A lawsuit filed recently in Oklahoma claims negligence by a Southern Baptist state convention in the violent rape last summer of a 13-year girl attending a church camp.
The lawsuit, filed March 8 in the district court of Oklahoma County, claims the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, the 1,700-church affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, breached its duty “to use reasonable care” to protect the teenager from an adult volunteer brought to Falls Creek, billed as the largest religious youth encampment in the world, as a cook by a church renting a cabin last June 13-18.
Owned and operated by the BGCO and located in the Arbuckle Mountains, Falls Creek hosts about 54,000 adolescent campers ages 13-17 each summer in weeklong camps averaging 5,000-6,000 in attendance. The retreat center advertises a “zero-tolerance policy” for sexual abuse and requires participating churches to perform background checks on sponsors and cooks.
But, the lawsuit says, the state convention does not review those background checks or make any “meaningful attempt” to ensure they are in fact completed. The suit claims even “minimal effort” would have revealed that Benjamin Petty, a 35-year-old unmarried man brought to Falls Creek by an Oklahoma congregation, “was a convicted criminal” and “involved in a lifestyle contrary and repugnant to the values” espoused by the Christian camp.
Police say Petty groomed the girl for three-and-a-half days before dragging her into his private bedroom, tying her up and raping her face down on his bed. Petty, of Midwest City, Okla., faces criminal charges in Murray County of first-degree rape, rape by instrumentation and forcible sodomy.
The lawsuit also accuses camp staff of inadequately supervising the alleged rapist and ignoring repeated interactions with the girl and other youth that anyone properly trained in predator recognition and avoidance techniques would have been recognized as grooming. It alleges “willful, wonton, heinous, grossly negligent or reckless” conduct on part of the state convention and seeks $75,000 in actual and punitive damages.
A convention official denied any wrongdoing.
“Although Falls Creek is not responsible for the alleged behavior, the allegations are deeply disturbing and we are looking into them,” Brian Hobbs, communications director for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and editor of the Baptist Messenger, told The Oklahoman in a news story published March 9.
The lawsuit claims that as owner and operator of Falls Creek, the BGCO had a duty to use “reasonable care” to protect campers but breached that duty “in numerous ways.”
The camp owners failed “to implement sufficient policies and procedures to prevent rapists and child molesters access to its camp grounds,” the suit alleges. It describes the convention’s decision to not run background checks on all volunteers “despite recognizing the need to do so” as an attempt to delegate a “non-delegable” duty to participating churches.
The suit claims camp staff inadequately supervised the 13-year-old’s interaction with a 35-year-old man and that “inadequate or non-existence of policies and procedures to prevent the grooming, manipulation and exploitation of minors” were “a direct and proximate” cause of her harm.
The lawsuit demands a jury trial and requests attorney fees and any additional relief deemed “just and appropriate” by the court.
Falls Creek requires participating churches to bring at least one adult sponsor for every 10 campers, including a cook to prepare meals for the campers in their respective cabins. Camp policy requires adult volunteers to be “a godly role model” and use their influence to provide campers with a significant “spiritual impact during the week.”