Editor’s note: This story was updated after posting to add comments from First Baptist Church.
By Bob Allen
A woman who advocates on behalf victims of clergy sex abuse says she was sidelined by her Houston mega-church for planning an awareness event at next week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting.
Amy Smith, Houston representative of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, has been active for years in trying to expose what she believes is a systemic problem of abuse and cover-up in Southern Baptists’ free-wheeling polity in which each congregation hires and fires its own ministers.
Because of that, she was surprised on returning home after a few days out of town to find phone messages from a pastor she does not know from First Baptist Church in Houston who urgently desired to talk to her.
Smith said Doug Bischoff, “next generation” minister at the church she and her husband have attended for 18 years, took offense at her May 23 blog post announcing an “awareness event” outside the George R. Brown Convention Center when the SBC convenes its 2013 annual meeting June 11-12 in Houston.
Since she and her husband “don’t see what I am doing as a problem,” Smith said, they were told “that it’s for the best if we step down” from teaching in the church’s youth ministry. Asked how he found her blog, Bischoff reportedly told her husband that his boss, Pastor Gregg Matte, showed it to him.
Matte is president of this year’s SBC Pastors Conference, a large gathering that meets prior to the convention June 9-10. The conference program includes a Sunday night panel discussion on leadership that includes former SBC President Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, and a frequent target of Smith’s blog.
Smith, a one-time intern at Prestonwood, claims pastors there failed in 1989 to report a known child molester who pleaded guilty this year to sexually abusing five boys in Mississippi in the 1980s prior to moving to Texas and joining the staff at Prestonwood.
John Langworthy, former associate pastor at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., received a suspended sentence of 50 years in prison, meaning he will avoid serving time in jail unless he violates terms of his probation. Prosecutors offered the plea bargain in part due to concerns about Mississippi’s statute of limitations, because so many years had passed before the crimes were reported.
Smith, who before now had never mentioned on her blog what church she attends, said after a phone conversation and personal meeting, she and her spouse came away with the following impression.
“They agree with us that child sexual abuse is bad, and they don’t want me to stop what I’m doing, but the church doesn’t support me raising awareness by pointing out the problem within SBC churches and pastors that cover abuse up by failing to report,” she wrote. “It’s not a problem for me to point out these issues with Catholic churches or Penn State, just don’t point the finger at my own Southern Baptist Convention.”
Bischoff said the Smiths misinterpreted the conversations.
“When I spoke with Amy and then with Matt, I expressed that we as a church are not — nor have we ever been — against them personally, their organization or their mission to protect children,” he said. “Houston’s First Baptist Church takes very seriously the safety and well-being of the children who attend our church, and we hope and pray that other churches — of all denominations –are doing the same. We applaud Amy for her dedication to SNAP and the survivors whom they serve.”
Bischoff said he did not ask them to resign from their position as teachers in the student ministry, but they suggested during conversations that he did. “The resignation from ministry was at Amy’s insistence,” he said.