Saturday, April 30, 2011

Complicity in Baptistland

Twenty-one years ago, the prominent Southern Baptist pastor of a Texas megachurch allowed a music minister to quietly move on despite multiple reports of sexual abuse that were made by several boys in the church.

That music minister – I’ll call him Lee Worthington – is now employed as a minister at a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi. The senior pastor – I’ll call him Mack Jackson – must surely know that his blind-eyed do-nothingness placed a lot more boys at risk.

The church – I’ll call it Stone Forest Baptist Church – didn’t report the allegations to authorities, and the boys’ parents didn’t press charges. The church leadership never notified the congregants or told other parents so they could talk to their children. It was all swept under the rug.

In the past year, a person who used to be a Stone Forest staff member has been trying desperately to get something done about this. “Being so young at the time,” he told me, “I did not realize the gravity… of the cover-up that took place before my very eyes. I certainly do now.”

He was particularly perturbed a while back when news of a different clergy sex case hit the headlines and senior pastor Mack Jackson bragged that, in several decades’ time, he had never had a single moral problem with any staff person in his church. The hypocrisy of it was too much.

Yet, I find myself wondering whether Mack Jackson may have actually believed what he said. Maybe he believes that it doesn’t constitute a moral problem unless a minister has been criminally convicted. Of course, that’s like saying that, so long as a minister doesn’t get caught, he can do what he wants with impunity. Since less than 10 percent of child molestation cases can be criminally prosecuted, that’s a very dangerous belief, particularly because ministers hold positions of high trust. Of course, the other possibility is that senior pastor Mack Jackson simply lied to himself and to others.

According to the former staff person, minister Worthington admitted to church staff that he had molested the boys. He begged to stay on through the summer, but was told to leave town immediately, or he would be reported. So he left town, and got a job at a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi.

This former Stone Forest staff person has talked with at least one governmental official in Mississippi and with a Baptist official in Texas. He has recently communicated with another Stone Forest minister – I’ll call him Jeff Nelson – who was there at the time and who is still there. Nelson indicated that he too knew about the molestation allegations against Worthington. In fact, by email, Nelson made clear that, 21 years ago, church officials had talked with the church’s attorney about the matter, and that in recent months, after this former staff person contacted them, church officials talked with the attorney yet again.

I figure the attorney probably told church officials that they should let sleeping dogs lie. He would likely explain that, even in the rare event that those boys from 21 years ago decided to file a lawsuit, a court would probably conclude that their claims were beyond the statute of limitations. On the other hand, if Stone Forest officials were to now speak out about the abuse reports against their prior minister and about their own failure to properly assess the reports before allowing him to move on, then minister Worthington might decide to sue the church for damaging his career. And, as the attorney may have pointed out, minister Worthington’s claim would be within the statute of limitations. So, the attorney might have advised that the greater risk of liability would be if church officials were to now speak up about the prior abuse allegations against Worthington.

But of course, the attorney is giving legal advice, not moral advice. The two domains are not one and the same. The attorney is focused on protecting the corporate institution of the church against the risk of financial loss. He is not focused on protecting the boys in Mississippi against the risk of grievous sexual, psychological and spiritual harm.

Because Stone Forest officials still weren’t doing anything, this former staff person contacted at least four reporters that I know of. Good reporters. But the story has never seen the light of day. Why? Because newspapers are often extremely reluctant to publish such information without confirmation from some sort of official proceeding or official record. Without that, it puts the newspaper at risk.

With clergy abuse reports in most other major faith groups, there is at least the possibility of an official denominational process or denominational record. But that possibility doesn’t exist for Southern Baptists, and this makes it more difficult to get news about clergy abuse allegations into the light of day.

Though I changed the names, this story is true. In big churches and small, it is a common scenario, and it exemplifies the problem that Southern Baptists must address.

There is no office to which those who were sexually abused by Baptist clergy, and whose claims are too old for prosecution, can safely make a report. Not only are the victims themselves shut out from any possibility of a denominational reporting process, but so too are the countless others in Baptist churches who have information about predatory ministers who have church-hopped to new pulpits.

No one should believe that Southern Baptists will be able to prevent the clergy-predators they don't yet know about so long as they have no system for doing anything about the clergy-predators they're specifically told about.

Southern Baptist leaders stand on the sidelines as church kids are placed in the trust of ministers who have been reported for child molestation. They betray the sanctity of those young lives. By failing to implement the sorts of safeguards that other major faith groups have, Southern Baptists are sacrificing the safety of kids on the altar of local church autonomy. This is the use of religion for the rationalization of evil.

When the world is watching, Mack Jackson is the prominent pastor who brags that he has never had a single moral problem with any staff member. But when the world is not watching, and when he can get away with it, Mack Jackson is the prominent pastor who quietly lets a minister reported for child molestation move on to another church.

How I wish that Mack Jackson would open his heart to the cries of the wounded and consider the horrific harm that he has unleashed toward more young boys. I wish he could see the ocean of pain that submerges those who have been sexually abused by purported men of God.

But of course, this grandiose Mack of a pastor is no-doubt firm in his settled belief in his own self-righteousness. He could walk past a pile of bodies – and he would likely not even glance.

The complicity of men such as this has spread deep and wide in Baptistland. I believe it is a big part of the reason for why Southern Baptist leaders refuse to create a denominational office for receiving clergy abuse reports and informing congregations. They refuse for fear that their own complicity and cover-ups will be exposed.

Update 8/8/11:
Disturbing revelations about Prestonwood's former minister, WFAA-TV
Abuse confession raises questions of cover-up by Baptist mega-church, Associated Baptist Press 
Clinton music minister confesses to sexual indiscretions, Clarion Ledger
Former minister, teacher makes startling admission, WAPT News
Wolves in the Music Ministry, part 1, New BBC Open Forum
Wolves in the Music Ministry, part 2, New BBC Open Forum

Related posts:
Three-legged stool, 11/17/08
Among Baptists, who will give a hoot? 5/21/10
Basically no one, 6/12/10


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this blog. I know all of the actual churches and pastors that this story is about, and have also been involved in attempting to stop this. I can say that this information is absolutely true and it saddens me that all of the events have happened and so many lives has been hurt. I hope that this will, first, wake up the above churches involved and the right thing will be done for the past and most likely current victims that have been hurt at the hands of this man. I also hope that it wakens ALL churches up to the risk level of offenders in church and the training that they should receive to prepare themselves for protecting children in their congregation. I have worked with sexual offenders within the church for almost 20 years now, and this story keeps coming back over and over. Churches have a LEGAL OBLIGATION to report known abuse. They do not have the freedom to make their own decisions as to what will happen with the victims or offender. I just can't understand how they keep missing this, or refusing to comply with the law. This instance above is a great example of offenders who move from church to church, continuing to offend, and no one steps up and does the right thing. It is time to stop!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Christa. I too, sadly, personally know that this story is true. I know some of the victims, and this man was my youth music minister. It grieves me that this serial pedophile/predator has been passed off to unsuspecting churches and schools, thus giving him unfettered influence and access to unsuspecting families and children as a result of my former church breaking TX mandatory reporting laws which were enacted in 1971. I hope and pray that those who can act now will realize that it is never too late to do the right thing to protect children. And for the victims of this offender I pray that they will tell someone if they never have, report it to the police no matter how long ago and get help.

Amy Smith said...

I am the person mentioned in the true story above. Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas fired him in 1989 after he admitted to sexually abusing several boys. This abuse was never reported to the police and the church members were not informed about why John was fired. Through my efforts to warn about John Langworthy and to support victims, I was asked by Snap to be the Houston leader. Anyone abused by John Langworthy should know that it is never too late to report the abuse to the police and get help. Snap, a confidential support group for survivors of clergy abuse, is available to help, with chapters all over the country. Visit the website for more information

Anonymous said...

Lee Worthington:

John Langworthy

Baptist church in Mississippi:

Morrison Heights Baptist Church

Langworthy has since been forced to resign. The congregation was not told why.

Stone Forest Baptist Church:

Prestonwood Baptist Church

Mack Jackson:

Jack Graham

Worried in Mississippi said...

Thank you for posting this and helping victims have a voice...I must tell you judgemental feelings are running rampant all over Clinton and people are defending him!!! This needs to make national news, do anything you can to get this issue to an even brighter light!

We always here about Catholic priests but the Baptist, especially southern baptist, seem to always have an excuse or cover up scheme in place!

I am happy you have been fighting for so long, thank God for people like you who don't forget the meek and weary. My concern is that there maybe more victims who will be terrified to come forward because of John's faithful following.

Please help and keep doing what you are doing.

I hope that he doesn't think he can move to Alaska just to do this all over again to other innocent children.