By Bob Allen
A lifelong Baptist who advocates on behalf of clergy sex-abuse victims says the media is doing more to promote healing and children’s safety than pastors who try to keep it out of the headlines.
Amy Smith, Houston representative of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, reacted to recent remarks by a Southern Baptist seminary president that church members should “just accept” wrong and injustice rather than taking church matters to civil authorities or the press.
“We don’t take matters before unbelievers,” Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson said in a chapel sermon Oct. 15. “What goes on in the church of God doesn’t go to the press.”
Patterson didn’t specify what kind of internal matters he meant, but critics termed his blanket statement ill-advised and potentially dangerous given evangelicals’ poor track record of mishandling reports of known or suspected criminal abuse in churches.
Smith said in a blog Oct. 23 that Patterson’s words got her thinking about her own experience in exposing past misconduct by a former friend and colleague that led to the criminal conviction earlier this year of a former associate pastor and music minister at a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi.
Smith tried for a year through social media to draw attention to her firsthand knowledge that in the summer of 1989 John Langworthy, at the time a youth music minister at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, was fired amid allegations of molestation but not reported to police.
Smith contacted leaders at both Prestonwood and Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., where Langworthy went on to serve after leaving Texas. Eventually Langworthy resigned voluntarily and confessed to the Mississippi congregation that prior to coming to Clinton 22 years earlier he “had sexual indiscretions with younger males” while serving at churches in Mississippi and Texas.
After media reports of his admission, six men came forward and told police they were sexually abused by Langworthy when they were children in the 1980s. A grand jury indicted Langworthy in September 2011 on eight counts of gratification of lust. Langworthy entered a guilty plea in January 2013 but received no time in prison, in part because prosecutors feared a jury might interpret an unclear statute of limitations to mean the crimes were too old to prosecute.
For her efforts, Smith says she was chastised by pastors of her church, asked to step down from her volunteer job of teaching in the youth ministry, contacted by police who somehow knew of her plans for an “awareness event” outside the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting last June in Houston and estranged from her parents, who have long considered Langworthy a close family friend.
“As I’ve been thinking about the hurtful words and attitude by Paige Patterson and other leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention [and] how depressing it is that he’s imparting this completely un-Christ-like mindset to the next leaders of SBC churches, I realized that the reporters and bloggers that I’ve had the pleasure of communicating with have done more to help the wounded heal and protect kids than these pastors,” Smith wrote in her blog. “In fact, in the many cases of child sexual abuse that I know of, it’s pastors and churches who have perpetuated the evil of abuse by covering it up.”
This week World Magazine mentioned Prestonwood’s handling of the Langworthy affair in a cover story titled “the high cost of negligence” related to the reporting sexual abuse in churches.
The article quoted Mike Buster, an executive pastor at Prestonwood who told a local news station in 2011 that Langworthy was dismissed for acting inappropriately with a teenage student. Buster didn’t say whether church officials filed a police report and replied to World’s request for further comment in an e-mail saying nothing had changed from the church’s original statement.
“Something’s terribly wrong when ESPN is calling for the truth, but the church remains silent,” Smith said in her blog.
More about John Langworthy: