By Bob Allen
A former Southern Baptist music minister charged with molesting five boys in the 1980s turned down a plea bargain Nov. 26 and now is scheduled to stand trial Jan. 28. That depends, however, on the outcome of a hearing Dec. 18 on a motion to dismiss the case on a legal technicality.
John Langworthy, associate pastor of music and ministries at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., prior to his arrest in September 2011 on eight charges of gratification of lust, claims the case is too old to prosecute.
Today there is no statute of limitations on child molestation in Mississippi, but there was between 1980 and 1984, when Langworthy is accused of molesting five boys between ages 10-13 that he accessed through volunteering at two local churches when he was a student at Baptist-affiliated Mississippi College.
Amy Smith, Houston representative for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the fact that the legal system bends over backward to protect the rights of the accused makes it vital that churches respond appropriately to accusations or suspicion of child sexual abuse.
Smith was an intern at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas (now a multi-site congregation with a main campus in Plano, Texas) when she says Langworthy was fired amid allegations of inappropriate behavior with youth at the church in 1989.
Smith says even though laws on the books in Texas at the time mandated the reporting of suspected abuse, Prestonwood leaders allowed Langworthy to quietly return to his home state of Mississippi. Soon after that he began working at Morrison Heights Baptist Church, where he remained until resigning for personal reasons before confessing past sins to the congregation on Aug. 7, 2011.
“Prior to coming to Clinton 22 years ago, while serving at a church in Mississippi and then Texas, I had sexual indiscretions with younger males,” Langworthy said in remarks recorded on video. “These decisions were ungodly, and I deeply regret them.”
Langworthy claims there was no further misconduct after his return to Mississippi. The admission cost him his part-time job as a choir director at Clinton High School. Elders of Morrison Heights Baptist Church refused to share findings of an internal investigation of Langworthy with police, claiming clergy-penitent privilege.
Smith says if anyone at Prestonwood had done “the absolute minimum” and reported Langworthy to legal authorities, even anonymously, he might have been arrested decades ago. She said the only public message sent so far by Morrison Heights, as evidenced in the video, is support for Langworthy.
“The right message they should send publicly is one of support for anyone else harmed by Langworthy to call the police immediately, come forward with no blame or shame, get help, begin healing and protect others,” Smith said Nov. 27.
Langworthy’s trial was scheduled to begin Nov. 26, but Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bill Gowan granted a continuance until after the first of the year. It was the third such delay in the trial, first placed on the docket for April 2 but moved to July 30 and then to Nov. 26.
The judge said at the Nov. 26 hearing that there will be no more continuances, and prosecutors said the state has withdrawn all offers for a plea bargain and will make no more.
Smith expressed heartfelt sympathy for alleged victims awaiting justice, but said she is more concerned about the complicity of church leaders who chose to protect Langworthy and their institutions over children.
Smith said while the secular justice system may eventually discipline Langworthy, another question remains – whether church authorities at the two congregations or in denominational leadership will hold accountable individuals who ignored or concealed allegations against Langworthy and allowed him to walk free, placing other children at risk.
“For church authorities to do nothing about those who enable child sex crimes is inexcusable and only encourages other church staff to act irresponsibly in the future,” Smith said.