Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leaders in North Carolina condemned abuse in a special meeting May 15 responding to the May 7 arrest of a minister at a CBF partner congregation charged with sexual exploitation of a minor.
Becky Keesler, moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, said CBF leaders are “heartbroken” for the unidentified 16-year-old that police say 33-year-old Daniel Franklin Heath enticed to send sexually explicit images over the Internet.
Heath, who resigned as associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Wilson, North Carolina, the day of his arrest, faces both state and federal felony charges stemming from a joint investigation by local authorities and the FBI.
The arrest comes during a time of heightened scrutiny of religious institutions lingering from recent #MeToo and #ChurchToo revelations concerning the abuse of women and minors by powerful men.
The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News recently published a series of investigative stories documenting widespread allegations of sexual abuse by clergy and church volunteers within the 47,000-church Southern Baptist Convention.
Last year the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported hundreds of sex-abuse cases alleged in independent fundamental Baptist churches, which by definition do not identify with denominations like the SBC but number about 2 ½ percent of the U.S. population.
The Roman Catholic Church continues to struggle with a worldwide abuse epidemic, prompting Pope Francis on May 7 to issue an apostolic decree obligating church officials to report cases of sexual abuse by priests and attempts to conceal it to their superiors.
The CBF, formed in the 1990s out of controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention, numbers about 1,800 churches, more than 300 of them in North Carolina.
“Now that abuse has been exposed in one of our own partnering churches, we cannot and will not ignore this issue but will continue to support all victims and proactively educate ministers and churches on their responsibilities,” Keesler said.
The CBF North Carolina Coordinating Council voiced support for the alleged victim and her family, saying they were “especially grieved by injustice and abuse inflicted upon a young person” and are praying for healing in the family’s life.
“We also stand in solidarity with First Baptist Church of Wilson as they reel from their own grief,” the leadership group said. “We pray for God’s wisdom for the church’s leaders and healing for the congregation. We pray for the family of the accused: a wife and three children, that they may experience the peace of Christ in this time of turbulence. Finally, we pray for the accused, for God’s grace and mercy for him, even as we recognize our own need for God’s redeeming work in our lives.”
To show solidarity with abuse victims, the council voted to donate money to both the National Sexual Assault Hotline and a benevolence fund created by First Baptist Church, Wilson, for the support of Heath’s family.