Shining light on Baptist clergy sex abuse  
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Baptist Scandals:
Southmont Baptist Church
in Denton, Texas

Hush Money

Founding pastor Larry Reynolds reportedly paid "hush money" to settle a lawsuit that alleged sexual abuse of a 14-year old church girl. The now-grown woman reportedly agreed to never talk about the case except with a therapist.

Once the church was served with a lawsuit, there had to have been a few other church leaders who knew about it, presumably at least the chairman of the deacons. The Baptist General Convention of Texas was also served, and so it too had to have known for at least six months about the child molestation allegations against Reynolds. Yet, Reynolds remained in the pulpit, and apparently the people in the pews weren't told the exact nature of the allegations.

EthicsDaily ran the story in November 2006. Yet, Reynolds still remained in the pulpit.

Reynolds apologizes...but doesn't quite tell it all

Apparently the settlement agreement required Reynolds to make an apology, and so at a Thanksgiving church banquet, he discussed the lawsuit’s end, and said he "made a terrible mistake" and a "lapse in judgment" that caused "one of our parishioners great harm." He also said, "I confess that proper boundaries were not kept." He asked forgiveness from the woman, from God and from the church.

Yet, he remained in the pulpit.

Reynolds also told church members that all parties would be dismissed from the lawsuit. From the sound of that, some might think the court cleared him, but of course, the court made no decision at all. What really happened is that Reynolds settled the lawsuit.

Minister James Crittenden

Minister Crittenden tries to hush the newspaper

Finally, the local newspaper began to investigate. Even then, another Southmont minister, James Crittenden, tried to hush the story up and wrote the reporter that it would be destructive to "the cause of Christ" to publish the story.

Kudos to the Denton Record-Chronicle for going forward anyway! Thank God for courageous journalists. It's a shame the people in the pews had to read about it in the newspaper rather than being told about it forthrightly by the people they put their trust in -- the ministers and leaders of their church.

Why didn't anyone insist on more information?

Even if only a few church leaders knew of it earlier, after that Thanksgiving apology in front of numerous church-members, why was there no one who insisted on knowing exactly what the "terrible mistake" was? Why did no one insist on more information about the "boundaries" that were crossed by their beloved pastor? Why weren’t Southmont parents told that the "boundaries" involved a 14-year old?

Not until there was full-scale media exposure did pastor Reynolds finally leave the pulpit.

But the church kept the sign on one of its buildings: The Reynolds Education Building. And it gathered a $50,000 "love offering" to send Reynolds on his way.


Churches need help
This is a good illustration of why there must be some sort of independent, objective denominational review board to which reports of clergy sex abuse can be made and from which congregations could then obtain the unbiased information they need to make responsible decisions.

This was a church that had more resources than most. Among its membership was Joe Trull, a Baptist minister who purports to be an expert on clergy sex abuse and who lectures on the subject at conferences around the country. He is also the author of a book called Ministerial Ethics. But apparently church leaders didn't consult with Trull, and apparently Trull couldn't see the cover-up that was going on in his own church. Given that this church had such an expert readily available, why should we imagine that any other church would handle things any better?  

Southmont leaders knew about the child molestation allegations against Reynolds....and nothing happened. Statewide denominational leaders knew about the child molestation allegations against Reynolds....and nothing happened. Only the involvement of the press brought the information to the people in the pews.

Didn't the parents in that church have a right to know about this a whole lot sooner?

And shouldn't they have been allowed to know ALL the facts that a professional and objective investigation would have revealed instead of only what they could read in the papers?

What if the press hadn't gotten involved? Would the people in the pews have ever known that the allegations against Reynolds involved a 14-year old?

(As pointed out by EthicsDaily, Southmont was not only affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas, but also with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The CBF was not named as a party in the lawsuit, presumably because the CBF did not exist at the time of the abuse.)

Why do Baptists still use secrecy agreements?

These sorts of secrecy agreements are too common in cases of clergy sex abuse. The same attorney involved in this case - Stephen Wakefield - also tried to obtain a secrecy agreement from Christa Brown when she reported clergy sex abuse. But she refused to sign. We know of other cases in which secrecy agreements were sought.

Attorney Wakefield has represented the Baptist General Convention of Texas for over a decade. It doesn't say much for the denomination that the long-time attorney for the largest state-wide Baptist organization in the country tries to hush-up clergy sex abuse by seeking secrecy agreements.

These sorts of agreements are ultimately damaging to the victim because they contractualize into perpetuity the shamed silence that the victim already feels and needs to work past. Many victims sign them at a point in time when they are desperately depressed and in need of money for counseling and therapy. For the church to extract a secrecy agreement only serves to further exploit a person who has already been horribly victimized.

And of course these sorts of secrecy agreements do nothing to protect others. Secrecy is the friend of predators.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop adopted a policy in 2002 expressly discouraging the use of confidentiality agreements in dealing with people who report abuse by priests.

In contrast, Baptist leaders are still using such agreements. Apparently they don't yet understand how morally repugnant they are. Or else they just don't care.