CLINTON, Miss. (ABP) – A Baptist church in Mississippi says an internal investigation into a former staff member who confessed to “sexual indiscretions” with younger males two decades ago is confidential and cannot be turned over to a grand jury.
WAPT television reported that prosecutors have subpoenaed videotape copies of John Langworthy’s Aug. 7 confession at Morrison Heights Baptist Church for a criminal investigation. The ABC affiliate said investigators also want to know what Langworthy told church elders during their confidential probe in the months leading up to Langworthy’s recent resignation citing “mental and emotional reasons.”
Langworthy told the congregation “there has been no sexual impropriety” in the 21 years he served at Morrison Heights Baptist Church after resigning from a church in Texas for sexual misconduct.
Since then a man contacted police in Clinton to allege that Langworthy molested him sometime between 1980 and 1984 in the Clinton and Jackson area. The accuser, who now lives out of state, claimed the abuse occurred when he was about 10-12 years old and Langworthy was his babysitter.
WAPT says a grand jury this week is considering whether to bring criminal charges against Langworthy, who until this year also taught in public schools. Prosecutors say if Langworthy told church leaders anything about the case it is material evidence in a criminal investigation and ought to be presented to the grand jury.
Phillip Gunn, the church’s attorney and an elder, told the station that Langworthy’s discussions with church leaders are protected by minister-penitent privilege and if revealed the church could be sued.
"There is a privilege, under the law, that anyone who divulges information to their pastor with the intent of it being confidential, that invokes a privilege and the pastor by law cannot divulge that information," Gunn said.
Hinds County Assistant District Attorney Jamie McBride said he doesn’t think the information is privileged, because Langworthy’s admission was so public and an elder told the congregation they had conducted an investigation.
Mississippi law requires that any minister with “reasonable cause” to suspect abuse or neglect of a child to report it immediately by telephone and as soon as possible in writing to the department of human services.
Asked by WAPT reporter if he might subpoena the church to a courtroom to make their argument, District Attorney Robert Smith said: “Well, that’s certainly an option. We’re actually exploring our options.”
Christa Brown, an advocate for victims of sexual abuse by clergy and former appellate attorney, said she viewed the church’s argument for privilege legally “tenuous.”
“Even if it is a possibility as a legal argument, that doesn’t necessarily make it a morally right argument, particularly when it’s an argument being asserted by the church,” Brown said.
Church leaders have reportedly encouraged anyone with knowledge of sexual abuse to come forward and offered to help pay for counseling for anyone who needs it.
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.