By Bob Allen
An organization that supports and advocates on behalf of clergy sex abuse victims has asked the Florida Baptist Convention to reconsider plans to appeal a $12.5 million award to a man sexually abused by a minister convicted of molestation in 2007.
“By appealing, at best you’ll be postponing, at a great moral and financial cost, an eventual day of real reckoning,” David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a Feb. 11 letter to Florida Baptist Convention Executive Director John Sullivan. “At worst, you’ll be hurting not just the victim in this case, but all other victims who have been violated and betrayed by Southern Baptist clergy.”
In January, a jury in Lake County, Fla., unanimously decided to award the unidentified victim, now a college student in his 20s, one of the largest judgments in Florida history.
A previous jury found Florida Baptist officials liable for failure to properly vet Douglas Myers — who did not have a criminal record but left previous churches in Maryland and Alabama under suspicion — before helping him plant Baptist Fellowship in Eustis, Fla., in 2002 and Triangle Community Church in 2005. Both churches are now disbanded.
It is believed to be the first time that a Southern Baptist Convention state affiliate has been found liable for actions that occurred within a local church. The convention’s lawyer, Gary Yeldell, immediately announced plans to appeal.
Clohessy, an abuse survivor who testified before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, warned Sullivan that even if successful, “your appeal will only delay the inevitable.”
“Over 25 years of SNAP’s history, we have found that those responsible for injustices are eventually held accountable, not only through the justice system but also through the court of public opinion,” Clohessy said.
Instead of spending money on legal fees, Clohessy urged Florida Baptists to recruit experts such as GRACE, a ministry founded by Billy Graham’s grandson and Liberty University law professor Boz Tchividjian — who told religion news writers last year that in some ways evangelicals are doing less to confront sexual abuse than Catholics – to explore better ways of sharing information to “prevent church-hopping clergy predators.”
“Surely if the Florida Baptist Convention can send churches information warning about the dangers of Calvinism, as it did in 2007, the Florida Baptist Convention can also provide churches with information about credibly accused clergy predators,” Clohessy said. “This would not be an interference with the autonomy of local churches but would instead be the provision of valuable information for local churches.”
In 2007, Sullivan sent recordings of sermons by former Jacksonville pastor Jerry Vines to every church in the state identifying Calvinism as a threat to Baptist life. The week before Sullivan sent one of his associates to a rural Panhandle county to warn local pastors that Calvinism “is dividing the Florida [Baptist] Convention and a split is almost inevitable.”