Baptists should heed mother’s plea

Who will answer a mother’s call for accountability for the sexual abuse of her son?

By Christa Brown

A mother, who says her son was repeatedly molested by a minister at one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s largest churches, claims the church needs to come clean about a cover-up of child sexual abuse.

“I want people to know the truth,” she said in a written statement released to CBS News last Saturday. “The hurt our family endured … is indescribable.... The church never reported John to the police.... We ask that Prestonwood take responsibility for their cover-up, and to say they are sorry.”

After minister John Langworthy was allowed to simply walk away from abuse allegations at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, in the late 1980s, he went on to serve two decades as music minister at another prominent Southern Baptist church, Morrison Heights in Clinton, Miss. There, he recently received a 50-year suspended sentence for molesting multiple boys as young as 6. But Langworthy avoided prison time because, in the plea bargain process, prosecutors were concerned about the statute of limitations.

So, thanks to many years of secrecy surrounding his crimes, minister John Langworthy walks away with no prison time. But no one should overlook the fact that his crimes could have been disclosed many years earlier -- and countless kids better protected -- if only the leadership of Prestonwood had spoken up and reported Langworthy to police.

As described in the Associated Baptist Press, Prestonwood is the fifth-largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention. Its pastor, Jack Graham, was a two-term Southern Baptist Convention president from 2002 until 2004. So, this is a pastor who is well-entrenched in Baptists’ good-ol’-boy network.

Who in that Baptist network will now answer this mother’s anguished call for accountability? Who will require that Prestonwood “take responsibility for their cover-up?” Will anyone do anything? Not if the patterns of the past continue.

Much like the insider network that covered up a coach’s abuse of kids at Penn State, the Baptist good-ol’-boys don’t hold one another accountable.

This is not the only time that Prestonwood has dealt with ministerial child-sex allegations. In 2008, another Prestonwood minister, Joe Barron, was arrested for soliciting sex from an officer posing as a 13-year-old.

On that occasion, Pastor Jack Graham had little possibility for keeping it quiet, because Barron had already been arrested and was making headlines. So, after Barron’s arrest, Graham took the pulpit and preached about doing the right thing. And he claimed that, “in 40 years of ministry,” he had “never had one moral problem with a staff member” prior to the Barron case.

Now that we know about the prior Langworthy allegations, we know Graham’s statement wasn’t accurate. Perhaps Pastor Graham just forgot about the Langworthy case -- meaning a staff minister’s molestation of a kid was not a memorable problem for him -- or perhaps Graham remembered the Langworthy case but chose to keep up the smokescreen and to heck with the safety of kids.

In any event, despite Graham’s inaccuracy, his preaching was the usual fine performance, and many heaped praise on him for his cheap, toothless pulpit talk.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s chief executive officer, Morris Chapman, urged other church leaders to follow Graham’s example “in confronting this horrible crime, exposing it for what it is, and doing everything within our power to protect the children under the care of the ministries of our churches.”

But is that what Graham did with Langworthy? Did he do everything within his power to protect children? I expect most ordinary parents would say no.

Graham and other Prestonwood leaders simply allowed Langworthy to move on. They got him off their own turf, while leaving countless other kids at risk. And even as recently as 2011, Prestonwood’s executive pastor, Mike Buster, proudly described Prestonwood’s modus operandi of a quiet dismissal by saying that the church had “firmly and forthrightly” dealt with the Langworthy matter.

If that’s what Southern Baptists call being firm and forthright with clergy molestation allegations, then parents should keep their kids out of Southern Baptist churches.

But Graham is a prominent somebody. Not only did other Baptist officials sing his praises, but so too did the Dallas Morning News. After Graham took the pulpit following Joe Barron’s arrest, the Dallas Morning News published an editorial extolling Graham as though he were the perfect example of a pastor who had done all the right things. And even as Prestonwood’s leaders basked in that over-the-top praise, they continued to keep their dark secret about Langworthy locked tight in their closet.

And Langworthy continued to work with kids.

“In the end,” wrote the Dallas Morning News, “the real scandal in cases like this comes not from the sins and crimes of sexual offenders.... The truly damaging scandals arise when church leaders mishandle these crises by failing to treat them with the gravity they deserve.”

Prestonwood and Jack Graham failed miserably, and Baptists should heed the mother’s call for accountability. In the end, when organizations do not impose consequences for those who turn a blind eye, then blind-eyed behavior continues, and kids remain at greater risk.

Related story:

Abuse cover-up alleged at SBC church

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.