EthicsDaily.com Tracks Clergy Sex Abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention


EthicsDaily.com reported 11 arrests, three convictions, two lawsuits and one suicide involving alleged sexual abuse by clergy in 2007.

Other stories included a church that allowed a convicted sex offender to preach from its pulpit while knowing about his past and comments by the president of the Southern Baptist Convention denying clergy predators are a "systemic" problem and accusing victim advocates of using the issue for personal gain.

Those stories were part of ongoing coverage of efforts by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests to pressure the 16.3 million-member convention to establish an independent review board for clergy sex abuse similar to those set up by Roman Catholics and other denominations after the Catholic pedophile priest cover-up scandal five years ago.

Christa Brown, a SNAP representative and survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her Southern Baptist youth minister when she was a teenager, commended EthicsDaily.com for its coverage.

"Baptist believers should be grateful to EthicsDaily for chronicling the clergy abuse problem," she said. "If every Baptist congregation gave to EthicsDaily the fraction of their Cooperative Program dollars that would ordinarily go to support the Baptist Press, maybe then Baptist believers would finally be able to see the full scope of this most urgent problem."

The SBC Executive Committee is studying a motion referred from the convention last June regarding the feasibility of a database of clergy offenders, but leaders insist in public statements there is little the denomination can do beyond providing resources to the 44,000 autonomous churches that voluntarily align with the nation's second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.

SBC President Frank Page told a Tennessee newspaper in May there are instances of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches, just like there are in all public institutions. "I do not believe we have a systemic problem," the pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., told The Tennessean. Page speculated the SBC was being singled out as a possible target for lawsuits.

"Please realize that there are groups who claim to be one thing when in reality they are another," Page said in a commentary article in the Florida Baptist Witness. "It would be great if the many groups who are claiming to be groups of advocacy and encouragement in ministry were that which they claim. Please be aware that there are groups that are nothing more than opportunistic persons who are seeking to raise opportunities for personal gain."

Former SBC President Jerry Vines denied the denomination's leaders are soft on sexual abuse by clergy but said their hands are tied. "The denomination has no authority over local churches but can provide resources to help us face this problem and deal with it," the former pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., told Agape Press. "As a denomination, we do make resources available."

Another SBC leader said a relatively low number of documented cases of sexual abuse by clergy proves the way Baptists currently deal with the problem is working.

Will Hall, vice president for news services of the SBC Executive Committee, told Nashville ABC affiliate WKRN-Channel 2 in May that SNAP had come up with only about 40 incidents in the last 15 years, out of a denomination of nearly 44,000 churches.

"If churches are doing adequate background checks, they're going to discover, and if in fact if a man has been convicted of sexual abuse, he is going to be in prison," Hall said.

Brown disputed Hall's accounting of the scope of the problem. Those 40 incidents, she said, were Baptist abuse survivors who contacted SNAP during the first six months after media started reporting on her efforts to bring the issue to light. Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said Hall got his facts wrong and should issue a correction.

Victim advocates say only a small percentage of clergy abusers are ever charged with a crime and churches enable predators by allowing them to move on to avoid the embarrassment of an arrest and too often strike again.

"God weeps and kids cry," Brown said, "but Southern Baptist officials still obfuscate."

On Jan. 3 a Florida court sentenced Douglas Myers, 57, to seven years in prison for repeatedly molesting the grandson of a parishioner he met while serving as a mission pastor of Harbor Baptist Fellowship in Eustis, Fla. EthicsDaily.com reported that suspicions about Myers' attraction to young boys followed the pastor throughout a 30-year ministry, mostly in Southern Baptist churches. In June a mother filed a lawsuit against the Florida Baptist Convention, Lake County Baptist Association and the mission's sponsoring church alleging they should have known Myers was unfit for the ministry before recruiting him to start Southern Baptist churches in the Orlando area.

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary suspended 27-year-old student Justin Eugene Taylor after his Dec. 13 arrest on charges he sexually abused a 10-year-old child while working after hours in a YMCA program in an elementary school. It wasn't the first time the SBC seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., received such unwanted publicity. Another former student, Brian "Doug" Goodrich Jr., 26, was sentenced Aug. 17 to 13 years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting eight boys he mentored while a volunteer youth worker at the 2,700-member Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C.

Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, also experienced the trauma of clergy sex abuse for the second time. Jerry Dale Carver, 52, a former minister of education, pleaded guilty Dec. 19 to attempted sexual abuse of a 15-year-old boy. In 1999 Charles Richard "Rick" Willits, the church's former youth minister, was convicted on nine counts of child sexual abuse and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Michael Lewis, senior pastor of the 5,000-member church, is a member of the SBC Executive Committee that is studying the feasibility of database of sex abuse by clergy in response to the SBC motion.

Jay Dennis, pastor of First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, Fla., compared the impact of the Nov. 2 arrest of a volunteer youth minister to a Category 5 hurricane. Marshall Seymour, 40, was accused of sexually abusing three boys ages 13-15 he met through the church. Church officials said they ran two background checks on Seymour and they came back clean. Seymour had been arrested before, however, on charges of sodomy and sexual abuse of a 16-year-old boy while working as a youth minister at an Assembly of God in Mobile, Ala., in 1999.

Steven Lyle "Steve" Whittaker committed suicide April 3 after being arrested March 28 on charges of sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl. Whittaker, 40, was bivocational pastor of the 33-member Beaver Creek Baptist Church in Baker, Fla.

Steven Haney, 47, pastor of Walnut Grove Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., for 20 years before resigning last December, was arrested July 12 after a 21-year-old man said his former pastor molested him over a five-year period beginning when he was 15. A grand jury in October indicted Haney on charges of rape and sexual battery by an authority figure. The alleged victim testified at a hearing in August that Haney pressured him into having sex by telling him it was a test of faith.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Aug. 20 that First Baptist Church of Romeoville, Ill., allowed a convicted child-sex offender to preach from its pulpit for three years, despite knowing about his past. Jeff Hannah, 42, served nine years in prison for having sexual relations with four girls ages 15-17 while married and a youth minister at another church. "In our church, we believe in forgiveness," the newspaper quoted one of the church's deacons. The Sun-Times later reported that Hannah invited a second sex offender, whom he apparently met in prison, to lead special music at the church. After the report, Hannah reportedly resigned as a member of the church, which he joined shortly after being paroled in 2001.

Other clergy-abuse stories covered this year by EthicsDaily.com included:

--Timothy Neal Byars, 44, was indicted in February on charges of rape, sexual battery by an authority figure and aggravated statutory rape. Byars resigned as minister of youth, education and music at Springhill Baptist Church in Dyersburg, Tenn., following his arrest in November 2006. Also a volunteer track coach, Byars was accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl he drove to a cross-country meet in Knoxville.

--Mark Woodson Mangrum, 47, was indicted Feb. 13 by a grand jury in Memphis, Tenn., on federal charges of child pornography or using a computer to solicit sex from a minor. Mangrum was pastor of the 200-member First Baptist Church in Parsons, Tenn., for six years before resigning in January during the investigation.

--Kevin Ogle, 42, pastor at Northgate Colonial Baptist Church in Camden, S.C., was arrested Feb. 27 after allegedly soliciting sex on-line from a police officer he believed to be a 14-year-old girl. Ogle, pastor of the 106-member church for about three years, faced 11 counts of sexual exploitation of a child in Loganville, Ga., where he allegedly chatted and sent pornographic images of himself on a computer to an undercover officer in the Loganville Police Department's on-line predator unit.

--Phillip Glenn Terrell, 35, was arrested March 30 and charged with aggravated child molestation and enticing a child for indecent purposes after a boy claimed Terrell molested him on two occasions in 2006. Police took out an additional warrant for child molestation after Terrell's arrest. Terrell had been a youth minister at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga., from 2004 until late in 2006.

--James Griffin, 67, a volunteer associate pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Slidell, La., was arrested July 2 on two counts of aggravated sex crimes involving juveniles and 47 counts of possession of child pornography. A newspaper said another Slidell Church, Grace Memorial Baptist Church, fired Griffin a little more than a year before for looking at pornography on a church computer, but that didn't stop him from finding another job at Immanuel Baptist.

--Parents identified as Mr. and Mrs. John Doe sued Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas, July 31, claiming the church was warned a Sunday school teacher and paid childcare worker was a pedophile but did nothing to protect children. Patrick Farmer, 40, received six years probation in August 2006 after pleading guilty to four counts of sexual indecency with a child.

--John Earl ("Jeb") Bonine, 43, pastor of Sierra Heights Baptist Church in Fresno, Calif., was arrested Sept. 10 and accused of molesting two members of his family. He is charged with two counts of continual sex abuse of a child, two counts of sexual penetration by force and two counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14 years of age.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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