By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist church in Tennessee is being sued for $2 million by a mother whose 10-year-old daughter was sexually abused while attending Vacation Bible School in 2009.
The girl, now 15, and her mother both use pseudonyms in a lawsuit filed May 20 Madison County Circuit Court alleging negligence by First Baptist Church in Bemis, Tenn., for allowing longtime church member Chad Luttrell to volunteer for VBS despite knowledge of “substantial problems” he had caused in the past concerning inappropriate conduct with female church members including girls between ages 6 and 10.
Luttrell, 35, was arrested June 10, 2009, and charged with aggravated sexual battery. He pleaded guilty, got probation and landed on Tennessee Sex Offender Registry.
Prior to that, the lawsuit alleges, church leaders knew of complaints involving Luttrell kissing a young girl on the face and stalking and harassing three adult female church members in 2006.
Then-pastor Mark McSwain filed a police report in December 2006 about “a problem growing in the church” for several weeks with Luttrell. The investigating officer said McSwain told him that Luttrell was caught kissing a young girl on the mouth and had been following and making physical threats toward three adult women.
McSwain reportedly said the church was still investigating the problem, that he was trying “to follow biblical guidelines” and wanted advice from the police about what to do.
McSwain spoke again with the officer in June 2009, saying he wanted to “clarify” information in the earlier report. This time McSwain said Luttrell had kissed the girl on the cheek and not the mouth, that accusations of him inappropriately touching juveniles were incorrect and that instead of three women reporting stalking there was only one incident of Luttrell sending an inappropriate email to a young woman and following her home once.
The mother in the lawsuit claims she was “blamelessly unaware” of Luttrell’s history when she sent her daughter to the Bible school where Luttrell volunteered as a worker in June 2009.
“The choice to allow Chad Luttrell to interact with children who were without their parental supervision posed an egregious threat to the safety of children enrolled in the Vacation Bible School,” the lawsuit states.
Luttrell had another run-in with the law on May 6, 2013, when he was arrested on charges of stalking and harassing three female employees at a Wal-Mart in Jackson, Tenn. One of the women claimed the behavior had been going on for 10 years.
McSwain, who stepped down as pastor of the church listed as affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, Southern Baptist Convention and Madison, Chester & Crockett Association of Baptists in 2011, did not respond to an email request for comment.
John Norvell, associate pastor of music and senior adults at Bemis First Baptist Church, told the Jackson Sun the church has no comment at this time.
According to an October 2011 feature in the Tennessee Baptist Convention news journal, the Baptist and Reflector, McSwain resigned after 10 ½ years as pastor of Bemis First Baptist Church to launch a ministry geared toward people newly diagnosed with cancer. He wrote a book in 2011 titled Through the Eyes of a Storm: Perspective Gained Through a Cancer Journey chronicling his own experience of being diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma at age 44 the week before Christmas in 2007.
McSwain’s current ministry, Survivor2Survivor, is building a network of cancer survivors to serve as “journey partners” offering support for newly diagnosed cancer patients from someone who has experienced the same thing.