SNAP seeks independent review of abuse handling by prominent SBC churches

A victims’ support group wants the Southern Baptist Convention to reopen a study of the denomination’s methods of handling alleged clergy sex abuse, this time with help from an independent investigation.

By Bob Allen

A support group for survivors of clergy sexual abuse is asking the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee to hire an independent consultant to investigate two churches’ handling of confessions by a former staff member subsequently convicted of molesting several boys decades earlier.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a non-profit organization claiming to be the largest, oldest and most active self-help group for clergy sex abuse victims, sent a letter June 5 to Executive Committee President Frank Page recommending Boz Tchividjian’s organization GRACE for an independent review of circumstances involving John Langworthy, longtime associate pastor of music and ministries at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss.

john langworthyLangworthy resigned from the church in 2011 and confessed to the congregation of “sexual indiscretions with younger males" that took place prior to his coming to Morrison Heights Baptist Church 22 years earlier.

In 1989, according to a former co-worker, Langworthy was fired by Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas after confessing to inappropriate behavior with boys but not reported to police as required by Texas law.

Langworthy pleaded guilty on Jan. 22, 2013, to five counts of gratification of lust stemming from allegations that he molested five boys, ages 6 through 13, between 1980 and 1984 when he was a student at Baptist-affiliated Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison but did not serve any time because the sentence was suspended as part of a plea bargain offered in part because the allegations were so old that prosecutors weren’t sure the charges would stand up because of vague language in Mississippi’s statute of limitations for sex crimes.

SNAP leaders David Clohessy and Amy Smith asked SBC leaders to “commit to a process of complete truth-telling” in a scandal involving two high-profile congregations.

This past weekend Prestonwood Baptist Church, now a multi-site congregation with main campus in Plano, Texas, celebrated the 25th anniversary of Pastor Jack Graham, who served as SBC president 2002-2004.

Philip Gunn, speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, reportedly advised fellow elders at Morrison Heights Baptist Church not to discuss their internal investigation into Langworthy with police, claiming clergy-penitent privilege. In April Gunn was elected chairman of the board of trustees at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Greg Belser, senior pastor at Morrison Heights, is part of an advisory Leadership Network Council for the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He was a featured panelist at the ERLC’s April 21-23 “leadership summit” on sexuality held at the Executive Committee headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.

“This scandal in which an accused minister was allowed to simply move on to another church is one that has received wide publicity and that affects two of the SBC’s most prominent churches,” the SNAP leaders said. “Even if the SBC Executive Committee lacks power to actually do anything to hold accountable those officials who kept quiet about or covered up for minister John Langworthy’s abuse, thereby leaving other kids at risk, surely the Executive Committee can at least assure that an outside expert reviews the entirety of the matter with transparency so that people can have a full reporting of what happened and who was involved.”

boz TchividjianTchividjian, a Liberty University law professor and grandson of evangelist Billy Graham, said he first learned of the suggestion when he received a copy of the press release Thursday morning. “Though we had nothing to do with this letter, GRACE is always amenable to serving any church, organization, or denomination address issues related to abuse,” he said in an e-mail to ABPnews/Herald.

GRACE, which stands for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, has conducted similar investigations of child abuse at a New Tribes missionary school in Senegal and is currently wrapping up a review of policies for reporting sexual abuse at Bob Jones University.

In November 2011 GRACE was brought in to investigate the sexual abuse of MKs in Bangladesh under auspices of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism. ABWE pulled out of the arrangement before the investigation was completed, citing disagreements with methods used by the GRACE investigative team.

SNAP’s request comes just prior to the 2014 SBC annual meeting next week in Baltimore. Clohessy and Smith repeated an offer for a SNAP representative to speak either to the convention or the Executive Committee that Page turned down without explanation in a letter dated May 27.

In 2007 the Executive Committee studied the feasibility of establishing a database of Southern Baptist ministers who have been “credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse” but in the end recommended against the idea, saying the denomination lacks authority to investigate autonomous churches.

The Executive Committee has, however, in the past investigated a congregation for allegedly violating the SBC constitution’s ban on churches that “act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.” In 2009 the SBC voted Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth out of membership for its acceptance of members who are openly gay.

This year SBC action is expected against a small California church that recently endorsed a “third way” of neither affirming nor judging homosexuality after its pastor shocked elders by admitting that he no longer believes same-sex relationships are inherently sinful.

Charles Quarles, professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, termed the action by New Hope Community Church near Los Angeles and Pastor Danny Cortez “a serious moral crisis for the Southern Baptist Convention” in a June 5 blog. Quarles said the response in Baltimore will be a “defining moment” in the history of the nation’s second largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.