By Bob Allen
A national support group for clergy sex-abuse victims called on the National Day of Prayer Task Force to reconsider its choice for 2015 honorary chairman because of unanswered questions about his handling of abuse allegations in the distant past.
“It is a privilege to lead the National Day of Prayer,” said Graham, pastor of the 37,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in metropolitan Dallas. “More than anything, in this desperate hour, may our hearts cry out to God for the healing of our nation’s spiritual brokenness. May Jesus be exalted and may God’s people be awakened to a new obedience to fulfill the Great Commission.”
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests responded with a press release claiming that Graham and other church leaders fired a staff member in 1989 for inappropriate behavior with youth but did not call the police.
The staff member, John Langworthy, left town and went on to serve 22 years at another Southern Baptist church in Mississippi. In 2011 Langworthy resigned as associate pastor of music ministries at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., confessing to the congregation of past “indiscretions” with young boys. That led to his arrest and ultimate conviction on five counts of gratification of lust involving multiple boys he met through church work in the 1980s.
Langworthy received a suspended sentence of 50 years, meaning no time in prison, in a plea bargain offered in part because it took so long for the allegations to surface prosecutors feared the charges might not stand up in court due to an ambiguous statute of limitations.
Prestonwood’s executive pastor released a statement denying that church leaders tried to conceal the allegations against Langworthy or silence his accuser. Graham, who had only been on the job a short time when Langworthy left, has declined to discuss the matter. When a church member tried to force the issue through social media in 2013, he was reported to police as a potential security threat.
Amy Smith, a SNAP representative in Houston who first brought the allegations against Langworthy to light, said rewarding Graham with an honorary title “sends a dangerous message to other officials.”
“Don’t worry about kids’ safety. Just focus on secrecy, and your career will be fine.”
“For the safety of kids and the healing of victims, we hope members of the National Day of Prayer Task Force will reconsider their decision, disinvite Graham, and replace him with another minister who doesn’t have such a tarnished record,” Smith said.
A National Day of Prayer Task Force communications official did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.
In June SNAP asked the Southern Baptist Convention to enlist an independent investigator to answer questions about both Prestonwood’s and Morrison Heights’ handling of the Langworthy affair. Protestors outside this year’s SBC meeting in Baltimore handed out fliers asking Baptist officials to “take child sex abuse cases more seriously.”
In 2006-2007 the SBC Executive Committee explored the idea of establishing a database of known or credibly accused Southern Baptist offenders and a central office to receive and evaluate abuse reports but in the end determined it unfeasible because each Southern Baptist church is autonomous and should conduct its own investigation.
The convention offers resources to help churches prevent sexual abuse, including discounts on background checks for prospective church workers. LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC’s publishing house, reported recently that more than one in five background checks processed by LifeWay’s program with backgroundchecks.com revealed a serious offense.