Children’s minister charged with abuse

Jeffrey Dale Eddie, longtime children’s minister at Highland Park Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, Ala., is charged with multiple sex crimes against children placed in his care.

By Bob Allen

An associate pastor at a Southern Baptist church in Muscle Shoals, Ala., is being held on a more than $1 million bond after reportedly telling police he sexually abused so many children that he could not remember the number.

jeff eddieThe Muscle Shoals Police Department picked up Jeffrey Dale Eddie, 41, associate pastor for children and church administration at Highland Park Baptist Church, on Feb. 2.

The day before, Worship Pastor Jeff Beech found two pornographic photos depicting young males among files copied from Eddie’s laptop. Beech and Pastor Brett Pitman had asked to see Eddie’s electronic devices after a member of the church staff reportedly witnessed him behaving suspiciously with a child.

During questioning, Eddie reportedly told police he was addicted to pornography and downloaded images of nude young males onto his church-issued computer.

The investigation moved beyond child pornography when, after waiving his Miranda rights, Eddie reportedly admitted to sexually abusing members of his children’s ministry so many times that he could not remember how many.

On Feb. 4 he was charged with 31 counts of second-degree sodomy, three counts of sexual abuse of a child under 12 and two counts of possession of child pornography. His preliminary hearing is scheduled Feb. 18.

“As a church, we are outraged, shocked and deeply saddened by the events that have unfolded over the last few days,” said a statement posted Feb. 5 on the Highland Park Baptist Church website and read by Pitman during a press conference organized by police.

“First and foremost, we are striving to assist any children and families that have been affected by these events,” said Pitman, on staff at Highland Park since 2006 and lead pastor since August 2010. “The health and well-being of these children is our number one priority at this time. For years, Highland Park Baptist Church has invested in the Shoals community and we are committed to helping our entire community cope with this situation."

The church’s statement urged anyone with information about the case to immediately contact the Muscle Shoals Police Department, and offered assistance to any children or families in search of counseling.

“In closing, we want to personally thank every person that has come forward,” the statement said. “They are heroes and should be treated as such.”

Muscle Shoals Police Chief Robert Evans praised church officials for contacting authorities as soon as they became aware of a potential problem.

"They responded in a way they should have and they responded promptly," Evans said. "As soon as they became aware of what they perceived to be a problem, they notified police. The pastor, staff, everyone connected with the church has been as supportive as they could be. They are hurting. This is a trying time for them."

Keith Hinson, associate for public relations and Christian ethics at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said each of the state's Baptist churches is responsible for setting policies for conducting background checks on pastors and there is no statewide policy, according to the Huntsville Times.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics, does not have a formal system in place for the reporting and investigation of credible allegations of sexual abuse by members of clergy. Leaders of the denomination say they lack authority to impose such a system, because in Baptist life each congregation is responsible for selecting and supervising its own ministers.

Recently a jury awarded a $12.5 million judgment against the Florida Baptist Convention for failure to adequately check the background of a church planter convicted in 2007 of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy.

Eddie, known to church members as “Brother Jeff,” listed on his personal website that he been on the staff of Highland Park Baptist since 1998. Before that he worked at the Tennessee Valley Juvenile Detention Facility in Tuscumbia, Ala.

Muscle Shoals police said investigators are continuing to interview victims, and that additional charges will likely be filed.

Eddie’s attorney, Billy Underwood of Tuscumbia, told the Times Daily in Florence, Ala., that he would seek a reduction of his client’s bail and reminded that there are “two sides” to every story.

“I caution everybody not to jump to judgment," Underwood said. "I think there is another side to the story that might exonerate him. He was a well-loved youth minister at the church.”

"Just because there are so many counts [to the arrest warrants] doesn't mean there are 31 different individuals,” Underwood said. “I believe there is only three or four we're talking about."

Previous stories:

SNAP leader terms $12.5 million abuse award against Florida Baptist Convention historic

Lawyer: Abuse verdict possible game-changer

Florida Baptists to appeal abuse award

Advocate says SBC leader gives bad advice

Evangelicals behind Catholics on abuse

SNAP leader shames Mahaney supporters

Related commentary:

Change is coming to Baptistland