A new lawsuit alleges that one of South Carolina’s largest and most respected Southern Baptist churches failed to report to police evidence of child sex abuse by a volunteer youth worker as required by law.
The lawsuit filed Oct. 10 in Richland County, S.C., claims a now 17-year-old teen identified under a pseudonym began attending First Baptist Church of Columbia, S.C., with family members when he was in elementary school.
When he was 11 and starting middle school, the youth says he began attending a Sunday night discussion group led by an adult volunteer who groomed the child and over time “gradually escalated his inappropriate and illegal activity” to include lewd text messages and “intentional touching.”
When informed of the messages, the lawsuit claims, church leaders did not turn over findings of their own investigation to law enforcement in compliance with a state law requiring certain professions, including clergy, to report information they receive in their professional capacity that gives them reason to believe a child has or may have suffered abuse or neglect.
A statement on the church website says the congregation became aware of the allegations last fall. An investigation by a church committee found the volunteer had violated church policies, and disciplinary action was taken. The volunteer no longer attends First Baptist, the statement says, and is prohibited from further contact with students.
The lawsuit alleges negligence, clergy malpractice and conspiracy by church leaders including Wendell Estep, who recently announced his retirement as senior pastor of First Baptist Church after 31 years in the pulpit. Estep, a past president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, is a well known statewide, as well as in parts of North Carolina and Georgia, through television broadcasts of the church worship service seen by an estimated audience of 75,000 viewers.
The teenagers and his parents also seek a court order to unseal three civil cases against the church involving a former deacon sent to prison in 2002 for lewd acts on a child at First Baptist to determine whether church leaders have a pattern of concealing sex abuse to avoid scandal at the expense of the safety of children entrusted to its care.
“A key complaint in this case centers on the church officials’ failure, for over a year, to notify parents of children who had contact with the youth minister who sent these outrageous messages and the church officials’ continuing failure to report the conduct to law enforcement,” the family’s attorney, John Simmons, said in a statement. “We hope the motions to unseal records that have been kept secret for over 10 years, together with the lawsuit, will bring transparency to the cloak of secrecy imposed by the defendants.”
The church statement says First Baptist respects the privacy of parties involved in the earlier cases but does not oppose their unsealing.
“Our attorneys have advised us to make no further comment at this time,” the statement concludes.
Founded in 1809, First Baptist Church is one of the largest churches in Columbia, the capital and second-largest city in South Carolina, with more than 6,000 members. Its first pastor, William B. Johnson, was a founder of both the Southern Baptist Convention and its predecessor, now known as American Baptist Churches USA.
Another former pastor, James Pettigru Boyce, founded the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, now located in Louisville, Ky., in Greenville, S.C., in 1859.
A 3,400-seat sanctuary built in 1992 was site of the funeral of Sen. Strom Thurmond, who died in 2003.