Saturday, February 9, 2013

People to remember in the Prestonwood/Morrison Heights scandal

Amy Smith
(Rick Guy/The Clarion Ledger)
Over the course of two and a half years, Amy Smith made dozens of phone calls, and sent even more emails, to try to assure that Southern Baptist minister John Langworthy would not be able to molest more children. Smith knew what had happened 20 years earlier at the prominent Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, when she was a college intern there.

“Although ministers at Prestonwood fired Langworthy in 1989 when at least one teen told church leaders Langworthy molested him, they never reported the allegation to police,” reports the Clarion Ledger.

Langworthy simply picked up and moved to Mississippi, where he went to work as a staff minister at another prominent Southern Baptist church, Morrison Heights. He also became a choir teacher in the Clinton school district.

In her efforts to bring Langworthy to justice, Smith encountered the usual brick wall of Baptists’ keep-it-quiet system. The saga of her efforts to get around that system, and to find someone who would put kids’ safety first, is a saga that implicates “the silence of the many.”

It would be easy to believe that clergy molestation scandals are about the bad deeds of “lone wolf” perpetrators. But Smith’s saga shows all too clearly that this easy belief is not the truth.

The truth is that most Baptist clergy molestation scandals also involve many other people who turned a blind eye – who could have done more but didn’t – who gave rote “thank you for your concern” responses -- and who bullied any who tried to speak out. The Prestonwood/Morrison Heights scandal is no different; it implicates “the many” and not merely John Langworthy.

Those many others should also be remembered in connection with this scandal. Among the most well-known are these:
  • Rev. Jack Graham, former Southern Baptist Convention president and senior pastor of Prestonwood at the time Langworthy was fired and still twenty years later when Smith was seeking help to expose Langworthy;
  • Rev. Neal Jeffrey, a current Prestonwood staff minister who was also on staff when Langworthy was fired, and who was contacted by Smith twenty years later;
  • Rev. Greg Belser, senior pastor of Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Mississippi, who was contacted by Smith, and after a quiet internal church investigation, initially “decided to keep Langworthy” and then allowed him to simply resign;
  • Dr. Phil Burchfield, superintendent of the Clinton school district, who was Smith’s first phone call in 2010, but who obfuscated and did not nearly enough;
  • Philip Gunn, an elder at Morrison Heights, an attorney, and Mississippi Speaker of the House, who reportedly advised church leaders not to cooperate with the police in disclosing their communications with Langworthy.
Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Smith sent emails to the high school principal, high school counselors, members of the school board, PTA leaders, and a staff member at the Mississippi Department of Education. The father of one of Langworthy’s victims said that he had also contacted the Mississippi Baptist Convention, but to no avail.

Smith’s own parents “objected to her speaking out” and told her she should “write letters of apology to the pastors at Prestonwood.”

Meanwhile, the parent of a Langworthy victim is asking “that Prestonwood take responsibility for their coverup.”

Thanks to Amy Smith, that “coverup” was exposed, and in January, John Langworthy pled guilty on multiple child molestation charges. He is a convicted felon, but because his crimes were concealed for so long, he will serve no prison time.

Smith’s efforts were solidly vindicated by Langworthy’s conviction, but those efforts came at a heavy personal cost.

Last week, The Clarion-Ledger published two lengthy articles about Smith’s saga, and I expect Smith would say they’re the short version.

Consider all that Smith went through, and imagine that, instead of being someone who simply knew about a clergy perpetrator, you are someone who carries the weight of trauma and shame from a clergyman’s sexual abuse. It is a childhood trauma so profound that you can scarcely bear to bring the images to the forefront of your own mind, much less to speak about it with someone else. If you encountered the sort of resistance that Smith encountered – from family, community, church leaders and others – how long would you continue to pursue it? How long could you pursue it before you realized that you had to let go in order to save your own self?

The victims of John Langworthy were fortunate to have an advocate like Amy Smith, who stood in solidarity with them, and who gave of herself in order to bring forward their voices. Many other clergy abuse survivors are not so fortunate. The Baptist keep-it-quiet machine effectively silences them, with the result that, even when minister-molesters are reported to church and denominational leaders, most are still able to continue as ministers.

When a faith group does nothing at all about its clergy-coveruppers, you can be certain that its clergy predators will persist. That is the institutionalized scandal of the Southern Baptist Convention.