Trial gets underway for accused pastor

A pastor who remains in his pulpit despite being under arrest on felony sexual abuse charges gets his day in court.

By Bob Allen

A Southern Baptist pastor charged with sex crimes stands trial this week in a county court in California, Mo.

Travis Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church of Stover, Mo., faces felony charges of sodomy and statutory rape in a high-profile case that gained media attention after church members stood by the pastor acquitted of similar charges in 2011.

travis smithLast December the St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlighted the case in a story on the difficulty of handling reported abuse cases in the Southern Baptist Convention, which recognizes the local congregation as sole authority in the hiring and firing of ministers.

Lamine Baptist Association removed the Stover congregation from its membership roll in April, though the official reason was lack of participation and not the pastor’s legal problems. Smith remains listed as pastor on the church website, along with affiliations with the Missouri Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist Convention.

Smith, 43, pastor of Stover First Baptist since 2006, stands accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with multiple females under 17, the age of legal consent in Missouri. Eighty potential jurors were summoned for jury selection, which is expected to get underway Tuesday with the trial anticipated to run Wednesday through Friday.

After Smith’s arrest in October 2012, a deacon at the church told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the pastor “was rough around the edges” when he was younger, but “has a good heart” and is good for the church.

“These are old charges, and if they’re true, why weren’t they brought up when they occurred?” Deacon Phil Marriott told the newspaper. “We’ll wait for the court system to address them and let justice take its course.”

An advocate for victims of sexual abuse by clergy said it was “misguided and reckless” for the congregation to keep Smith on the job.

“This is stunningly callous behavior,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “It’s also a severe misreading of the notion of forgiveness. We can forgive wrongdoers without putting others at risk.”

Clohessy, who lives in St. Louis, is an abuse survivor who testified before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002.

“Forgiveness is a private decision,” Clohessy said. “Paying a credibly accused serial child molesting cleric is a public act, and one that is inexcusable. The two should never be confused.”

Previous stories:

Assn. drops church with accused pastor

Church scrutinized after pastor’s arrest

Accused Mo. pastor faces new charges

Pastor acquitted on molestation count