Former pastor charged with abuse

Police suspect a Baptist minister charged with sex crimes at a church in Arkansas may have committed similar acts at other churches he served in the past.

By Bob Allen

A former pastor at Baptist churches in Arkansas and Tennessee faces multiple charges of sexually abusing children following his arrest May 5 on a warrant issued after conducting a graveside service at a cemetery in his hometown of Covington, Tenn.

michael berkleyLarry Michael Berkley, 34, who goes by Michael, faces charges including sexual assault in the first and second degree, five counts of knowingly supplying alcohol to minors, three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, sexual solicitation and two counts of loaning pornography to a minor.

Police in Harrison, Ark., say the alleged crimes occurred while Berkley was pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation that belongs to North Arkansas Baptist Association.

According to the Harrison Daily Times, police began investigating Berkley after interviewing a church member and her 15-year-old son in late March. The woman told police rumors had been circulating about things that went on when Berkley was alone with youth, and her son had recently confirmed that at least some of those rumors where true.

She reported that she was contacted by members of churches where Berkley formerly served and was told he was accused of similar things while there, including at least one church in Tennessee.

Baptist Press identified Berkley as pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Henning, Tenn., in a 2011 feature story about a group distributing Chinese Bibles in an evangelistic outreach project timed with Chinese New Year.

Victory Baptist Church released a statement to media saying: “Mr. Berkley has not been affiliated with Victory Baptist Church, Henning, Tenn., for more than two years now. We are saddened to hear the news of his alleged activity and are praying for him and healing for those involved."

Berkley is being held in a Covington jail under $100,000 bond, while he awaits extradition to Boone County, Ark. His most serious charge, first-degree sexual assault, is a Class A felony punishable by not less than six years and up to 30 years in prison.

According to Berkley’s Facebook page, he studied at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

Because each church is autonomous and calls its own ministers, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s second-largest faith group, does not maintain a centralized system for reporting clergy sexual abuse.

Denominational leaders urge churches to use precautions like criminal background checks in pastor searches and recommend that congregations suspecting abuse report it to police.