By Bob Allen
A victims’ advocate says she believes it’s important to talk about a Southern Baptist megachurch’s mishandling of alleged child sex abuse 25 years ago so other churches don’t repeat the same mistakes today.
“This is a story that needs to be told to protect other kids,” Amy Smith, a Baptist representative of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in an August interview posted Oct 22 on her blog.
Smith, 45, shared her story in an oral history project commemorating the 25th anniversary of SNAP, a support and advocacy group formed during the Roman Catholic Church sex scandal that today boasts 12,000 members in various denominations.
Smith said her involvement with SNAP began about four years ago, when she started acting on something that had been bothering her for a long time. While she was in college her youth choir director and close friend to her family left their church abruptly in 1989 without explanation.
Rumors circulated that he was fired after confessing that he had molested several boys. “We were very upset, hearing that he had done these horrible things, yet not knowing what to do with that knowledge,” she said.
“How could this be?” she remembered feeling. “How could this person that I looked up to, that I loved as a friend, really, like a family member — and feeling very betrayed and angry — and then he’s gone. We didn’t get to say goodbye. He’s gone.”
Smith said it wasn’t addressed publicly by the church staff or from the pulpit, so she “just kind of dealt with it privately and internally.”
“I got on with my life, but it always bothered me: where he was and what he was doing,” she said. “And the fear that maybe he could be harming other kids.”
There wasn’t really any way to know, however, until the Internet came along. Smith found out her former minister was working at another church in another state and also in the local school system. She set out to inform both the school and church about the minister’s past.
As a result of internal pressure, the man eventually confessed to his church of “indiscretions” with younger males decades ago. That prompted several men to come forward claiming as children they were victimized by the man who babysat for their parents while he was in college and ministering in their church.
John Langworthy, former longtime associate pastor of music and ministries at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., pleaded guilty in January 2013 to five felony counts of gratification of lust. He received a suspended sentence of 50 years, meaning no time in prison, in a plea bargain offered in part because it took so long for the allegations to surface that prosecutors feared the charges might not stand up in court due to an ambiguous statute of limitations.
Smith said after Langworthy left Mississippi in the 1980s, the same pattern started all over again at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, where she happened to be serving on staff at the time as a college intern.
“But because he wasn’t reported he was able to escape prosecution, go back to Mississippi and then for decades was completely unexposed, until mounting pressure behind the scenes of me calling and trying to get the truth out there with the help of an investigative reporter in Dallas,” she said.
Smith said she wasn’t surprised when her parents, who were so close to Langworthy that while he was in seminary for a time he lived in their home, would not be as interested as she was in exposing him, but she wasn’t prepared for outright opposition.
She said she has been told that her parents never want to see her again — or her husband and four children — and warned by her father that she and her family “are going to pay a big price for what’s been done here.”
“What he’s referring to — what’s been done here — is exposing a now-convicted child sex offender and the cover up,” she explained.
Smith said people have asked her if she would do it over again. Is it worth the personal pain?
“I never would have dreamed that I would be disowned and rejected by my parents for what I know is the right thing, because I have heard from his victims,” she said. “I’ve seen them. I’ve met them.”
“I went to Mississippi and was in the courtroom, and I saw the mother of one of his victims thank me,” she said. “I never met her before and didn’t know her before any of this journey, and she was able to walk over in the courtroom, right before he pled guilty. She told me all she ever wanted to do was just look him in the eye, and she got to do that.”
Asked about the impact of the experience on her faith, Smith responded: “In a way I’d say my own personal identity as a Christian, it has actually made me stronger, because my faith in the Lord, in knowing that God loves me and who I am — I’ve had to become so grounded in that.”
“My identity as a Christian is not in what church I go to or because of what a big-wig celebrity pastor says about me,” she said.
“Nothing that I’ve done is because I hate the church or am against Christianity or any religion,” she said. “It’s because I care about the churches.”
“My faith is rooted not in an institution but in my personal relationship with Jesus,” she said. “I’ve had to really rely [on that], with all the externals taken away.”
Smith said her message to church members is: “That initial trust that we kind of just want to assume should be there for pastors and clergy — just because someone says certain things or looks a certain way or has a certain title in the church, does not mean that they are safe.”
Smith admits to harboring a tinge of self-doubt — “am I a bad person because my parents hate me?” — but by and large has no regrets about speaking out. “I think I would have still had that guilt if I hadn’t done it.”
Smith’s story is part of a partnership between SNAP and StoryCorps, an oral history project that has collected and archived more than 50,000 interviews with over 90,000 since 2003. With the storyteller’s permission, each conversation is recorded on a CD to share and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
To help commemorate the 25th anniversary of SNAP at this summer’s 2014 national conference, StoryCorps reserved two full recording days for SNAP members to share their stories. Since then, others have been able to record at the StoryCorps booths in San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago.
“I’m not going to stop doing what I do,” Smith pledged. “I’m not going to stop helping to protect kids and exposing the truth.”