Dallas Observer cover story on Prestonwood Baptist Church and former minister and child sex offender John Langworthy

Photo by Dylan Hollingsworth for the Dallas Observer

Last week the Dallas Observer's cover story "Don't Ask Don't Tell" by reporter Amy Silverstein provided the most in-depth look to date at the issue of child sexual abuse and cover up of this abuse by former minister John Langworthy at my former church, Prestonwood Baptist Church. It's a long read, but I hope you'll take the time. We are very grateful to Amy Silverstein and the Dallas Observer for such a thorough piece giving a voice to these survivors and shining a light for others who feel they do not have a voice.

An Advocate for the Sexually Abused Demands Answers from Prestonwood Baptist Church

The letter was anonymous, just like other warnings that came before it. In late January, it arrived in the mailboxes of advocates who work on behalf of Christian sex-abuse victims. For 26 pages, it offered a rambling defense of a place that shouldn't need one — Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Plano mega-church with 37,000 members, three campuses, decades of mostly good publicity and a celebrity pastor named Jack Graham.
 But for the last several years, the church has come under scrutiny from a small, vocal group of Christian critics for its handling of child sexual abuse. None of the critics has been more effective than Amy Smith, the daughter of a former Prestonwood deacon. Five years ago, Smith alerted a church in Mississippi that a pastor on its staff had been quietly accused of child molestation at Prestonwood decades before.
John Langworthy, a former youth minister at Prestonwood, resigned from the Mississippi church not long after Smith spoke up and soon faced criminal charges in that state. He pleaded guilty to molesting five boys between the ages of 6 and 13 in the early '80s in Mississippi. He avoided prison time and is now registered as a child sex offender. Smith was widely credited for bringing Langworthy's crimes to light and causing him to admit to "sexual indiscretions" from the pulpit of his Mississippi church. The case disappeared from headlines soon after, but Smith has stayed on Prestonwood's case, holding rallies outside the church, seeking other victims and publicly pressuring Graham to open up about what he knew of Langworthy's crimes.
A Prestonwood/Langworthy survivor's mother speaks to the Dallas Observer:
He still doesn't want to reveal his name, but he recently gave his mother the OK to talk with the Observer. "He just doesn't want it to come back on him or me" she says. "I told him, 'Look, anything I can do to make Prestonwood's life miserable, I want to do.'"
When the family moved to Dallas and began attending Prestonwood in the late 1980s, her 15-year-old son was a quiet kid who never gave his parents trouble. "I don't know what I would have done if I had a child that didn't do the right things, but he was a model child," his mother says.
But she sensed something was off early on, when Langworthy paid a surprise visit to their home shortly after they arrived. "I just love your son," Langworthy told her as he put his arms around him.
The next warning the mother remembers are the letters. Langworthy had been mailing notes to her son. She doesn't remember what they said exactly. They weren't sexually graphic, but were suggestive enough to raise flags. Her mother-in-law looked at the letters too, she says, and was even more alarmed. "She was afraid that John was a pedophile," she says. So the family called Langworthy. He couldn't get there fast enough. They told him not to hurt their son.
The mother says she looked Langworthy in the eye. "Under no circumstances are you to write any more letters to my son," she says she told him. The parents explained to their son that the letters were wrong and destroyed them, but they continued to go to the church and let their son be part of the youth group, just like before.
The mother says she didn't think Langworthy would actually abuse her son, especially after being warned. "Even if [Langworthy] wanted to, he would not hurt my son now because we had confronted him with it," she rationalized.
Life briefly returned to normal, or so she thought until the day she got a phone call from a psychiatrist to confirm an appointment with her son. She knew nothing about it.
Later on the day of that surprise call, her son came home with a guest, Neal Jeffrey, who remains on the Prestonwood staff as an associate pastor. Together, she says, her son and the man broke the news that her son had been hurt. Jeffrey was there, the mother thinks, because her son "wanted somebody there to tell us, because he didn't want to do it by himself." Still unsure of the specifics, she only knows that Langworthy had sexually abused her son, somehow. They had a group hug, and she agreed to send her son to the psychiatrist, appointments that she believes were funded by the church. "We sure weren't going to pay for it," she says.
Within days, Langworthy left town, she says. The family had been at the church for a total of two years before Langworthy left, the mother says, making her son 17 by the time he came forward.
Already angry at the church for how it let her find out about the abuse and the psychiatric appointments, she was even more distraught several months later when she got wind that Langworthy had a job at an elementary school in Clinton, Mississippi. (None of his admitted molestations took place there.) She says her husband called the school's principal. "He said back to my husband, 'Well you have put this in my lap and now I've got to do something about it.'"
But the family never reported Langworthy to the police. A phone call they got from a deacon named Allen Jordan convinced them it wouldn't be a good idea. He wasn't yelling, but he was emphatic the family not say anything, the mother recalls. "You better be careful about what you write, that's all I've got to say," Jordan said when reached for comment. "That's a warning to you. You better be careful about what you write."
And those letters still had her worried. "We were concerned that, well, John wrote notes, but [her son] wrote notes back to him, and I don't know what those notes contained. I'm sure it was an innocent 15-year old boy," she says, but "we were afraid that if John would have kept those letters, the church would have found those letters and would have tried to do something" to make it look like "it was initiated from the other side, not from John. We did worry about that."
In 1989 in Mississippi, Langworthy found a doctor who called the mother and told her Langworthy had been cured. She agreed to meet Langworthy, but wasn't convinced. "I'm no doctor," she says, "but I know once a pedophile, you're always a pedophile." Still, her son stayed at Prestonwood, married and went on to become a minister himself. He remained close to Neal Jeffrey. Decades passed before what happened to her son came into the open. It started in 2010 with a Facebook message to her son from Allen Jordan's daughter, a woman named Amy.
"I admire Amy very much," the mother says. Her son last spoke to Jeffrey as the allegations were bubbling to the surface. Jeffrey didn't even remember he had been abused, her son told her. "I think [her son] always gave Neal the benefit of the doubt, but when that happened and Neal didn't remember he was one of the boys, he washed his hands of him," she says.
A survivor of child sex crimes by Langworthy in the Mississippi criminal case also spoke with the Dallas Observer for this story:
Smith says she has been in touch with at least three men who say Langworthy assaulted them at Prestonwood, though only the mother of the one agreed to speak to the Observer. Her son spoke to Hinds County prosecutors, but didn't have to testify.
Another Langworthy victim, abused in Mississippi and part of the criminal case, agreed to speak to the Observer on the condition he wasn't identified. He was 8 years old when it started, he said. He didn't understand what had happened to him until he was in his late teens. In the '80s, people didn't deal with sex abuse the head-on way they do now, he says, and people trusted their church. He remembers Langworthy was extremely charming. "He's the kind of person who uses people and just the kind of person people flock to, so much so, [that] here's somebody who abuses people, and he still has people come to their defense," the victim says.
He doesn't speak to Langworthy but is otherwise still part of the Baptist Church and quotes from the Bible in the interview. He believes other victims still haven't come forward and won't unless more church officials discuss Langworthy's abuse publicly and encourage victims to speak out."When it is owned up to and revealed it is the truth, and it is not denied ... and shoved away as something that was just 'inappropriate behavior,' or 'There were accusations made,' but actually own up to the truth..." he says, trailing off. "Nobody's ever said, 'Hey we messed up,' and I don't see what's wrong with that. Everybody makes mistakes." For many victims, he says, hearing a simple statement admitting those mistakes is the only way they'll heal.
 And yet, Prestonwood Baptist Church remains silent, even after Langworthy's conviction.

Boz TchividjianExecutive Director of GRACE (), law professor,  blogger, author & speaker, wrote about the Dallas Observer story on his blog.

"Righteous” reputations of churches that don’t care 
Earlier this week, the Dallas Observer published a cover story about a former minister who was recently convicted of sexually abusing children in Mississippi. According to the article, prior to this offender getting caught for these crimes, he served as a youth minister in a Dallas area megachurch. The story reports that while serving in that position, a minor who had been part of the youth group stepped forward and disclosed to another pastor on staff that this individual had sexually abused him. The article reported that instead of reporting the youth minister to the police, the megachurch allowed him to leave town where he eventually found employment at another church. Not only did the church fail to report the offense and warn others about this offender, but it made no effort to find out if there were others who may have also been victimized.
Why do so many churches fail to do the right thing when they learn that one of their own has been accused of sexual abuse? All too often it’s because the victimized are repeatedly overshadowed by the need to protect a “righteous” reputation.  I’m afraid it’s a rationale embraced by so many church leaders because it’s convenient and sounds so “godly”. Here is an example of this distorted thought process:
The reputation of the church will be damaged when the public learns that it employed an alleged child molester -> a church whose reputation is damaged will lose members -> a church that loses members is a church that loses income -> a church that loses income is a church that will be required to tighten it’s budget, including reducing salaries and laying off staff -> a dwindling church is a church that has less relevance in the community -> a church that has less relevance in the community is a church that is failing to impact the world for Jesus.
Tragically, this type of response to the evils of abuse destroys lives, emboldens offenders, and produces churches that are rotting at the core. There’s nothing “righteous” about it.

Jehovah's Witnesses' silencing techniques: as terrifying as child abuse: Candace Conti

It took me learning about Jonathan’s other victims for me to speak up. In 2009, I looked on California’s Megan’s Law website, the state’s official list of registered sex offenders. There, I found he had been convicted a few years before for sexually abusing another 8-year-old girl. I felt horribly guilty that I hadn’t spoken up about him earlier. Now, I need to stop predators from doing this again.
The only way to end this abuse is by lifting this veil of secrecy once and for all.
I received this email from a child sex abuse survivor in response to the Dallas Observer story. He gave me permission to post his email along with his name:

Hi Amy,

My name is Keith Brown.

I just read the Observer article about your work with SNAP and just wanted to drop you a note to say that you're a true hero to me, and to those like me.

It's a long story, we all have our life journey, and I am one whose life was adversely impacted at a young age by a pedophile.  Taking a glance at your blog I'll say, you are correct, the abused can carry the pain of those events within themselves for a lifetime.

I carried my pain in silence for almost four decades.  During time with a therapist in 2005 during marriage counseling, some good things happened for me, and I am now free from the lingering pain from those dark events which the pedophile perpetrated against me.

Just in case you're wondering, no, my abuse was not connected to Prestonwood, as I was abused long before that congregation existed.

I don't know what to say really.  I think what I feel is, since you continue to pay an emotional and familial price for your dedicated life work, that among the anonymous letters you receive, also amidst being estranged from your family, I wanted to be one voice that says thank you, just thank you so much for being you, for continuing to fight, you're doing God's bidding, while being a voice in behalf of those without a voice.

You're great Amy, just keep doing what you're doing!


Keith A. Brown


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