Wednesday, August 19, 2009

It was a "Hey, no big deal."

Last Monday, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the molestation conviction of John Hubner, a former deacon and youth leader at First Baptist Church of Columbia, South Carolina.

Thank God.

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?

Update 2017: "Lawsuit accuses Columbia's First Baptist Church of history of covering up child sex abuse," The State, 10/13/2017. Yet again, this prominent SBC church appears to have learned absolutely nothing about prioritizing the safety of children. 


john said...

The reason I believe the pastor said that he was sooooo proud of the mature way the church handled the perversion of truth and justice was that unlike the membership of Bellvew Baptist Church in Memphis, he did not have a single member to question his authority and how he handled the situation. If there had been just one honest person in the entire church, mass resignations would have been called for and the violation of the law by staff members would have been made public. This whole situation speaks volumns for the need for the registry we keep calling for.
Oh, and by the way, I am sure the pastor preached a sermon on the true meaning of Biblical forgiveness! [NOT!!!]

Anonymous said...

"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.”"

Many churches are preaching this instead of preaching about God's Wrath for willful consistent sin.It is called spiritual malpractice.

Just read the comment about Darrell Gilyard at Tiffany Croft's blog. They are ready to put him back in the pulpit.

Michelle said...

The pathological need to forgive is intense in my church, as well. Adventists are anabaptists, and tend towards pacifism in everything.

The pastor who kept quiet about my molestor (indeed, who got him a job as a babysitter and as a teacher at a blind school) is also the pastor who testified for Dayton Leroy Rogers in his death appeal.

His argument was that this serial killer had changed.

"He has expressed regret," said Gary Gantz, an Idaho pastor who said that when he lived in Oregon, he met with Rogers nearly 200 times. Gantz speculated on a factor in Rogers' crimes: "I think the vodka unleashed something in Dayton, put his conscience to sleep."

The church has sent alot of people to meet with Rogers, a serial killer, but none to meet with me, a girl who was raped in the church, and who's begged for help in every way possible. Indeed they block me at every chance from speaking.

seanokc said...

Doesn't surprise me. Estep was pastor of Council Road Baptist Church in Bethany, Oklahoma in the 1980's. He drove a Mercedes and acted like he was a celebrity even then. Looks like he climbed his way up the "corporate ladder." He never appeared to be believable as a compassionate minister from my perspective, but very ambitious when it came to church finances. He just always seemed like a charlatan to me. So, his defense of a child molester in his midst really doesn't surprise me.

Nick said...

The issue here is that the church didn't respond to the situation biblically. The Bible teaches that when someone does something wrong, we are to confront them (Matthew 18). We are to determine if the allegations are true and deal with the matter accordingly. The Bible tells us we are to not even associate with a person who claims to be a Christian and is sexually immoral, let alone ordain them as a deacon (1 Corinthians 5). The Bible gives very specific qualifications for being both an Overseer (Pastor/Minister) and a Deacon (Greek word literally means a servant or slave) in the church (1 Timothy 3, Titus). It seems that the church disregarded these specific instructions in allowing this man to serve in a leadership position in the church.
I am myself a minister in the SBC. My fear is that many people in our denomination have allowed church life to become about the institution instead of being about Jesus. We were called to follow Jesus, not to join the club. Yes, the Bible tells us that we are to meet together as churches (Hebrews 10:25) but the church is supposed to be a tool to give us accountability as we follow Jesus. Too many have make the church into a social club instead of an organization of accountability, equipping, taking care of people, and missions.
I would like to apologize on behalf of the SBC for all those who have been abused because a church was irresponsible and did not follow God's recipe for church leadership and accountability. I would also like to ask you all to please not equate this kind of behavior to all SBC churches and ministers. It is sad how much corruption has crept in, but my goal is to choke out the corruption. Some of us are trying to change things. Please pray for us and know that there are still plenty of good people in the SBC who truly love Jesus. Others have lost their way and become passive. Pray that God will wake them up.
Also know this, groups of people who truly love Jesus will be attacked the hardest. Opposition is often a sign of doing the right thing. I believe Satan attacks the SBC so very hard because of the fact that we are such an enormous mission sending organization. He wants us to be rendered ineffective and he is doing a darn good job.
Galatians 5:16 tells us that we do not sin when we are walking with God, we only sin when we are walking on our own power. May you not allow the actions of the few destroy your opinion of the many.

Christa Brown said...

"May you not allow the actions of the few destroy your opinion of the many."

I appreciate your thoughts, Nick, and welcome to the blog. However, from my perspective, this is already a problem that is about way more than "the actions of the few." Every week brings new stories of clergy sex abuse in Baptist churches and of cover-ups and blind-eyed do-nothingness by so many others. It's not a problem about a few "bad apples." It's a problem about the barrel itself and how it facilitates the rot. The Southern Baptist Convention is utterly lacking in effective systems of accountability. This systemic failure of accountability not only allows clergy sex abusers to church-hop with ease, but it also allows countless others to turn a blind eye and do nothing.