Florida Baptists challenge abuse ruling

Attorney for the Florida Baptist Convention says the state convention is not liable for acts committed by someone not under its employ.

By Bob Allen

The Florida Baptist Convention is contesting a May 17 jury verdict that found the Southern Baptist Convention affiliate liable for sexual abuse committed by a former church planter.

The Florida Baptist Witness reported June 12 that the convention’s lawyer has filed motions asking Lake County Circuit Judge Richard Singletary to overturn the jury’s decision and grant a new trial.

The verdict, which came at the end of a two-week trial, found the state convention negligent for failing to check with former employers of Douglas Myers, now in prison for molesting a 13-year-old boy he met at a church he started with support from Southern Baptists in Florida.

Attorney E.T. Fernandez said the motions will be considered at a hearing Aug. 1. If they are denied, he said the convention will appeal. That would have to wait until completion of a second trial to establish the amount of damages the convention owes.

The jury agreed with Fernandez that Myers, who planted two mission churches that no longer exist, was not an employee of the convention, but determined that Florida Baptists implied endorsement of him by listing him as a church planter in the convention annual and the state Baptist paper.

Fernandez says it was inconsistent for the jury to hold the state convention responsible for actions of someone that it did not hire or supervise. He called the verdict an attempt to “create new law” by allowing a plaintiff to seek damages from a larger organization with more resources than a local association or church. Sponsoring Lake County Baptist Association and Bay Street Baptist Church were both named in the lawsuit but reportedly settled out of court.

The article also quoted a statement by state convention Executive Director John Sullivan, read at a recent meeting of the State Board of Missions, saying that it appears the liability case “will be with us for some time.”

“Regardless of the outcome of the motions -- or the likely appeal to the appellate courts -- we cannot let this case hinder our efforts to support church planting efforts in our state,” Sullivan said.

Christa Brown, a victims’ advocate who lobbied unsuccessfully for the Southern Baptist Convention to create an independent review board to receive, assess and report credible accusations of sexual abuse by clergy, welcomed the verdict, saying leaders have shown they will not act on their own.

“It will take the long, dogged development of the law to eventually prod this denomination into action,” Brown wrote in her blog.

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