By Bob Allen
The pastor of a Texas Baptist megachurch, questioned about the handling of a staff member 24 years ago who was recently convicted of sex crimes in another state, noted in his Sunday sermon March 17 that Jesus didn’t answer his accusers during trials before religious and civil authorities 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem.
Former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, said the people bringing charges against Jesus weren’t really interested in the truth because they had already made up their minds that he was going to be crucified.
“What a testimony to all of us when we are accused,” Graham said, “when you are accused unjustly or falsely or slandered or lied about.”
“It’s always easy to want to strike back and speak the truth,” Graham said. “Peter would tell us later, like Jesus was reviled and forsaken, like a lamb, so should we in the spirit of Jesus never respond to slanders and lies and accusations, but rather in the spirit and the humility of Christ to be silent and let God be the judge.”
Recently media have questioned why Graham’s church removed postings from its Facebook page inquiring about the church’s handling of a staff member reportedly dismissed in 1989 over suspicions of inappropriate sexual contact with a child.
The staff member, John Langworthy, went on to become longtime music minister of Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., before his recent arrest and conviction of sex crimes against children in Mississippi.
Graham, who served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2003 and 2004, came to Prestonwood in 1989, shortly before Langworthy’s alleged dismissal. His predecessor, founding Pastor Bill Weber, left under a cloud in 1988, confessing to “personal improprieties” amid rumors he was having an extramarital affair.
During Graham’s tenure the church has grown from 8,000 to 32,000 members and expanded into multiple sites, including the opening of a 7,500-seat auditorium in Plano in 1999.
In 2008, Morris Chapman, then president and chief executive officer of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, held Graham up as a role model during his report to the SBC annual meeting for publicly denouncing a church staff member arrested in a sex-sting operation by police.
“We must join Dr. Graham in confronting this horrible crime, exposing it for what it is, and doing everything within our power to protect the children under the care of the ministries of our churches,” Chapman said. He also quoted Graham as saying, “In 40 years of ministry, I never had one moral problem with a staff member — until now.”
In his 2008 address, Graham told Prestonwood members that one of the church’s ministers, Joe Barron, was asked to resign and did so after his arrest for allegedly soliciting sex from a police officer posing online as a 13-year-old girl.
The sermon won praise in a Dallas Morning News editorial on May 25, 2008, which is posted on the Prestonwood Baptist Church website. Nothing on the church website, however, addresses more recent news reports claiming that Langworthy, a member of Prestonwood’s staff from 1984 until 1989, was fired for sexually abusing a child but not reported to police as the law required.
Langworthy pleaded guilty Jan. 22 to decades-old sex crimes in Mississippi, but avoided prison in a plea bargain offered in part because prosecutors weren’t confident they could win the case because it took so many years before the allegations against him came to light.
Chris Tynes, a member of Prestonwood Baptist Church for 14 years, says that omission is what prompted him a couple of weeks ago to ask on the church’s Facebook page if allegations in a Feb. 6 story in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger linking Langworthy to his church were true.
Prestonwood removed Tynes’ postings, and from there things escalated until church leaders filed a police report labeling him a “suspicious person, possibly violent” and banned him from coming back to church. Tynes responded with a new Facebook page, People Against Prestonwood’s Silence on Allegations of Sexual Abuse, which he says reached about 7,000 people in its first week.
Southern Baptist leaders have commented in recent months on abuse scandals involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and independent Baptist pastor Jack Schaap, who confessed to having sexual relations with a teenage girl. But none has spoken out so far about Langworthy’s problems at Morrison Heights Baptist Church, where church leaders reportedly did an internal investigation but wouldn’t share the results with prosecutors, claiming the information was protected by clergy/penitent privilege.
In 2002, the SBC responded to the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church with a resolution encouraging “those religious bodies dealing with the tragedy of clergy abuse in their efforts to rid their ranks of predatory ministers.”
Another SBC resolution in 2007 “strongly” recommended that Southern Baptist churches and SBC entities “respond to any suspicions or allegations of child abuse in a timely and forthright manner” and “renounce individuals, churches, or other religious bodies that cover up, ignore, or otherwise contribute to or condone the abuse of children.”
“We shall not turn a blind eye when those in leadership roles violate our trust,” Chapman said in his SBC address in 2008. “We shall be responsive to allegations about ministerial misconduct; and especially so when that misconduct is perpetrated against one of our children. Those who would overpower our children and violate their trust must come to know that they will not be coddled; they will not be protected; they will not find refuge in our churches.”
“They must understand that they never again will be allowed to minister in Jesus’ Name as a ruse for their sick minds and dark deceptions,” Chapman said. “They must understand that they will be reported to the proper law enforcement agencies and charged with their heinous crimes.”
In 2008, the SBC rejected a proposal to establish a database of ministers “credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse,” saying the convention lacks authority to require automous churches to report such information.