News Analysis: Churches not typically first reporters of sexual abuse

DENVER (ABP) – Southern Baptist churches are rarely the first party to report allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy to legal authorities, according to an analysis of news stories aggregated at a website maintained by an advocate for victims.

DENVER (ABP) – Southern Baptist churches are rarely the first party to report allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy to legal authorities, according to an analysis of news stories aggregated at a website maintained by an advocate for victims.

StopBaptistPredators.org links to news stories about 130 separate Southern Baptist clergy persons who were arrested, convicted or sued for sexual abuse of boys or girls over the last decade. Of those, six indicated that police were first made aware of allegations because of a pastor or other church leader’s report.

In light of the recent Penn State scandal, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler and Ethics and Religious Liberty head Richard Land have made public comments that it is imperative for Christians who suspect abuse to go immediately to the police.

Not all the news stories state how police became involved in an investigation. Most often it begins with a report from a victim, parent or other family member. Some reports were by school counselors. Seven of the arrests were made by officers posing as minors in on-line sting investigations.

In numerous stories the church first learned of allegations after a police investigation or arrest. Many fired or suspended the accused individual immediately, but a few rallied around a minister and ostracized his accusers.

Several high-profile SBC churches responded to credible accusations of sexual abuse by a staff member in ways contrary to what Land and Mohler now recommend.

--Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis, Tenn., a prominent congregation long led by former two-time SBC president Adrian Rogers, became mired in a scandal in 2006 and 2007 when a blog reported that new pastor Steve Gaines knew about past sexual abuse by a staff member but kept it quiet.

An investigation by church leaders found that Paul Williams, a minister and staff member for 34 years, had sexually abused his adolescent son over a period of 12 to 18 months 17 years earlier. Williams was allowed to keep his job, which included counseling with adult victims of sexual abuse, until six months after he confessed to what Gaines originally described as a “moral failure.”

--Much more recently, police in Clinton and Jackson, Miss., launched an investigation after John Langworthy confessed to “sexual indiscretions” committed decades earlier with younger males. A few weeks earlier Langworthy had resigned as longtime associate pastor of music and ministries of Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton. He now faces eight felony charges and is scheduled to stand trial April. 2.

Church elders conducted their own investigation and resisted sharing what they learned with law enforcement, citing clergy-penitent privilege. After Langworthy’s confession, it became public that he was fired in 1989 over abuse allegations at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, but church leaders including future SBC president Jack Graham failed to report it to the police as required by law.

Graham has not commented publicly on the revelation. Greg Besler, senior pastor of Morrison Heights Baptist Church, was guest preacher for chapel at Southern Seminary on Oct. 25, one week after Langworthy pleaded not guilty in court. 

--Two years into a 10-year sentence for multiple counts of sexual indecency with a child, David Pierce, the former long-time minister music at First Baptist Church in Benton, Ark., awaits results of his most recent parole hearing Nov. 15.

One of Pierce’s alleged victims recently began a blog titled Descent From Darkness. An entry labeled “My Meeting with a Monster” describes a meeting in which First Baptist Pastor Rick Grant allegedly said Pierce could keep his job if he would “seek to make amends” by apologizing to other victims. Grant did not respond to a request for comment sent Nov. 16 to an e-mail contact address on the church website.

Originally charged with 54 counts, Pierce accepted a plea bargain in Aug. 2009. Supporters including a former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention wrote an inch-high stack of letters asking that Pierce be given a lenient sentence.

Christa Brown, former Baptist outreach leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, does not update her Stop Baptist Predators website as frequently as she did before beginning doctoral studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

A disclaimer says the list represents only “some” of the men who brought scandal to the Southern Baptist Convention and likely is just “the tip of the iceberg.” It does not include ministers that are “credibly accused” but not charged with a crime that are kept in records by the Catholic Church and other denominations.

Five years ago Brown urged leaders of the SBC including Land to begin keeping a database of convicted, confessed or credibly accused sexual predators and create an independent review board to which victims could report alleged abuse. After study the SBC Executive Committee recommended against the idea, saying the convention lacked authority to investigate local churches that are autonomous.

Critics point out that local-church autonomy has not prevented Southern Baptists from kicking out churches for reasons like acceptance of homosexuality and calling a female pastor.

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