Bad news continued for a Southern Baptist Convention spotlighted in recent months by major newspapers for out-of-control sexual abuse with Monday’s arrest of a Louisiana pastor accused of raping an 11-year-old girl over a two-year period.
Bellview Baptist Church in Westlake, Louisiana, fired 45-year-old John Michael Ward as pastor of the church since 2012 after his arrest by the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office on 10 counts of first-degree rape, 40 counts of indecent behavior with a juvenile and two counts of child pornography.
Bruce L. Baker, director of Carey Baptist Association, released a statement on behalf of the church saying both the association and the Louisiana Baptist Convention have reached out to help the congregation minister both to the victim and her family and the family of the accused.
“We are heartbroken,” Baker said in a statement quoted by Channel 7 KPLZ News in Lake Charles. “The church and the association of churches are devastated. We are mobilizing resources to care for the family, church, and community.”
The sheriff’s office investigation began with an anonymous tip to the Department of Child and Family Services. According to a sheriff’s office news release, Ward admitted to detectives he had been molesting the girl since she was nine, including videoing her nude on two separate occasions.
Calcasieu Parish Judge Sharon Wilson set Ward’s bond at $640,000. He is incarcerated at the Calcasieu Correctional Center in Lake Charles.
Following a February series of investigative stories by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, abuse prevention and awareness took center stage at last week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama.
A presidential advisory group studying sexual abuse in the nation’s second largest faith group behind Roman Catholics recognized failures including:
— Failing to adequately train staff and volunteers on the national, state, and congregational levels to be aware of and respond appropriately to abuse.
— Using church autonomy improperly to avoid taking appropriate action.
— Failing to care well for survivors of abuse.
— Failing to take disclosure seriously and to believe the survivor.
— Failing to report abuse to civil authorities.
— Recommending suspected perpetrators to new employment.
— Promoting political, institutional, and congregational leaders whose language and behavior glorifies mistreatment of women and children.
“We lament the fact that it took a national movement of reckoning for abuse to force us to take this issue seriously in our own convention,” according to the report. “It should now be obvious that the problem has been and still is more widespread than anyone has realized, affecting our congregations all over the country, from the smallest church pastored by a bivocational minister to the megachurch with hundreds on staff.”
“Abuse has known no bounds, affecting seminaries, mission boards, and denominational entities, including our own,” the study group concluded. “And all too often, it has not been handled justly.”