Thursday, April 17, 2014

Morrison Heights Baptist Church's sex abuse awareness conference irony

Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi is hosting a Sexual Abuse Awareness Training Conference on April 29, 2014.
Today we are partnering with the Christian Action Commission of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board and Morrison Heights Baptist Church to provide Sexual Abuse Awareness Training for pastors, church staff and lay leaders.  Our goal is to equip church leaders with the skills and resources they need to keep children safe.
However, with just 12 days away from this conference that Morrison Heights is hosting at their church as a conference partner, there is no mention on their church website anywhere about this conference. Why?

Washington Times story on this upcoming conference: Program for all churches to avert child sex abuse
CLINTON, Miss. (AP) - A church where a former music minister admitted sexual abuse will host a program for all denominations to learn how to keep their ministries free of child molestation.
About 2 weeks ago, I addressed this omission to Morrison Heights, pastor Greg Belser, and the Baptist Children's Village on twitter where the BCV has been promoting the conference:

I received this response from the BCV:

I know a few community leaders who are planning to attend this conference that have expressed to me confusion over this omission from the Morrison Heights website, and questioning if this conference is really taking place. So I called Morrison Heights church this morning and spoke at first with a receptionist. She confirmed that the conference is still on 4/29 and mentioned that they had recently had a staff meeting about it.

Hmm, a staff meeting about an event that isn't mentioned on the church website? The receptionist kindly offered to transfer me to someone who knew more about the conference. I then spoke with Sharon Prather, Administrative Office Manager, asking why there is no mention of the abuse awareness conference on their website, where they do promote several other events taking place at their church and also promote events for organizations outside the church, such as Compassion International (a great organization which our family supports). There is also a banner in fact on the church's home page for One Cry: A Nationwide Call for Spiritual Awakening. Sharon said, "We are looking into it."

I asked Sharon if anyone had questions about the conference could they call Morrison Heights? Sharon said, no, only the Baptist Children's Village could answer questions about the conference as they are "handling all publicity."

Greg Belser, pastor of Morrison Heights, was willing to give his pulpit to John Langworthy to confess his child sex crimes, the former MH minister, and now convicted child sex offender, on a Sunday morning in August 2011. Greg then dedicated the sermon that morning to praising and supporting John Langworthy and his wife Kathy who remains on the church music staff. Belser even took shots in his "sermon" at those of us who worked to expose the truth about Langworthy.  Belser then invited the congregation that Sunday morning to publicly surround the Langworthys, and hugging, crying and praying ensued. How painful it must have been to be a victim of Langworthy or any other offender that day.

Langworthy's confession

To this day, there has never been a moment of mention from the pulpit of the victims: no crying, no support, no praying for them. There has never been a plea from Morrison Heights for anyone else who may been harmed by Langworthy to contact the police, to seek justice, begin to heal and to protect other kids. Langworthy pleaded guilty in January 2013 to 5 counts of sex abuse of 5 boys ages 6-13 from 1980-84. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison, but all of it was suspended, so he didn't spend a day in prison and was immediately allowed to return home from court the day of his conviction and sentencing. Children are safest when predators are in jail.

In a phone conversation with Greg Belser in February 2011, he told me and Sherry LeFils that he wanted to "save John." That was his priority then, and it seems to still be his priority 3 years later with no public indication otherwise. Will he speak at the conference at his church? Will he mention support for the victims? Will he urge others to come forward to the police? Whether he wants it to be addressed or not, Langworthy is the elephant in the room. 

And now with a Sexual Abuse AWARENESS Training Conference being held at his church, Greg Belser isn't even willing to give this important conference a mention on his church's website or calender of events.

This is how a real leader addresses abuse, without hesitation and unequivocally:
Show moral courage and take a stand against it.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Bill Gothard and Bob Jones University Abuse Scandal Connections: protecting leadership, silencing victims

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests held a media event last week at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina urging BJU officials to release the identities of all sex offenders (proven, admitted and credibly accused) who have worked at or attended the university and post them permanently on the school's web page. This would help prevent future crimes.
We are urging Bob Jones University officials to
–launch an independent investigation into alleged cover-ups of child sex crimes and/or sexual harassment accusations that have surfaced recently against a nationally-known minister, and
–permanently post the names of proven, admitted and credibly accused sex offenders who are or have been at the university on the school's website.   
Earlier this month, a prominent Illinois-based Protestant minister, Rev. Bill Gothard, was put on administrative leave after as many as 34 women said that he sexually harassed them. At least four women said that he molested them as youngsters. And Gothard also allegedly hid sexual harassment by his brother, along with Bob Jones officials, according to a recent Washington Post article.
According to bloggers at Recovering Grace, “In 1980, two BJU officials (only one is named, a Rev. Van Gelderen) were summoned by Gothard to help him downplay a scandal that was about to overwhelm his multi-million dollar ministry. The two BJU men were used by Gothard in his attempt to hush up accusations of sexual harassment against Gothard’s brother.”
We want BJU to hire an outside firm to investigate the charges that two university staffers may have hidden alleged sexual crimes, misdeeds or other wrongdoing by Rev. Gothard or his brother.
Rev. Gothard headed the Institute In Basic Life Principles (IBLP). In the 1970s, Rev. Gothard regularly filled auditoriums across the US with attendance figures as large as ten thousand and more, according to Wikipedia. 
As best we can tell, there are no pending civil lawsuits or criminal investigations against Rev. Gothard. But SNAP notes that his own IBLP board asked him to step down in light of the dozens of allegations against him, some of which go back decades. Many of these reports surfaced first on Recovering Grace.
In an email to our leaders last month, BJU spokesman Randy Page ignored our request, claiming only that “All known perpetrators of child sexual abuse have been reported to law enforcement.”
Page also told us “We know of no current student, faculty or staff member who has been convicted of child sexual abuse or sexual assault.” That means that school officials know of former staff and students who ARE convicted offenders. “For the safety of others – both adults and kids,” we believe those names should be put on the BJU website. Religious institutions, “especially those who are accused of concealing crimes,” should be held to a higher disclosure standard than other organizations.
We can imagine some at BJU may be surprised at our requests. Some will question the propriety of our requests. Here are some likely questions and our responses:
Some might ask "These Gothard allegations date back to the 1980s and appear on a blog but largely nowhere else. So why should BJU officials take them seriously?"
Because it's a blog that many people find credible, including mainstream media sources. Because it's best to err on the side of protecting the vulnerable and wounded, not the accused and the powerful.
Some might ask "Why students? Why not just staff?"
Listing any perpetrator is better than listing none. But why make arbitrary distinctions? The more offenders they list, the more vulnerable people they protect.
Some might ask "Does the University have an obligation to list these offenders?” 
Legally, no, but we believe that morally, yes. We believe there's every reason to do so and no reason to NOT do so. This action will safeguard those at risk. Why wouldn't BJU officials want to do this?
Some might ask "Could the University be sued for doing this, for listing these names?”
Anything's possible but we don't think so. The last thing a sex offender wants is more publicity. Roughly 30 US bishops have posted offender lists. None of them, as best we can tell, have been sued.
Some might ask "Aren't folks in US considered innocent until proven guilty?”
That's the standard we use when considering depriving a person of his or her physical liberty. We agree with this practice. But we also know that most sex offenders are never caught or convicted. People are safest when predators are jailed. But when that can't happen, the next best alternative is to alert the public about them. That's what we're asking BJU to do.
Finally, we also want to stress that sexual crimes should be reported to law enforcement by anyone who sees, suspects or suffers them. To most victims this is a frightening prospect, but if innocent kids and vulnerable adults are to be protected, victims must somehow find the strength, courage and wisdom to call secular officials, not religious officials.

A Thread Called Grace: How I came to stop hiding and face the biggest secret of my early life by Jonathan Merritt:
"Shame keeps us from telling our own stories and prevents us from listening to others tell their stories," says Brené Brown. "We silence our voices and keep our secrets out of the fear of disconnection." In the end, shame steals the very thing it promises: meaningful, authentic connections with others. Pursuing a life of honesty means to reveal who I truly am and assert that my story too belongs at the table.
More from Jonathan Merritt:
Owning one’s story can be costly, but it is not nearly as expensive as spending one’s life running from it.
The New York Times:
For sure, sexual maltreatment of children and cover-up are not Catholic monopolies. Charges have been brought against predatory rabbis in New York and elsewhere. In the Hasidic world, a code of silence governs much of life in this regard. Those who break it, by taking allegations to the civil authorities, find themselves ostracized. The existence of a website like points to problems in other denominations. As for secular institutions, who could be unaware of abuses within the Boy Scouts of America and at Penn State?
Barbara Blaine, founder of SNAP, featured in a New York Times video today on the front page:

Monday, March 24, 2014

TX: a state in which it is a crime for clergy to have sexual relations with a congregant

In my last post, I discussed the recent departure of longtime Prestonwood Baptist music minister Todd Bell due to what several sources say is an affair with a choir member.

Christa Brown of Stop Baptist Predators left this comment on that post:
Hi Amy. Just want to share a bit of Texas law with you. Under the Texas Penal Code, section 22.011, a sexual assault is considered to be “without the consent of the other person if… the actor is a clergyman who causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person's emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman's professional character as spiritual adviser…” I have no clue what happened with Todd Bell and his reported “unfaithfulness” to wife, church and ministry… and from the reported statements here, it is impossible to know. But I do know that, if a minister engages in sexual “unfaithfulness” with an adult congregant, it is sometimes more properly viewed under the law as a “sexual assault” rather than as a “consensual” relationship. But of course, given how often we have seen Baptist leaders minimize the horrific abuse of kids as mere “moral failure,” it’s not surprising that, often, they are also quick to minimize the sexual abuse of adult congregants as “affairs” or “unfaithfulness.” Whether or not that is what happened here is something I don’t know. 

More from Julie Anne on this TX law:
One important note: This illicit relationship occurred in Texas, and Texas is a state in which it is a crime for clergy to have sexual relations with a congregant. The relevant section of the Texas Penal Code are below (emphasis added).
Texas Penal Code Chapter 5. (22.011)
Title 5. Offenses against the person.
Chapter 22. Assaultive Offenses.
Sec. 22.011. Sexual assault.
(b) A sexual assault [...] is without the consent of the other person if: [...] 10) the actor is a clergyman who causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser …
Texas Penal Code 22.011(b)(9): “by exploiting [the patient or former patient's] .  .  . emotional dependency”; and (b)(10) “by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual advisor”
So, while Victim said her involvement with Doug Phillips was consensual, by law, it was not consensual in that Doug Phillips, acting as clergy, was in a position of trust to “do no harm,” but he violated this position of trust over her.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Prestonwood Baptist Church and the Cone of Silence

After 22 years as the worship pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church, Todd Bell apparently resigned suddenly last week, or so I've heard from a few sources. He has been removed from the staff listing on the church website. *From what I've been told in an email (see below), Jack Graham spoke at the end of the service last Sunday, apparently after the cameras stopped rolling, about Todd Bell's resignation or firing. I'm not clear on which it is exactly.

If Jack did speak openly and transparently that Todd "disqualified himself, " why has he never spoken about how Prestonwood minister John Langworthy disqualified himself too when he suddenly left Prestonwood in June 1989 after allegations surfaced that he was sexually abusing boys in the church? Why has Jack never mentioned Langworthy from the pulpit? Don't all members and parents deserve to know why a minister would leave suddenly because he was accused of child sex crimes?

*UPDATE 3/5/14: I received the following email today with more information.
I was in both services on Sunday at Prestonwood and Jack Graham spent a good 10 to 15 minutes very transparently sharing his grief and sadness over the resignation and the exact reasons for it which he specifically stated verbatim were unfaithfulness to his wife and to the church and his ministry.  It was heartfelt, sincere, transparent and anything but brief as your comments state.  I even taped it for my daughter to hear and we listened to it more than once....not brief and not any trace of an attempt at hiding the truth.
 *Why has he never done the same from the pulpit about John Langworthy's alleged child sex abuse at Prestonwood that resulted in Jack firing him? Where's the truth and transparency there? Why has Jack not even spent one minute sharing grief and sadness for the children harmed by Langworthy?

*Does it bother anyone else that Jack can devote time from the pulpit to address his "grief and sadness" about Todd Bell but not answer the plea from a grieving mother of a Langworthy victim?

(additional information added 3/20/14): Jack Graham apparently had time in 1989 to contact Prestonwood "attorneys who were involved in all of this back then," according to associate pastor Neal Jeffrey. Neal stated in an email reply to me (embedded below) that "the attorney guys did not remember all of the specifics of the case, so they were going to go back into their notes, etc, and see what needs to be done." According to one of the victims who came forward a few months after Langworthy was fired, the attorneys had him and other victims give them a statement about the abuse. Did they report this statement of abuse to the police as required by law? These were attorneys for the church, not the victims.

Truth and transparency should be the standard in all matters in a church, be it matters of consensual affairs resulting in a resignation or illegal sex crimes resulting in the same or a firing. He publicly addressed the arrest and firing of former Prestonwood minister Joe Barron, so why the silence on Langworthy?

Document: "Yes, they tried to handle it discretely as any church tries to do." - a former Prestonwood Baptist Church deacon on child sex offender John Langworthy

A Tale of Two Jacks

Jack Graham and Prestonwood have never reported to the police the known abuse by Langworthy which is required by the Texas mandatory reporting law passed in 1971. Langworthy was allowed to return to his home state of Mississippi where he soon began working as a music minister and a music teacher in public schools, elementary through high school ages, in Clinton, MS for the next 22 years, until he was exposed as a predator when he confessed publicly from the pulpit at Morrison Heights Baptist Church.

World Magazine discussed Prestonwood's handling of Langworthy abuse allegations in a cover story last year titled "The High Cost of Negligence."
Earlier this year Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation of about 15,000 in Plano, Texas, faced questions about how it handled a past allegation of abuse. Its former youth worker, John  Langworthy, pleaded guilty in Mississippi to five of eight counts of molestation involving five boys in the early 1980s. A judge gave Langworthy a 50-year suspended sentence.

 Mike Buster, an executive pastor at Prestonwood, told a local news station in 2011 the church received an  allegation in 1989 that Langworthy had “acted inappropriately with a teenage student.” The pastor said  the church dismissed Langworthy, and that “the elected officers dealt with the matter firmly and  forthrightly.” Buster didn’t say whether church officers filed a police report. WORLD requested further comment, and Buster replied in an email, saying nothing had changed from the church’s original statement.

Langworthy went on to work as a music minister at *Morrison Heights Baptist Church and a high school choir director in Clinton Public Schools. He resigned both positions in 2011.
*Morrison Heights Baptist Church is hosting a Sexual Abuse Awareness Training conference on April 29 with the goal to equip church leaders with the skills and resources they need to keep children safe.

We know there are more victims suffering in silence. We hope that anyone who saw, suspected or suffered wrongdoing by Langworthy or any other perpetrators from Prestonwood Baptist or other churches and institutions will have the courage to break their silence, come forward to law enforcement and protect other kids.
Maybe there's a way out of the cage where you live.

I found my voice. I hope you can find yours too.

Amy Smith's Persistence Brings Justice in John Langworthy Abuse Case

Justice Quest Begins with Phone Call, Ends with Conviction

Jack Graham Explains How to Have Your Best Christmas: Shun Church Critics, Especially Those "Watchdoggers"

It's responses like this that silence and shame victims into silence and enable perpetrators:

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Culture of abuse: victims blamed, perpetrators protected, voices silenced

Rape culture and evangelical culture collide at "God's Harvard"

Listening to Sarah from across her desk, the dean was as polite as ever. But she didn’t seem to believe Sarah’s story at all. “If you were telling the truth about this,” Sarah remembers Corbitt saying, “God would have kept you conscious to bear witness to the abuse against you.” [...]
 Corbitt summoned Sarah for several rounds of questioning. “It’s my job to poke holes in your story,” Sarah remembers Dean Corbitt saying. “I have to make sure that you’re not lying to me. … I don’t think you’re wholly innocent in this situation.”
The problems of rape culture are not unique to Patrick Henry College, but the confluence of its evangelical Christian worldview — which penalizes sex outside of marriage, strictly regulates women’s behavior and lauds men as God’s representatives on earth — and the broader institutional and cultural forces that silence victims and punish those who speak out has produced a devastating result for its female students. One that has not only compromised their physical safety at the school, but also the core tenets of their faith and their place in the Christian community.
Sexual Assault at God's Harvard: Patrick Henry College was supposed to be a safe place. For these young women it wasn't.

My church in 1989 was supposed to be a safe place too. But it wasn't for several of my friends, both boys and girls. My eyes began to slightly peer open into this culture of abuse at Prestonwood Baptist Church in the summer of 1989 when our youth music minister, John Langworthy, was accused by several boys of sexual abuse and fired by Jack Graham but not reported to the police. I never did shake the sinking feeling over the next 22 years that what happened then and how it was handled internally just wasn't right. I used to have nightmares in which Langworthy would show up at my church in Houston, and I'd try to speak out about what I knew, yet no sound would come out.

I don't have that nightmare any more, since I broke my silence about the culture of abuse I experienced at Prestonwood. I know now what to call it.

Since the exposure of the abuse by Langworthy and cover up by Prestonwood, I've had other abuse survivors from Prestonwood contact me and share their stories. Some of these were my friends in the youth group. Some I suspected had been abused. Others I had no idea about. One of these survivors was raped by another boy in the youth group. She went to our youth minister at the time, Neal Jeffrey, who blamed her for the rape. Neal never called the police. He even forced the victim to forgive her rapist and seek reconciliation with him.

Another survivor was raped by an assistant youth minister who was attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. She also told Neal Jeffrey who blamed her and never called the police. This child rapist is still out there.

I have shared my story here before about my parents' anger at me for exposing Langworthy's child sex crimes. He was convicted last year in Mississippi where he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 5 boys ages 6-13 from 1980-84, just before his job at Prestonwood Baptist. He is a serial child predator. He is not in jail, though he received a 50 year prison sentence. We know there are more victims. We hope anyone who has seen, suspected or suffered child sex crimes by Langworthy will come forward to the police, begin to heal and protect other kids.

My parents have said repeatedly that they never want to see me again. A few months ago, my dad left a message at our home stating that "Amy's hurt too many people for too long. I'm going on the offensive."

The light of truth and knowledge is our greatest tool to protect kids. Share it. Speak it. Know you are not alone. Though the pain is awful, healing comes from rising up and shining the light of truth.

UPDATE 2/25/2014: 
The Baptist Children's Village in Mississippi is holding a sexual abuse awareness training conference.

10:00 A.M. TO 3:00 P.M.


 Email Celeste Cade at The Baptist Children's Village or call 601-952-2422 with your questions or for registration assistance.
Morrison Heights Baptist Church is located at 3000 Hampstead Blvd., Clinton, MS 39056 Exit 36 off Interstate 20 West. 
We applaud the Baptist Children's Village and Morrison Heights Baptist for hosting this important conference. It is critical that people in our churches and communities become more educated and aware of the systemic child sexual abuse happening in our midst, in places that kids should be the safest. But when churches and other trusted institutions protect the perpetrators and silence the victims, kids are not safe.

Morrison Heights Baptist Church unfortunately fought our efforts to expose the child sex abuse crimes of John Langworthy. Thankfully, their efforts to silence the truth about Langworthy were overcome by a brave survivor who came forward to the police in August 2011 leading to more victims coming forward. Langworthy pleaded guilty in Jan. 2013 to sexually abusing 5 boys ages 6-13 from 1980-84. Though he was sentenced to 50 years in prison, he did not serve any time in jail.

It is critical that Morrison Heights reach out to others and urge anyone who has seen, suspected or suffered child sex crimes by Langworthy to call police right away, to begin to heal, and to protect other kids. Pastor Greg Belser gave the pulpit to Langworthy for him to confess and then Belser dedicated the morning service to praising, supporting, embracing and praying for Langworthy. This same public display of support has not been given to the victims.

The light of truth and knowledge is our greatest tool to protect kids.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"It wasn't a relationship. It was a crime."

"It wasn't a relationship. It was a predator situation. It was a crime." - Janet Mefferd

Caught on Tape: 5 Self-Serving Responses by Sex Offenders in the Church
Do you notice how each response keeps the focus and attention on the offender?  These responses clearly demonstrate that most child sexual offenders are extremely self-serving and dangerously manipulative.  It is critical for faith communities to recognize these characteristics and how they influence the way offenders think, act, and respond to abuse.
A better understanding of these vital truths may have propelled this church to focus on loving and serving a 14-year-old rape victim, not posting a re-traumatizing video it tragically celebrates as being the work of God.

Alicia Gray, Former Math Teacher, Releases Video Apology After Pleading Guilty To Sex With Student

Lake jury awards molested boy $12.5 million in verdict against Florida Baptist Convention

"The real truth of the verdict is that it's reaffirming," Weil said. "There's a great sense of vindication and justice. They should have protected him.

Lawyer: Abuse verdict possible game-changer

“Cases such as this are what it will take for kids to eventually gain better protection against preacher-predators in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Brown said. “And I believe it is only a matter of time before courts will recognize that, in the context of clergy sex abuse, Southern Baptists are distorting their doctrine of local church autonomy so as to make it function as a legal strategy for minimizing the risk of liability rather than as a true religious doctrine.”
 "She needs to be stopped."

Friday, January 17, 2014

Prevention of Abuse vs. Damage Control

Houston weather, traffic, news | FOX 26 | MyFoxHouston
The church says there is no excuse for such violation of children, but victims groups say it's only a first step.
Amy Smith, of the Houston chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, says, "It's not numbers and statistics that will protect kids: It's the decisive action that would entail not just releasing statistics but the names and whereabouts of those accused predator priests."
SNAP- Defrocking is more defense strategy than child protection
Here's the number Catholics should remember: zero. That's how many Catholic supervisors have been punished, worldwide, for enabling and hiding horrific clergy sex crimes. The Pope must start defrocking clerics who cover up sex crimes, not just clerics who commit them. Until that happens, little will change.
KPRC- Pope defrocked 400 priests in 2 years