By Bob Allen
The Florida Baptist Convention plans to appeal a jury’s decision to award $12.5 million in damages in a lawsuit claiming Baptist officials didn’t check far enough into the background of a church planter convicted in 2007 of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy.
A Lake County, Fla., jury agreed unanimously Jan. 18 to grant what is described as one of the largest monetary awards in Florida to a 21-year-old man who was victimized as a child by Douglas Myers, a convicted serial child molester, currently in prison in Maryland after serving a seven-year prison term in Florida.
The judgment, reported by the Orlando Sentinel, followed a six-day trial over the matter of damages. Another jury in May 2012 found the Florida Baptist Convention liable for running criminal, credit and background checks but neglecting to check references before helping Myers plant two now-defunct churches with training, financial aid and what the lawsuit termed implied endorsement by reporting news of his endeavor in the Baptist state newspaper.
At the time a lawyer representing Florida Baptists challenged the ruling, saying it was inconsistent for the jury to agree with the convention’s main argument that Myers was not an employee of the state affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention and yet still hold convention officials accountable for actions of someone they did not hire or supervise, but an appeal could not be filed until after the penalty phase.
Gary Yeldell, the convention’s attorney of record, said in a statement Jan. 21 that the state convention does not usually comment on pending litigation, but “the recent verdict from the trial in Lake County is not yet final, nor will the matter be concluded once the trial verdict becomes final.”
“The convention remains confident that the appellate court will overturn the jury’s verdict,” Yeldell said. “This confidence is based, in large part, on the jury’s express finding that Myers was an independent pastor who was not hired, employed or supervised by the convention.”
Myers founded Harbor Baptist Fellowship in Eustis, Fla., in 2002 and Triangle Community Church in 2005. Both are now disbanded. He was arrested in February 2006 on felony charges of molesting the boy repeatedly over a six-month period ending in 2005.
Myers had no criminal record at the time, but after his arrest members of his former churches said he was accused of improprieties with children while he was pastor at churches in Maryland and Alabama before moving to Florida.
Charles Canida, a former deacon at Concord Baptist Church in Russellville, Ala., told media in 2007 he was almost immediately suspicious of “Pastor Doug,” as he insisted on being called, when he arrived at the church five or six years earlier.
Myers surrounded himself with preteen boys, and after an un-chaperoned swimming trip, one of the boys reported that Myers made it a rule for them to go skinny dipping. When Canida tried to raise his concerns with other deacons, he said, it wound up splitting the church.
Canida said the pastor who followed Myers at Bayside Baptist Church in Chesapeake Beach, Md., told him Myers left amid issues with three teenage boys. If the search committee at the church in Alabama had done its job and contacted people at the Maryland church, he said, they would have recommended against calling him as pastor.
Worried that Myers, whose parents live in north Alabama, might try to return to the area one day, Canida said he asked his pastor to alert directors of missions in his association and two neighboring counties about his suspicions.
Canida said he also contacted the local district attorney’s office, but he was told there was nothing they could do without evidence, and the best thing the church could do was to run him out of town.
The mother of the Florida victim identified only by the initial “J” filed a lawsuit in 2007 claiming that officials of the Florida Baptist Convention and Lake County Baptist Association, which gave Myers office space, should have known he was unfit for ministry before recruiting him to establish new Southern Baptist churches in Florida.
As a church planter, the lawsuit said, Myers acted as an “agent” of the convention, receiving organizational support including health insurance, retirement services and support through the state convention’s Cooperative Program budget.
The state convention further supported Myers’ efforts through training and resource material and signaled approval of a mission church started with Myers as pastor by reporting it in the Florida Baptist Witness.
Attorneys for the Florida Baptist Convention argued during the 2012 trial that the state convention’s role in church planting is advisory in nature, and the hiring and supervision of ministers is done by the local church. Lawyers for the other side said while Baptist churches may be independently run, it wasn’t a local church committee that brought Myers to town.
Myers initially faced three felony charges and up to 45 years in prison, but in January 2007 he pleaded guilty to one charge of lewd or lascivious molestation of a victim 12-15 years old by an offender 18 or older in exchange for serving seven years behind bars. He was released from custody of the Florida Department of Corrections and registered as a sex offender in December 2012.
A grand jury in Calvert County, Md., indicted Myers in November 2012 on 13 counts of custodial child abuse, three counts of third-degree sex offense and six counts of second-degree sex offense for allegedly abusing three boys, of whom he had temporary custody, between March 30, 1995, and March 26, 2001.
Last October, Myers, 64, entered an Alford plea, a guilty plea in which the defendant does not admit the act but admits the prosecution could likely prove the charge, to three counts of custodial child abuse. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison, with all but 15 years suspended. Upon his release he will be placed on five years of supervised probation.
A prosecutor said Myers’ first victim, now 27, claimed the first incident occurred when he was 9 and the abuse continued and escalated until he was about 14. The abuse allegedly took place in both the boy’s and Myers’ homes and in several places inside Bayside Baptist Church.