Abuse confession raises questions of cover-up by Baptist mega-church

PLANO, Texas (ABP) – A Southern Baptist mega-church held up as an example for taking a hard line three years ago against a staff member arrested for soliciting sex from a police officer posing as a 13-year-old girl now stands accused of covering up a similar case in the late 1980s.

John Langworthy, former youth minister at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., confessed past sins to the congregation Aug. 7. Langworthy had resigned earlier, citing “mental and emotional reasons."
 
"Prior to coming to Clinton 22 years ago, while serving at a church in Mississippi and then Texas, I had sexual indiscretions with younger males," Langworthy told the congregation. "These decisions were ungodly, and I deeply regret them."

The admission culminated a year-long campaign by a former close friend of Langworthy who was on staff as a college intern at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas in 1989, when she says he confessed to molesting boys in the church.

Amy Smith, who now lives in Houston, says church leaders fired Langworthy and told him to leave town but did not report him to the police as required by a Texas law enacted in 1971.
  
After holding a couple of secular jobs, Langworthy returned to his home state of Mississippi, landing the job at Morrison Heights Baptist Church while moonlighting as a choir director at Clinton High School.

In 2008 -- when Joe Barron, minister to adults at the then multi-campus Prestonwood with its main facility in Plano, Texas, was charged with solicitation of a minor -- a Dallas Morning News editorial praised Pastor Jack Graham’s up-front handling of the matter as the “right way to react to a scandal.”

“Did he defend the disgraced minister?” the editorial said. “Did he speak of all the good things the perpetrator had done in his ministry? Did he call for forgiveness? Did he say that the pastor was going off for counseling and would be back in ministry soon, a ‘wounded healer?’ Did he blame pop culture for the minister’s fall, or lash out the news media?”

“No, he did not,” it continued. “In his address, Dr. Graham said the accused pastor had been asked to resign and had done so. He acknowledged pain, but praised God for purifying the church. He exhorted his congregation to uphold Christian standards of morality. No excuses, no cheap grace. Just clear, firm, sober action. Because of this, it’s probably safe to say that the Prestonwood congregation has a lot more faith in its clergy today than it might have otherwise.”

Morris Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, cited the editorial in his report to convention messengers that year.

“We must join Dr. Graham in confronting this horrible crime, exposing it for what it is, and doing everything within our power to protect the children under the care of the ministries of our churches,” Chapman said. “I hope this offense never happens in your church. Regardless, we must be ever vigilant and watchful lest it happen within our congregation.”

In 2008 Graham, a former SBC president, said in 40 years of ministry “never have I had one moral problem with a staff member, until now.” But Smith says Graham, who began his ministry at Prestonwood in 1989, was head pastor when Langworthy was asked to leave. She says Langworthy admitted guilt and begged to stay on through the summer for a youth choir trip but was told to leave town immediately or he would be reported.

Graham declined to comment for a news story about Langworthy by Dallas TV station WFAA, but Executive Pastor Mike Buster gave this statement: "In the summer of 1989, the church received an allegation that John Langworthy had acted inappropriately with a teenage student. Based on this allegation, he was dismissed immediately, removing him from all responsibilities with the church. In no way did officials of the church seek to cover up the actions of Mr. Langworthy or silence his accuser. The elected officers dealt with the matter firmly and forthrightly."

Smith, however, cites correspondence with a former Prestonwood member who remembers not being told about why Langworthy left but learning details from second-hand sources over the course of weeks. “The church tried to make it go away,” the former member said, adding: “If I had it to do over again I would have shouted from the sanctuary to make sure it was addressed and that John was prosecuted.”

Smith says Langworthy, who was at Prestonwood about four or five years, was a close friend to her family and for a time even lived in their home. She thought of him as a brother or uncle and was in his wedding.

Being 20 years old and faced with the revelation of abuse of multiple boys, including some of her friends, Smith says it took her more than two decades to “come to grips with these heinous crimes committed by someone I knew so well, loved and looked up to.”

After reading about a counselor at a Christian camp in Missouri receiving two life sentences plus 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexually abusing at least 13 boys, she decided it was time to act. She contacted leaders of both churches and the superintendent of public schools. She approached media outlets including Associated Baptist Press but was told that since she was an advocate and not a victim that unless there was a lawsuit or arrest they couldn’t do a story.

Finally she posted to a blog called New BBC Open Forum, prompting an on-line discussion that has been going on since late May.

Smith talked to abuse experts and police who told her that based on his profile Langworthy likely was a repeat offender. She says he has admitted only to cases in which he was directly confronted and denies other credible accusations. She fears he may have hurt others and believes if Prestonwood had gone to police instead of doing their own internal investigation and allowing him to move on the whole thing could have been avoided.

In 2008 the SBC Executive Committee studied the feasibility of a denomination-wide system like those used by other faith groups to collect, evaluate and report on ministers convicted, confessed or credibly accused of sexual abuse. In the end convention leaders recommended against such a database, saying because of autonomy of local churches they could not compel churches to report abuse, and that putting up a partial list would create a false sense of security.

The Executive Committee added a section to the convention website about preventing abuse, including links to registered-sex-offender databases, which include only persons who have been convicted of a crime. 

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