By Bob Allen
A mother who says her son was molested more than 20 years ago by a then-staff member at one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s largest churches says the congregation’s leaders need to come clean about what a victims’ advocacy group calls a cover-up of child sexual abuse by clergy.
The anonymous woman said her family endured “indescribable” hurt after learning her son was molested for months by John Langworthy, a staff member at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas from 1984 until 1989.
Langworthy, who went on to serve 22 years as associate pastor of music and ministries at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., recently received a 50-year suspended sentence in Mississippi for molesting multiple boys as young as 6 he met through local churches while a student at Baptist-affiliated Mississippi College from 1980 until 1984.
Langworthy must register as a sex offender but will serve no jail time in a plea bargain that prosecutors in Mississippi offered in part over concern they might lose in court due to a statute of limitations on Langworthy’s crimes.
The Mississippi prosecutor told a judge Langworthy had at least one other victim in Texas, prompting the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests to hold vigil outside a Saturday evening service at Prestonwood’s main campus in Plano, Texas, Jan. 26.
Amy Smith, a former friend of Langworthy who served with him on the Prestonwood staff but now works as a SNAP representative in Houston, read a letter from a woman who said pastors seemed more interested in protecting the church’s reputation than children’s safety when her son told his youth minister what Langworthy was doing in the late 1980s.
“The church never reported John to the police, and he left Texas within a week for Mississippi,” the woman claimed.
“My husband and I found out that Langworthy was working at an elementary school in Mississippi,” she continued. “We made a call to a school official to tell them about John’s molestation of young boys. We knew we had to notify the school. No more children needed to be John’s victims.”
“We ask that Prestonwood take responsibility for their cover-up, and to say they are sorry,” the statement concluded.
A Prestonwood staff member did not respond to a reporter’s e-mail requesting comment Monday morning. A Dallas television station said they were told no one at the church was available to comment, but someone in authority reportedly told SNAP protestors to remove their cars from the outer edge of the church parking lot.
SNAP leaders say they don’t know if acts committed by Langworthy in Texas can still be prosecuted, but there is a possibility that because he left the state and never returned the clock may not have started on the statute of limitations in Texas.
They also say it’s important to reach out to victims so they can begin healing, and for anyone with knowledge about other children hurt by a sexual predator to report what they know to the police in order to get him off the street.
With weekly attendance of more than 14,000, Prestonwood is the fifth-largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention. Its pastor, Jack Graham, who came to Prestonwood shortly before Langworthy left, was SBC president 2002-2004.
Graham won praise in a Dallas Morning News editorial in 2008 for speaking from the pulpit after one of Prestonwood’s ministers, Joe Barron, was arrested in a police sting operation for soliciting sex from an officer posing online as a 13-year-old girl.
“Did he defend the disgraced minister?” the newspaper asked. “Did he speak of all the good things Mr. Barron had done in his ministry? Did he call for forgiveness? Did he say that the pastor was going off for counseling and would be back in ministry soon, a ‘wounded healer?’ Did he blame pop culture for Mr. Barron’s fall, or lash out at the news media?
“No, he did not.
“In his address, Dr. Graham said the accused pastor had been asked to resign and had done so. He acknowledged pain but praised God for purifying the church. He exhorted his congregation to uphold Christian standards of morality. And he even thanked reporters for their coverage.
“No excuses. No cheap grace. No breast-beating. Just clear, firm, sober action.
“Because of this, it’s probably safe to say that the Prestonwood congregation has a lot more faith in its clergy today than it might have otherwise.
“In the end, the real scandal in cases like this comes not from the sins and crimes of sexual offenders. No church will ever be free of that. The truly damaging scandals arise when church leaders mishandle these crises by failing to treat them with the gravity they deserve. Many in church authority have failed their calling and their congregations under similar conditions, through defensiveness, dissimulation and deferring hard decisions.
“Not Jack Graham.”
Smith said most cars entering the Prestonwood parking lot slowed down to read the signs SNAP members were holding, but one man who arrived for the evening service came out to talk to the group after dropping off his children.
“He said he had been visiting the church for a few weeks with his kids,” Smith said Jan. 28. “He wanted to know why we were there, and after hearing briefly about us urging Prestonwood to reach out to anyone they know or suspect has been a victim of Langworthy’s child-sex crimes, he asked us if we were saying that Prestonwood and the current pastor covered it up.”