My question is this: Why?
Why are Southern Baptists of Florida holding up Tom Messer as an example of pastoral leadership?
For starters, Tom Messer’s church isn’t even affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s an independent Baptist church.
More importantly, Tom Messer is the pastor who, reportedly, participated in a huge, long-standing cover-up of the child sex crimes committed by his church’s founding pastor, Bob Gray.
“A TV station in Jacksonville, Florida reports that leaders in a prominent Baptist church in the city knew for years their former pastor was a pedophile, but covered it up for fear public knowledge would harm the church’s ministry, shipping the minister to Germany where he served 10 years as a missionary, possibly with access to otherAt the top of that list of accused cover-upping Trinity Church “leaders” was pastor Tom Messer.
Consider these excerpts from the First Coast News report, “Tape-recording called ‘smoking gun’ in alleged Trinity cover-up:”
“A First Coast News investigation has uncovered an audio tape recording of a meeting at Trinity about a few weeks before Gray's arrest in 2006….
On the tape were . . . current Trinity pastor Tom Messer, and two Trinity leaders, including a Deacon.
To understand the comments on the tape we need to go back to 1992 . . . . Ann Stewart, a former Trinity member . . . [and] a pastor's wife now in North Carolina, says she was molested by Bob Gray when she was a young girl . . . . She says finally, at age 21, she went to Tom Messer, she hoped, to expose the truth. She told about the incidents, she says, but her words were twisted to ‘lie to the congregation.’
In 1992, church members recall, there were crazy allegations against their pastor at the time, Bob Gray.
Dennis Cassell was Athletic Director at Trinity back then. He remembers Gray told the congregation that there was an indiscretion but it was ‘neither sexual nor immoral.’
Stewart says, ‘It was just a cover-up.’
But those words, ‘neither sexual nor immoral,’ have been repeated at Trinity for years, as if Trinity was all above board and Gray had done nothing wrong . . . .
When asked if there was no cover-up at Trinity, Stewart says, ‘No, that's a lie.’
Stewart and the Cassells both listened to the tape.
Pat Cassell, Dennis's wife, says, ‘The victims are vindicated. The kids are vindicated. Tom (Messer) knew and covered it up for years.’
Dennis Cassell says, "The truth is finally out and that's what we've been praying for many years."
What's on the tape?
Messer acknowledges he knows the meeting is being recorded.
Also, Messer is asked about that well-known meeting in 1992 in which Gray said he had done nothing ‘sexual nor immoral.’
A woman, who wants to remain anonymous, says, ‘People sitting in Trinity still do not believe that there is anything that Dr. Gray ever did anything sinful. Remember, Tom, it was an indiscretion. It was not of a sexual nature. That is not true.’
Messer replies on the tape, ‘No, I've never doubted that what he said that first night was inaccurate. I've never doubted that . . . .’
Later in the tape Messer talks again about Gray's statement using the term ‘erroneous.’
To 'John,' Messer says, "You want the erroneous statement that was made by Dr. Gray to be corrected."
'John' also asks Messer, ‘Let me ask you this question because I think it's important. Do you feel like he's disqualified himself from the ministry?’
Messer's reply is, ‘Yes, I do from pastoring.’
"John" says he urged Messer to make a statement in front of the church admitting Gray's 1992 statement was inaccurate and admitting Gray molested children.
Messer on the tape says, ‘I have a draft statement’ . . . .
But Messer says on the tape he can't promise it would happen.
It never did.
'John' says the date scheduled to tell the church supposedly was Sunday, May 21, 2006.
Bob Gray was arrested and charged with capital sexual battery three days before.
Still some want Messer to speak, they say, the truth.
Stewart says she isn't holding her breath, though.
She says, ‘I believe Tom Messer has entangled himself so much with lies and deceit for many years that it's impossible for him to face the people and tell the truth. That would be his demise at Trinity.’”
Ultimately, over 20 people came forward saying they were sexually abused as children by Trinity’s founding pastor, Bob Gray. That’s just the ones we know about. One woman’s claim dated back to 1949. Most of the claims were too old for prosecution, but Gray was eventually charged with capital sex crimes against 3 girls and a boy. He died before the case could be brought to trial, but before his death, he talked openly with the police about “french-kissing” little girls and about how he held them in his lap. He also admitted that the reason he went to Germany in 1992 was because he received a visit from a child protective services investigator and because he wanted “to avoid problems for the church.” (You can read excerpts from the police interviews here.)
Victims talked publicly of Gray’s abuse and of their attempts to tell Trinity church officials about it. One woman said, “The church knew what happened in Gray's office decades ago, years that the victims silently ‘suffered broken marriages and broken lives.’"
Another woman, who said she was molested by Gray when she was 12, told TV reporters that “officials at Trinity knew what was going on but failed to take action.” She said that she herself told church leaders about it in 2004 and again in 2006. On television, she read aloud an email she had sent to pastor Tom Messer.
Still another accuser had a letter on Trinity letterhead, signed by a church official, acknowledging the allegations.
Yet, through it all, pastor Tom Messer two-stepped around the evidence of a church cover-up and remained in the pulpit.
Of course, it probably helped him that, during the midst of the scandal, former Southern Baptist Convention president and celebrity evangelist Jerry Vines spoke as a guest at Trinity and publicly praised the church “without mentioning the fact that a local TV station was accusing it of covering up sexual abuse.”
How do you think that sort of whitewashing looked to the many victims who were seeking accountability?
And now, here we are again with still more Southern Baptist leaders who are propping up and promoting Tom Messer.
Wouldn’t you think they could present a better example of pastoral leadership than the man who was at the helm of one of the biggest clergy sex abuse cover-up scandals in all of Baptistland?