By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist church in Texas has been sued for $1 million by an unidentified woman who claims lack of oversight enabled a former youth minister and his younger brother to sexually abuse her as a teenager.
A lawsuit filed Feb. 3 in Dallas County District Court alleges negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and vicarious liability by Arapaho Road Baptist Church in Garland, Texas.
Joshua Earls, the former student pastor at the church affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptist Convention, pleaded guilty in federal court to child pornography charges in 2013. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
His younger brother, Jordan “Jordy” Earls, was not officially employed by the church but helped his brother with music and as a youth-group volunteer. The lawsuit claims the brothers, who shared an apartment, groomed several girls in the youth group and with the plaintiff it escalated to weekly sexual abuse by Jordy Earls during her sophomore and junior years in high school.
The lawsuit says the brothers departed abruptly in 2013, telling youth they were “called” to other ministry assignments in South Carolina. The truth, however, was that the family of another girl told police that Josh Earls had molested their minor daughter at a pool party in 2012.
Josh Earls was extradited to Texas to face federal charges of making pornographic images and videos involving multiple underage girls from Arapaho Road Baptist Church. Jordy Earls also confessed to child pornography in a sealed plea agreement entered March 18, 2014, and is scheduled for sentencing Feb. 18 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.
The lawsuit says parents reported inappropriate behavior to church leaders, who assured them their concerns would be addressed and that the brothers “would be talked to,” but the suit claims their access to girls in the youth group continued unfettered. When the girl’s mother complained about a lewd cartoon Josh Earls sent to children in 2012, she was told he had already resigned but was staying on until July 2013 to train his replacement.
The lawsuit claims church leaders made “numerous falsehoods,” including assurance that Jordy Earls was a “man of good moral character” who could be trusted with counseling, teaching and instruction of children.
Those and other representations, the lawsuit claims, were either “known to be false and misleading at the time they were made” or “were made with a reckless disregard as to whether they were true or false or of potential consequence to members of the congregation.”
The lawsuit seeks damages for mental anguish, medical and counseling expenses, physical pain and suffering the likelihood of lost earning capacity in the future. It also seeks punitive damages including monetary relief of more than $1 million.
“All the young women who have come forward to confront the Earls brothers and to speak out are truly brave,” said Dallas attorney Tahira Khan Merritt, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of a client identified as Jane Doe 103. “It takes great courage to have gone through the criminal process, which has taken about two years.”
Merritt’s civil law practice of more than 20 years is dedicated exclusively to representing victims of sexual abuse and assault.
“My hope is that Arapaho Road Baptist Church will disclose the truth about what they knew of the risks these perpetrators posed and their misconduct and when they knew,” Merritt said in a press release. “This victim deserves the truth.”
Church officials said they just learned about the lawsuit and hadn’t yet been served a copy, but now that it’s filed the matter will be turned over to attorneys.
“From the moment we learned of these allegations, we have been transparent and open about the situation with our staff, congregation, students, investigators and the community,” they said in a statement. “This is the only way healing can truly happen. We ask the community to join us in prayer for all those involved.”