Former minister pleads guilty to abuse

An ex-music minister avoided prison Jan. 22 in a plea bargain confessing guilt to decades-old sex crimes against victims he groomed while volunteering at two Mississippi Southern Baptist churches.

By Bob Allen

John Langworthy, 50, former associate pastor of music and ministries at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., pleaded guilty in Hinds County Circuit Court to five of eight felony counts of gratification of lust against young boys in the early 1980s. He was sentenced to 10 years of a suspended sentence on each count for a total of 50 years.

A suspended sentence is when a trial judge finds guilt and assigns a prison sentence but postpones implementation to give the criminal time to complete alternatives to jail such as probation. As part of his agreement, Langworthy will be on five years of supervised probation, cannot have contact with any of his victims and must register as a sex offender.

John LangworthyLangworthy was investigated by police after video was posted online of him confessing to members of Morrison Heights Baptist Church in August 2011 that he “had sexual indiscretions with younger males” prior to coming to Clinton 22 years earlier. Afterward, six men came forward claiming they were sexually abused by Langworthy as children in the early 1980s.

His arrest the following month raised questions about how two separate high-profile Southern Baptist churches handled allegations of sexual abuse by a staff member. Elders of Morrison Heights Baptist Church refused to turn findings of their internal investigation of the matter over to prosecutors, claiming minister-penitent privilege.

Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, a mega-church led by former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham, received news coverage about reports that leaders confronted and fired Langworthy for inappropriate activity with a teenager in 1989, but did not report him to the police as required by law.

Amy Smith, who worked on staff with Langworthy at Prestonwood and now resides in Houston representing the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said she was glad to see that “some justice has been served” in the case. Prior to Langworthy’s confession to his church, Smith worked for a year behind the scenes to alert leaders at both churches and a public school where he worked part-time as a choir director about secrets in his past that might pose a danger to children today.

“While it is likely that more truth would have come out if this case had gone to trial – including what other church and school officials knew about Langworthy’s crimes, and when – we are glad that the victims in this case are spared the pain of having to testify,” Smith said Jan. 22.

A Hinds County grand jury indicted Langworthy in September 2011 on eight counts of felony gratification of lust. He was accused of sexually abusing five boys, ages 6 through 13, he met through their families at Jackson-area churches between 1980 and 1984. The alleged acts occurred in the boys’ homes, where Langworthy volunteered to babysit, and in Langworthy’s dorm room at Baptist-affiliated Mississippi College in Clinton, where he was a student at the time.

Two of his victims testified Jan. 22 about the impact of Langworthy’s actions on their lives. One of the two said after 30 years, some people say it is time that they forgive and forget. “In some ways that is true,” the victim’s impact statement read. “We must forgive, and I want you to know, John, that I did a long time ago. Why we are here is not because of vengeance or retribution. It is not to get even or get payback. It is simply about bringing the darkness to the light.”

Langworthy’s victim said it is not easy for victims of sexual abuse by clergy to come forward. “It takes a long time to process what happened to them and why and how people they trusted would betray them and harm them and then process all the mess that it makes inside a child who becomes an adult,” he said. “It’s a lot to process. People who speak about the ridiculousness of it taking so long for this to happen simply weren’t victims. They can’t understand.”

The young man said he also wanted Langworthy to know he considers himself not a “victim” but rather a “survivor by the grace of God” of sexual abuse.

“You do not and have not controlled my life or even the life of my family,” he said. “I don’t hate you. I have forgiven you. In fact my heart is sad for you in many ways.”

Smith said Langworthy’s victims deserve praise for coming forward and reporting their abuse to police.

“It is a very difficult thing to admit to others that you were sexually abused as a child, but by coming forward these victims have helped keep other children safe from Langworthy and hopefully deterred other predators from committing similar crimes,” she said. “Silence is a predator’s best weapon, and we are grateful to those who broke their silence to ensure that justice is served.”

Smith urged anyone else who has witnessed, suspected or suffered abuse by Langworthy to similarly come forward both to help with their own healing and to protect other children from potential harm. “The light of truth and knowledge is our greatest tool to protect kids,” she said.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s second-largest faith group, with 16 million members in more than 45,000 churches, yet lacks a formal process for keeping records about allegations of clergy sexual abuse.

A motion came at the SBC annual meeting in 2007 calling for a database of Southern Baptist ministers who have been “credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse.”

After study, SBC leaders determined the idea unfeasible, saying the convention lacks authority to investigate local churches, which are free to call their own ministers. While the convention officially espouses local-church autonomy, outside observers say another factor may be that by claiming no responsibility for supervising ministers listed in the denomination’s database, the SBC is less likely to fbe ound liable in a court of law.

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