Baptists should also extend thanks to the courageous girl and her family who persevered to bring a serial predator to justice. In the process, they also exposed the cowardly complicity of church leaders. As reflected in the archived news accounts from the 2002 trial, it’s not a pretty picture.
First Baptist of Columbia is the church of senior pastor Wendell Estep, the 2001 president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. (That's Estep in the photo, taken from Facebook.) It's one of South Carolina’s largest and oldest churches. And it’s a church that did a miserably poor job of handling clergy sex abuse allegations.
For starters, if First Baptist of Columbia had done what it should have done, Hubner never would have been placed in a position of trust at all. Hubner had a prior 1983 molestation conviction in Maine, where he pled guilty to unlawful sexual contact with a 12-year-old. As part of his plea bargain, “four other charges of rape or sexual contact with the 12-year-old and another 11-year-old girl were dismissed.”
Nevertheless, after Hubner moved to South Carolina, he was ordained as a deacon at First Baptist of Columbia, and he was allowed to work in the church youth programs.
In 1996 and 1997, church leaders reportedly “received written and verbal complaints from parents about Hubner’s ‘unnatural interest in their young sons and daughters,’ including that he had inappropriately touched them.” These complaints were described in lawsuit allegations and in the statement of former FBC-Columbia staff minister Tad Wilson.
According to Wilson, when he told senior pastor Wendell Estep of complaints about Hubner’s conduct, Estep simply told Wilson to tell Hubner “to leave [the children] alone.” As one columnist appropriately said, Estep’s advice “was flippant, at best.”
“It was a ‘Hey, no big deal,’” to Hubner, said minister Tad Wilson.
Despite the parents’ complaints, minister Wilson claimed he had “no suspicion of molestation or assault.” Yet in July 1998, he asked a girl to write down what Hubner was doing and how she felt about what was happening. When the girl wrote that she was “very frightened” of Hubner and that he was “always hugging all over me,” Wilson said he took the girl’s letter to FBC-Columbia’s minister of education, Phil Myers.
But minister Wilson didn’t share his concerns with anyone else. And minister Myers later claimed that he never saw the girl’s letter.
About a year later, a psychologist for the girl told minister Wilson that “she was concerned Hubner might be a child molester.”
Minister Wilson went back to minister Myers, but again, Wilson didn’t share the psychologist's concern with anyone else. “I knew he needed to be removed from all leadership with kids . . . but that wasn’t my call,” said Wilson. He explained that he felt he had to “trust in the chain of command.”
In October 2000, a father reportedly told First Baptist church officials that Hubner, who was also a Boy Scout leader, had “inappropriate contact” with his son. And according to the prosecutor, Hubner was accused of fondling still another boy at a Boy Scout camp.
But according to the publicly reported allegations, First Baptist officials didn’t remove Hubner from his deacon’s position until after his January 2001 arrest, despite parents’ complaints at least four years earlier and even though they were “aware of the allegations.”
As stated by senior pastor Wendell Estep himself, it was only after Hubner’s arrest -- four days afterwards -- when Estep told other church deacons about the charges against Hubner.
A full month after the arrest, the church sent a letter to parents of kids in the youth programs, saying that a person had been arrested and charged with “inappropriate behavior,” but the letter didn’t name deacon Hubner.
Three months after the arrest, the church finally sent a letter to the entire congregation, telling them that deacon Hubner had been arrested. The mother of the girl whose allegations formed the basis for the criminal case said that the church sent this letter only after she engaged in long negotiations with the church’s lawyers and threatened a lawsuit. Senior pastor Wendell Estep said the belated letter was simply part of the church’s “evolving response.”
Has this story already sickened you enough as you contemplate the number of kids whom these cowardly church leaders left at risk? The number of kids molested and sexually assaulted? I hope so.
But here’s something even more frightening.
Even as all these dreadful facts came to light during the trial, senior pastor Wendell Estep bragged to the press that he was “proud of the way his church, whose members include prominent state and local leaders, has handled the situation.”
He said, “Since I have been here, I don’t think the church has faced anything more maturely.”
So . . . this past-president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention and senior pastor of the largest Baptist church in the state, Dr. Wendell Estep, still had not learned much of any lesson from the horror of what he allowed to happen on his watch. Instead of expressing grave and genuine remorse, he boasted.
It was more than one columnist could stand. She wrote: “Maturity means taking responsibility . . . being able to admit when you are wrong and asking forgiveness . . . None of this happened at First Baptist . . . . All I read is how proud they are . . . when what appears to be happening is a cover-up. They are protecting the institution at all costs.”
The columnist got it right. Church officials at FBC-Columbia were “protecting the institution at all costs” -- even at the cost of kids.
When John Hubner filled out the church’s questionnaire to become a deacon, he didn’t list his prior molestation conviction in Maine. Hubner said this wasn’t a lie and explained it in this way: “As a Christian, when you have repented and confessed everything in your life . . . [God] holds you accountable to nothing.”
Clearly, that “accountable to nothing” attitude was reinforced by church officials at FBC-Columbia. With tragic results, they handled child molestation allegations as a “Hey, no big deal.”
Additional note: According to articles in the Georgetown Times and The State, First Baptist Church of Columbia currently has a staff minister who was charged in 2005 in another location with the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl. The minister’s arrest drew public “outrage from his supporters,” and the father of the girl said that his family had received threats. Ultimately, the criminal charges were dropped in 2006 because, as the prosecutor explained, it was hard to get corroborating evidence. Question: Even though prosecutors decided they didn't have enough evidence to meet the extraordinary burden that the criminal law requires before throwing a man in jail, shouldn't there be a denominational process to objectively and responsibly assess such allegations by an administrative standard before allowing the man to continue in ministry?