By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist church in Georgia denied allegations of negligence in a lawsuit alleging child sexual abuse by a former church volunteer later named as youth pastor.
A civil lawsuit filed in Toombs County Superior Court alleges sexual abuse between 1996 and 2002 of youth at First Baptist Church of Vidalia.
Filed under Georgia’s new Hidden Predator Act, a law passed in 2015 opening a window of opportunity for victims to sue for injury that otherwise would be considered beyond the statute of limitations for litigation, the lawsuit alleges that church leaders were “grossly negligent in hiring, retaining and/or permitting” the alleged perpetrator to serve as a volunteer and youth pastor while “failing to put in place appropriate protocols” to protect children from sexual abuse.
The lawsuit names up to 50 “John Doe” leaders at First Baptist Church to be named upon learning their names in an amended complaint.
Attorney Barbara Marschalk released a statement on behalf of the church labeling allegations against the congregation as “completely unsubstantiated.”
“First Baptist Church, Vidalia, did absolutely nothing wrong,” the statement said, adding the congregation is not “legally, ethically or morally” responsible for any alleged sexual abuse.
Marschalk said the now 31-year-old man filing the lawsuit “failed to come forward to church leadership, or anyone else, with any allegations until nearly a decade after the alleged abuse ended.”
Despite the delay in reporting, she said, the church “responded swiftly” to the allegations, forcing the accused worker to resign from any volunteer position and eventually removed him as a member of the church. The statement said the church has “cooperated fully” with a criminal investigation, though no charges have yet been filed.
David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those abused by Priests, criticized church leaders for “publicly attacking an abuse victim who has just filed a lawsuit.”
“By taking legal action, he is protecting other children,” Clohessy said. “He deserves the gratitude of anyone in Georgia who care about kids. First Baptist officials should praise him, too. Instead, they are publicly attacking him.”
Clohessy, a sexual abuse survivor who testified before the the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their historic meeting in Dallas in 2002, said criticizing a victim for “failing” to come forward sooner is “extraordinarily callous and hurtful and wrong.”
“Child sex-abuse victims come forward when they can, when they understand that what was done to them was wrong, that their pain is on-going and severe, that they have legal options, that their perpetrator is likely still hurting others, that they have a duty to prevent more crimes and then when they are able to summon the strength to recover enough from the trauma to take action,” he said. “We must be grateful to every single man or woman who reports childhood victimization, no matter when they do so.”
The Georgia Baptist Convention recently held its first-ever sexual abuse summit at First Baptist Church in Atlanta. GBC Executive Director Robert White announced plans to repeat the event at six additional locations in 2016.
“I want every Georgia Baptist pastor and staff member to receive this training,” White said in the Christian Index. “Some believe that it could never happen in their church. They are the very ones that concern me the most. This problem is pervasive and requires that we be trained and alert.”
Index Editor Gerald Harris wrote an editorial Aug. 20 that he described as the first he ever remembered promoting a conference, citing his own experience years ago as a pastor confronted by a parent who accused a youth worker of molesting his son.
“I would not want any church or pastor to go through the trauma we experienced in that dark chapter of our church’s history,” Harris wrote.