News analysis by Bob Allen
Women secretly videotaped while showering or in front of a bathroom vanity in the home of a popular Southern Baptist evangelist compared the experience to rape, while young husbands described anger at being betrayed by a friend they considered a brother in ministry Sept. 14 in a courtroom in Hernando, Miss.
Sammy Nuckolls, 33, a former traveling evangelist popular at youth events including summer camps sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and more than $80,000 in fines and restitution after being found guilty on 13 counts of video voyeurism.
Nuckolls was arrested last October while staying in a private home in Gosnell, Ark., during a local church revival where he was preaching. His hostess discovered a hidden camera spy pen set up in a bathroom to photograph her as she prepared to shower.
Nuckolls gave a statement to police in Arkansas saying he had done the same thing with two women at his home in Olive Branch, Miss., and gave their names. Analyzing a laptop computer confiscated from Nuckolls’ house, investigators identified 14 different victims in video files. Additional investigations in Arkansas, Virginia and Texas raised the number of suspected or confessed victims to 21.
“I’m relieved and think that perhaps I can sleep at night again,” Amy V. Butler, a student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and one of the women in the videos, said moments after Nuckolls was taken away from the DeSoto County courthouse in handcuffs.
Butler’s chief concern was not being confused with others with similar names in the close-knit network of churches and institutions that comprise the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She said she knows of at least two other Amy Butlers who are part of the Baylor University community. One is a columnist for ABPnews. “V-i-o-l-e-t-t-e,” she spelled out her middle name.
Many people believe that sexual abuse by clergy is primarily a Catholic problem related to celibacy and homosexual priests. In recent years, however, ABPnews has reported with alarming regularity on criminal cases or civil lawsuits involving sexual misconduct by Baptist preachers.
Most involve minors and are settled out of court through plea bargains to spare victims the ordeal of testifying. Due to stigma surrounding sex crimes, most victims who talk to the media do so anonymously, believing identifying themselves would harm their reputation or the reputation of their family.
For those reasons, victim-impact statements at the daylong sentencing hearing for Nuckolls offered a rare glimpse into the emotional, relational and spiritual scars left on people victimized for the sexual gratification of clergy.
When wolves wear shepherd’s clothing
The last school year has been tough for Amy Violette Butler, who first met Nuckolls during training for a staff position at a LifeWay Christian Resources Centrifuge youth camp when Nuckolls was camp pastor.
One day she walked out of a class on friendship evangelism when a discussion of the importance of gaining trust of individuals in order to make them more receptive to the gospel reminded her of how Nuckolls had manipulated her.
During study abroad on the travels of Paul, she was frightened by a Greek man who zoomed in on her while shooting video of the group. She tried to move away and he followed, oblivious to her protests that she didn’t like to be filmed by strange men because he did not speak English.
Butler said the last year also has been a struggle with regard to her calling as a minister. “I don’t know if I want to complete my degree,” she testified in court. “I don’t know if I want to be in ministry anymore.”
Butler said later in an interview that one thing that has helped her get through the ordeal is the support she has received from her professors and others at Truett. “I don’t think I could have testified today without the support of my professors and people at Baylor,” she said.
She recommended in particular a groundbreaking study about helping women survive clergy sexual abuse by Diana Garland, dean of Baylor’s School of Social Work. “When Wolves Wear Shepherd’s Clothing” appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of the journal Social Work and Christianity.
“It’s an abuse of power,” Butler said of sexual misconduct by ministers. Despite her doubts, she said, in the end her struggles make her want to be a pastor more than ever. “I want to be the kind of pastor that helps people, not hurts people.”
Most news organizations have policies against identifying victims of sexual assault or child sexual abuse unless they want to be named. Butler volunteered to speak on the record to Associated Baptist Press.
Other victims testified in court using their real names but did not talk to media. ABPnews doesn’t normally use anonymous sources, but for the purpose of this story will use only first names of other victims out of respect for their privacy.
Video was shown of Nuckolls concealing a camera in a bathroom closet and checking and adjusting the angle for the best view. One victim said those images were more disturbing than the pictures of her.
“Those eyes were so evil,” said 26-year-old Joy, who first met Nuckolls when she was a sophomore in college in 2005, and was her future husband’s youth pastor. She said the video was taken just before Nuckolls officiated the couple’s wedding.
“I thought, I was getting married, and those evil eyes were watching me,” she described the experience of seeing the video. “Those eyes haunted me.”
Joy said being betrayed by Nuckolls has changed the way she looks at life. “I used to, obviously, trust people,” she testified. “I have trouble trusting. It’s a constant battle of trusting people.”
“We trusted him enough to marry us,” Joy said. “He just used that trust for his sick pleasure.”
More than one witness said their anger at Nuckolls has at times been misdirected toward their spouse. “That’s an understatement,” Butler answered when asked if the last 11 months has affected her marriage.
One victim was filmed twice while pregnant, the most recent just prior to her giving birth. Her husband said the thought of having a second child now resurrects memory of those images.
Adam, who considered Nuckolls his best friend for more than five years, said it is normal for victims of sexual abuse to blame themselves for not picking up on warning signs, and in hindsight he might have paid more attention to small things like why Nuckolls always cheated at everything from friendly golf outings to board games.
Adam said Nuckolls would recommend to fellow pastors that a way to avoid being tempted to view online pornography while away from home would be to have their wives pose for nude photos so they could load them onto their laptops. Nuckolls then would find an excuse to borrow their computer and copy the images to his own computer.
Ashley, 28, worries that video Nuckolls took of her without her knowledge might be on the Internet. “We were never friends,” she said of her family’s relationship to Nuckolls. “We were just a pawn in Sam’s video rape game.”
SBC Centrifuge connection
Brittany, 25, said she first met Nuckolls nine years ago when he was camp pastor at Centrifuge. He performed the couple’s wedding and visited the day their son was born. She appeared in videos during a visit to Nuckolls home when he gave them advice on strengthening their marriage.
“I’ve never felt so betrayed before,” she said. “My husband could have been in the next room. I have never been so deceived by anybody.”
Jennifer, 23, said she was 17 in the first video that Nuckolls took of her. They first met in 2003 when he was Centrifuge pastor. She was so enamored that she visited his home three or four times a year during holidays.
A graduate of Williams Baptist College and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, Nuckolls served on staff at several churches before entering fulltime itinerant ministry. LifeWay hired Nuckolls as a summer staffer to serve in the role of camp pastor for Centrifuge camps in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. In 2007 his role changed to a contract position, where he served several weeks during the summer preaching at general assemblies and large gatherings. He served in that capacity through the summer of 2011.
After his arrest, LifeWay released a statement saying they would no longer use Nuckolls and that all his current speaking commitments were canceled.
The Southern Baptist Convention publishing house released a second statement after his conviction.
“We are praying Nuckolls’ conviction and sentencing help the victims begin to heal from this terrible violation of their trust and faith,” the statement said. “And, even though Nuckolls passed numerous background checks and there are no allegations any victims were videotaped at LifeWay events, this situation illustrates the need for constant vigilance by churches, agencies and other ministries trusted with protecting our children and youth.”
Forgive, but not forget
Some victims said they struggle with forgiveness.
“I believe forgiveness is not just forgive-and-forget,” said Ashley. “You have to continually forgive, and it’s very difficult.”
Because she was pregnant in some of the videos, Ashley said what Nuckolls did to her “also involved my child.”
“I have been so afraid of Sam,” she said. “I’ve been afraid he would come to my home and he was going to hurt me or my children. I pray no one else has to go through what I have because of Sam Nuckolls.”
Adrian, who has known Nuckolls since 1996 when both were freshmen at Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, Ark., said he has forgiven Nuckolls and told him so.
“Unfortunately, we are not here today to talk about forgiveness,” Adrian said. “We’re here to sentence you for a crime you have committed.”
Adrian said even if Nuckolls has truly repented he will be remembered as the “peeping preacher.”
“You put a black eye on the church and the God that we serve,” he said.
Ashley said she came forward because: “I believe sexual sin has to be taken very seriously. That is why we are here today.”
Ashley said even though Nuckolls didn’t assault her physically, the emotional impact is real. “My body was treated like somebody else’s property for years,” she said.
Restoration vs. responsibility
Witnesses testified on Nuckolls’ behalf that he has expressed remorse for his actions and is trying to rehabilitate himself through a Celebrate Recovery 12-step program at a local Southern Baptist church. Other witnesses for the prosecution said Nuckolls appeared unconcerned about the allegations against him and told people they were based on a misunderstanding.
“The only thing standing between him and hundreds if not thousands of other victims is a very long prison sentence,” Adam warned.
Presiding judge Gerald Chatham said he had hoped to hear that Nuckolls is suffering from some sort of mental illness that could be treated. “I suspect there is some underlying psychosis with you,” he said.
He ordered psychiatric evaluation as part of his sentence. “I’m not satisfied that you are not a sick man and I’m going to do all within my power to find out yes or no,” Chatham said.
“You have violated the trust of these young women,” Chatham said. “You have robbed them of their dignity. You have rocked their faith. You hid behind a cloak of our Lord Jesus Christ to commit these crimes. I personally find your behavior sickening and deeply despicable.”
Chatham also commented on the testimony of victims. “The courage that they displayed in the courtroom today was remarkable,” he said. “It’s renewed my faith in the young men and women in America.”
Crimes like those committed by Nuckolls also have collateral damage. He and his now ex-wife tried unsuccessfully for three and a half years to conceive due to fertility problems, before deciding to adopt.
Last year they were approved to adopt a child born in July. She took three months maternity leave after the adoption and was back to work two weeks when her husband was arrested. After that, the adopting agency determined it was in the child’s best interest to be removed from the home and placed with another couple.
Matt Wilburn, who is married to Nuckolls’ sister, said his brother-in-law still loves his ex-wife and grieves the loss of their son. He quoted Nuckolls as saying, “I have defamed my family, I have defamed my ministry and I have defamed my God.”
Wilburn, a pastor who recently moved to Olathe, Kan., to plant a church sponsored by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, said Nuckolls’ greatest punishment is losing his ministry. While he said it is unlikely that his brother-in-law will ever again be invited to churches, Wilburn hopes his failure “will turn out to be an opportunity for God to use him in a different way.”
“I don’t want Sam to ever lose his ministry,” Wilburn said. “I see his opportunity coming down the road to help those who have been through similar things.”
Larry Kilgore, pastor of Crowder Baptist Church in Crowder, Miss., where Nuckolls has spoken several times, testified on his behalf because, “The Bible says love covers a multitude of sins.
“My heart goes out to all of you who have been offended,” Kilgore said. “I didn’t know the depth of it until today.”
“God is able to bring beauty out of ashes, not only of him but of you,” Kilgore said. “I believe that God is a God of restoration. I believe Sammy Nuckolls can be restored. I believe you who have been offended can be restored.”
The other side said Nuckolls can be forgiven for his sins, but his behavior disqualifies him to be a minister.
“I don’t think that Sam can ever be in ministry,” Ashley said. “Maybe it could be with 80-year-old men, but not young girls.”