A second Southern Baptist state convention in a month has been slapped with an ascending liability lawsuit over alleged child sex abuse involving an affiliated ministry.
A lawsuit filed April 5 in Tarrant County, Texas, seeks to hold the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention liable for alleged physical and/or sexual abuse and neglect of seven children placed by the state in foster care at Texas Baptist Home for Children.
Meanwhile, First Baptist Church in Terrell, Texas, filed a legal response April 11 to a lawsuit filed March 8 in Oklahoma holding the congregation, another Baptist church and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma responsible for the reported rape of a 13-year-old girl last summer at the BGCO-owned Falls Creek Conference Center.
The girl was part of a youth group from Terrell invited to share a cabin with Country Estates Baptist Church of Midwest City, Okla., for a weeklong church camp last June. While there, she met 35-year-old Benjamin Petty, an adult volunteer brought along as a cook by Country Estates Baptist Church. During the week, according to the lawsuit, Petty forcibly raped the teenager after days of grooming and manipulation either unnoticed or ignored by camp counselors.
Based in Waxahachie, Texas, Texas Baptist Home for Children was founded in 1908 by the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas, a group formed after a split within the Baptist General Convention of Texas in the 1890s.
The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, formed in 1998 by churches impatient with the BGCT’s resistance to a rightward shift in leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, supports both the children’s home and Jacksonville College, a two-year school owned by the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas, as “affiliated ministries.”
The lawsuit filed on behalf of five boys and two girls identified by pseudonyms claims abusive foster parents at Texas Baptist Home for Children acted as agents of both sponsoring bodies. It seeks monetary damages of $1 million per child for agency, negligence, premises liability and other failures contributing to alleged serial abuse by four foster-parent couples living in cottages on the children’s home campus between March 26, 2013, and Dec. 18, 2013.
The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention acknowledged in a statement through Baptist Press that leaders are aware of the lawsuit and praying “for a resolution that facilitates the continued ministry of the Texas Baptist Home for Children as they meet the needs of at-risk children and families.”
In the Falls Creek lawsuit, First Baptist Church in Terrell denied any “agency relationship” with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma that would make the congregation liable under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior.
Latin for “let the master answer,” respondeat superior is a form of vicarious liability that holds an employer responsible for negligent actions or omissions by an employee while performing duties of his or her job.
In 2014 a jury ordered the Florida Baptist Convention to pay $12.5 million in damages inflicted by a church planter convicted in 2007 of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy. The convention appealed the judgment, and eventually the lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount.
Vicarious liability aside, First Baptist Church in Terrell claimed any lingering damages the girl may have suffered were caused by her own negligence or that of others not under the congregation’s control.
While the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma has not yet filed its formal response to the lawsuit, a convention spokesman has said Baptist officials found the allegations “deeply disturbing” and were “looking into them,” even though Falls Creek “is not responsible for the alleged behavior.”