A bi-vocational Southern Baptist pastor charged last week with molesting an 11-year-old girl in Alabama died Tuesday in an apparent suicide.
Authorities in Gainesville, Ga., meanwhile, said they had arrested a former youth minister at a Southern Baptist church on charges of molesting two boys in their teens, one during a church function inside the church.
Stephen Lyle “Steve” Whittaker, 40, was found dead at a residence in rural Conecuh County in south Alabama, not far from the Florida state line. According to local media, Whittaker had been living in a travel trailer in the yard of his father’s residence for about a week.
Whittaker, former pastor of the 33-member Beaver Creek Baptist Church in Baker, Fla., had been working for a trucking company for a few days. He reportedly told supervisors Tuesday morning he had a family emergency. He parked his truck at his father’s house about 10 a.m., where he spoke to his father and sister, telling them he would join them later for coffee. He went to the camper trailer. A few minutes later his father and sister heard a gunshot. They went to the trailer and found him dead.
Police said they found a firearm at the scene, along with a note saying whom to contact, funeral plans and where Whittaker wanted to be buried. He is survived by a wife and one child.
Whittaker was out on bond and awaiting trial on a charge of felony sexual abuse. He turned himself in to police in Brewton, Ala., Tuesday, March 27, after the girl told classmates at school Whittaker had repeatedly abused her. One of the schoolmates told her mother, who in turn called the alleged victim’s mother. She called police.
Whittaker reportedly admitted to investigators that he touched the girl but denied it was abuse. He said it happened accidentally while they were playing. The girl also told police it occurred during play. Both Whittaker and the child told police the incidents happened many times over recent months.
Whittaker was released from jail on $5,000 bond. The Brewton Standard reported last week that some in the area complained the bond was too low for a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
“I guess it was all just too much for him to bear,” Conecuh County Sheriff Edwin Booker told the MobilePress-Register. Brewton Police Sgt. Eric Suarez, the investigator of the Brewton case, told the newspaper reports of Whittaker’s death “shocked us.”
In Georgia, meanwhile, officials in two counties charged 35-year-old Phillip Glenn Terrell with aggravated child molestation and enticing a child for indecent purposes.
According to the Gainesville Times, Terrell was a youth minister at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga., until late last year. Forsyth County Sheriff’s officials arrested Terrell at his home on Friday after a boy claimed Terrell molested him on two occasions in 2006 at the boy’s home and another location.
On Monday officials in HallCounty took out an additional warrant for child molestation of a boy who was 12 or 13 years old sometime between August and December 2006. Police said they had been investigating the case for several months, after the boy’s family reported an incident, which allegedly happened at the church.
Police said Terrell was a youth minister at Emmanuel Baptist Church, a 400-member congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and Chattahoochee Baptist Association, from 2004 until 2006.
Terrell and Whittaker are the latest in a recent string of arrests involving alleged sexual abuse by Southern Baptist clergy.
Monday in Baptist Press, Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page denied the problem of clergy sex abuse is “large and systemic” in the nation’s second-largest faith group. He said it is up to local churches, and not the denomination, to police clergy predators.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has asked Southern Baptist leaders to help churches do that by creating an independent review board to investigate allegations of abuse and make that information available to people in the pews. SBC officials say the suggestion is impractical, because the denomination has no ecclesiastical authority to investigate local churches or to defrock ministers found guilty of sexual abuse.
The April 2007 issue of SBC Life magazine devotes three articles to dispute claims the denomination shelters sexual predators and is resisting attempts to address the problem of clergy sexual abuse.
Page said in Monday’s article he was interviewed recently for an ABC News “20/20” report tentatively titled “Preacher Predators.” A Dallas Morning News religion blog and the Christian Post news service picked up Page’s comment mentioning the upcoming TV special Monday and Tuesday.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.