I have written 317 editorials for The Christian Index over the past 12-plus years. I don’t think I have ever written an editorial to promote a conference, but in this editorial I am making a rare exception. Why? Because this conference addresses a subject very personal to me and should be an imperative for every pastor and concerned layperson.
Let me tell you my story. In my last pastorate all was going well and I was enjoying my church and the privilege of pastoring a vibrant and warm-hearted fellowship. However, one December Monday morning at about five o’clock I received a call that rocked my world and plunged our church into a season of dark despair.
The caller on the other end of the line reported in a quivering voice, “Pastor we have a serious problem. One of our staff members was confronted during the night by an irate parent who accused him of molesting his son in the church’s Christian Life Center.”
When the name of the staff member was mentioned I was shocked. He taught children martial arts in our recreational program. He taught a middle school boys class in Sunday School. I had performed his wedding six months earlier. This staff member who will remain unnamed and his fiancé, a lovely and faithful member of our church, were in my office on three occasions for intense premarital counseling sessions. He was faithful to the church, handsome, and winsome in every way.
… one December Monday morning at about five o’clock I received a call that rocked my world and plunged our church into a season of dark despair.
I got dressed long before daylight, went to the church, met with some church leaders for prayer to seek the Lord for guidance, and then assembled the staff to discuss our dilemma and the course of action we should take.
When the staff member successfully escaped the wrath of his accuser on that fateful night, the traumatized father called every newspaper, television station, and law enforcement agency in the area to register his complaint.
By nine o’clock on that Monday morning the church parking lot was filled with mobile units from multiple television stations and law enforcement officers. Our world had been turned upside down. We soon realized that regular staff meetings, ministry assignments, and missions projects would have to be given a secondary place to the emergency situation that had suddenly interrupted our lives.
The church was making headlines, negative headlines in the Atlanta Journal Constitution and other newspapers including USA Today. Multiple television stations were heralding the news that our church had a sexual predator for a staff member. We were in a survival mode.
Our staff called every family (half of them not members of our church) that had a child in one of the classes taught by this staff member. They were all urged to be present for a meeting that Monday evening at our church. We hired professional psychologists and family counselors to explain how child predators worked their devious plans. The counselors explained that other children under the tutelage of this staff member could have had similar experiences. The parents were told how to talk to their children about the difference between “good touching” and “bad touching.”
Some of the parents were angry, and rightly so. They were also very vocal and insisted that the pastor, the staff, and the church were all culpable for allowing any such deplorable behavior to take place in the church. While some cooler heads ultimately prevailed, the meeting could have easily turned into an embarrassingly volatile confrontation.
The accused staff member had retreated to some secluded hideaway in the north Georgia Mountains. While many of us attempted to reach him on his cell phone, he remained hidden and out of touch.
The parents were invited back to the church for a second meeting on Tuesday night to listen as law enforcement officials explained how the search for the fugitive was progressing. The meeting was less explosive, but far from pleasant.
Respected men of great spiritual wisdom told me to put the victims and their families first, the perpetrator second and the church third. That is what we did …
To make a long story short, the fugitive staff member was persuaded by a friend and mentor to turn himself in and he did five days later on Friday afternoon. He was finally charged with 24 counts of child molestation, three of which were aggravated counts of child molestation.
For months our church paid for many of the parents to take their children to professional counselors in order to minimize the emotional scars caused by sexual abuse. We paid for the hours lost in work, the transportation to and from the counselors, as well as the therapy provided by the psychologists. The bill amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fortunately, we had an insurance policy that covered the costs, but just barely.
There was the threat of civil suits, but we worked hard to cultivate relationships and provide as much assistance to the affected families as possible. Fortunately, the threats never became a reality, but the church bore the stigma created by the dark and devastating experience.
At one point we were having 25 to 30 guest cards filled out every Sunday by visitors to our worship services, but after the news broke about the sexual abuse in our church we would go for weeks without anyone completing a guest card. Our church had become off-limits to potential guests looking for a church home.
Respected men of great spiritual wisdom told me to put the victims and their families first, the perpetrator second, and the church third. That is what we did and concluded that it was wise counsel. I visited the arraigned staff member in jail every week for one year. The prosecuting attorney proposed a 30-year prison sentence to the defendant. I begged him to accept the plea bargain so the children would not have to testify in court. During that year we were greatly preoccupied with the ominous cloud that hung over the church and the impending trial.
The trial lasted three weeks. Once again the church was in the news with negative headlines. When the verdict was announced the staff member was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to three life terms in prison with no chance of parole.
I would not want any church or pastor to go through the trauma we experienced in that dark chapter of our church’s history.
Therefore, I want to invite you to the Ministry Safe Conference the Georgia Baptist Convention is sponsoring at First Baptist Church in Atlanta on Thursday, Oct. 22. The convention is covering most of the cost, but there is a modest fee of $15 for those who register. Registration will be open until Oct. 8. You may register by clicking on the image above.
The leadership team of Gregory Love and his wife, Kimberlee Norris, will lead the conference. This is something you do not want to miss. The information you will receive will help you avoid the devastating experience we encountered in the church I pastored. You may also contact Jill Johnson (770-936-5332, firstname.lastname@example.org) or Karen Wheeler (770-936-5204, email@example.com).