Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jack Graham: Deceiver, believer or in-betweener?

“There’s deceivers and believers and old in-betweeners.”
– Willie Nelson

Jack Graham
In 2008, when a minister at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Texas was charged with solicitation of a minor, senior pastor Jack Graham, who is also a former Southern Baptist president, bragged that, in his forty years of ministry, he “never had one moral problem with a staff member, until now.”

With the facts that have come forth in recent days, many would say that Graham’s statement wasn’t true. Graham had a very big “moral problem” with a prior Prestonwood staff member. It was a “moral problem” and more. It was a clergyman’s crimes kept quiet.

In 1989, Prestonwood church officials learned of allegations that a staff minister, John Langworthy, “acted inappropriatedly with a teenage student.” A former Prestonwood staff intern, who was there at the time, has said that Langworthy “confessed to molesting boys in the church.”

With Jack Graham at the helm, Prestonwood church officials responded by quietly dismissing Langworthy. They got Langworthy off their own turf, and in doing so, they effectively unleashed him into the larger denominational body and placed many more kids at risk.

This “cover-up” didn’t come to light until two decades later.

Any fool can see that Jack Graham failed miserably back in 1989. He failed the people of his congregation. He failed the kids who tried to tell about what Langworthy had done. And he failed the kids in Langworthy’s future churches.

But that was 1989, and Graham’s failures are all too obvious. What I want to know is this: What happened in 2008?

What was Jack Graham thinking in 2008 when he claimed he had “never had one moral problem with a staff member”?

In the words of Willie Nelson, was Graham a “deceiver”? Was he flat-out lying about never having had “one moral problem”? Perhaps he simply saw no need to tell the truth in 2008 because two-decades of cover-up had already passed. The safety of kids be damned . . .  keep up the smokescreen. Is that what Graham was thinking?

Or was Graham a “believer”? Did he really believe that what Langworthy did to kids didn’t constitute a “moral problem”? Perhaps Graham believes that child sex abuse isn’t a “moral problem” unless the perpetrator gets criminally convicted. Is that what Graham was thinking?

Or was it the third possibility? Maybe Graham was a plain old lukewarm “in-betweener.” Maybe he was a human being who simply said what was easiest. Maybe Graham wasn’t actively trying to deceive, and maybe belief was irrelevant to him. Maybe he was simply a human being who took the in-between easy road of keeping quiet about his own collusion, of lapsing into denial in the face of a dreadful past, and of protecting his own self-image, his own turf, his own career, and his own prestige.

It’s hard to actually know what Graham was thinking because Graham has refused to comment.

But whatever category you may place him in – whether as a deceiver, believer, or in-betweener – Jack Graham has provided a good illustration of why the Southern Baptist Convention needs better clergy accountability systems, including an accessible denominational database of convicted, admitted, and credibly-accused clergy.

We have seen the Graham pattern too often: When clergy sex abuse hits on their own turf, pastors typically fail to make kid-protection the top priority. Since Southern Baptists refuse the implementation of any denominational system to compensate for this pattern, the result is a denomination in which known, reported, and even self-admitted clergy child molesters can church-hop with ease.

John Langworthy left Prestonwood and went to Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi. Like Graham, Mississippi church officials also made grievous mistakes in dealing with abuse accusations.

Langworthy has now publicly admitted that he had “sexual indiscretions with younger males” while working at a Texas church. Last week, he was indicted on charges that, even prior to his stint in Texas, he sexually abused five boys from two other Baptist churches in Mississippi. The boys were between 10 and 13 years old.

Related posts:
Admitted minister-molester: "I was not asked to resign," 9/9/2011
Mississippi rep seeks secrecy for church, 9/8/2011

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