuse the protective order (PO) system to try to squelch First Amendment rights. However, based on personal experience, we also know that Austin is a good guy and highly unlikely to be a threat.

So, we are glad that local law enforcement responded quickly while recognizing the potential disaster that could have occurred had officials assumed the church was again playing games.

Nor is this misuse of the PO system confined to conservative churches. Indeed, Anglican Watch editor Eric Bonetti experienced similar issues when Episcopal priest Bob Malm falsely accused the former of being a “domestic terrorist.” 

In every case we have followed, including one involving Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, police and courts have blindly fallen for these lies. After all, who would believe that a priest or pastor would look a judge in the eye and lie? Yet it happens often, and clergy quickly exploit the deference they receive in these cases. (For the record, we know Tenth Presbyterian‘s Phil Snyder personally and greatly admire him. He is definitely not a threat to anyone and we are prepared to call Liam Goligher a bold-faced liar.)

So, even as we mourn the senseless and tragic deaths of innocent children in the recent shootings, we hope the tragedy leads the public and churches themselves to examine several issues:

  • The importance of not abusing the protective order system. The PO system exists to protect people where there is:
    • A reasonable (not imaginary) fear.
    • Of imminent (not “there’s no telling what he might do”).
    • Violence (not protesting, which is protected by the First Amendment).

Churches crying wolf undercut these much-needed protections for victims of domestic violence, disrespect those who actually live in fear, and cause irreparable reputational harm to the churches and clergy that play these games. And as stated earlier, churches that do this risk not getting an immediate response when a problem does arise. So, in this day and age, and given the prevalence of weapons in American society, churches must not cry wolf.

And we will say it yet again: A church cannot be in right relationship, either among its members or with God, when secrets like this are buried or ignored.

    • As part of working towards healing in this matter, Covenant must take a broad approach, including addressing its sinful treatment of Austin Davis. While we do not believe in a God who causes things like shootings in retribution for sin, we do believe that health and wholeness require a holistic approach that includes organizational, interpersonal, and intrapersonal work. That extends to those it has harmed.

Next steps

Anglican Watch has several big stories in the works, but we hope to catch up with Austin Davis in the next day or so. We want to tell his story more thoroughly to promote justice for him and to remind the public of the importance of addressing all violence, including emotional, relational, and exploitation of the imbalance of power inherent in pastoral relationships.

We also offer an important reminder to those affected by the horrific news in Nashville: It is okay to ask for help. Several persons connected with Anglican Watch suffer from severe depression and PTSD due to trauma caused by their churches. It can be hard to discuss these matters with others and even harder to ask for help. But asking for help is the only way to get better. 

Knowing the dismal track record of churches when it comes to responding to trauma, we also remind those hurt by this tragedy to look outside the church if the help you need is not forthcoming. Churches love to ask for money, but they are not nearly as good at spending it on caring for those hurt by the church or by things that happen at church. 

Several hotlines are available if you or someone you know needs help due to this situation. A list of hotlines is here.

For those seeking data-driven solutions to violence, including prevention and response, we recommend the Off-Ramp project. Those seeking data on mass shootings may visit the VOA special report on the subject, one of the few comprehensive data sources.

Our heartfelt prayers for all involved in this horrific situation.

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