Southern Baptist members describe alleged grooming, sexual misconduct among clergy in new report

In the summer of 2010, a pastor and his wife of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, said they had received an invitation on a vacation in Florida with Johnny Hunt, a senior pastor of their church whom they considered to be a mentor.

The 55-year-old church leader had been elected national president of the Southern Baptist Convention two years earlier, making him one of the most powerful members of the largest denomination of Protestants in the US.

Hunt allegedly helped book a place in Panama City Beach that, unbeknownst to them, was right next door to his unit in the same apartment complex, the unnamed young couple said in a 288-page investigative report released Sunday by the Southern Baptist. Convention. When the vicar’s wife arrived alone after a day out, she said she was greeted by Hunt and they were in touch from their respective balconies.

But when she invited him to her apartment to escape the heat and continue their conversation, in which she said she was candid about the stress she and her husband had at church, he became aggressive, she told investigators. , as detailed in the report. According to her, he pulled down her shorts, made sexual comments about her body, then pinned her on the couch and pulled up her shirt. She said in the report that he groped and sexually assaulted her with his hands and mouth.

Moments later, she said in the report, Hunt — who is married and has two adult daughters about her age — texted her to come to her balcony to discuss what had happened. Instead of an apology, she said, he suggested having sex three times a day.

Johnny Hunt
Johnny Hunt, then the chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention, addresses the group’s National Assembly in Louisville, Ky., in 2009. Ed Reinke / AP

Hunt did not immediately request comment on the allegations on Monday, but in a statement posted to Twitter after the report’s publication, he denied the contents and also said he had not yet read the findings in their entirety.

“To put it bluntly, I strongly deny the circumstances and characterizations set forth in the Guidepost report. I’ve never abused anyone,” he wrote.

The report contained widespread allegations of sexual misconduct among said clergy and a cover-up involving the upper echelons of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The denomination’s executive committee has contracted an outside firm, Guidepost Solutions, an independent consultant that conducts investigations on behalf of faith-based organizations, to launch an investigation after delegates overwhelmingly voted for one last summer.

In the wake of that, Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2014 to 2016, stepped down as head of the executive committee in October.

The report also discusses several reforms the Church could make, including creating and maintaining an “Offender Information System” to alert the community to suspected violators, and limiting the use of nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements that prosecutors submit. bind confidentiality in matters of sexual abuse.

A church task force will present its own recommendations based on the report at its annual meeting next month in Anaheim, California.

Southern Baptist Convention
Attendees worship at the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Phoenix in 2017.Matt York / AP file

The response from some prominent Southern Baptist Convention leaders and followers has already been to demand sweeping changes that ensure that the accused are not protected and the abused are not silenced.

“What was published is heartbreaking, with some parts just horrifying”, tweeted JD Greear, a North Carolina pastor and president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2018 to 2021, who has spoken in support of victims of sexual abuse. “We have no choice but to learn from our past and change the future.”

Commenting on the report, current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Ed Litton, said in a statement Sunday that there are “not enough words to express my sadness at the things revealed in this report” and that Southern Baptists “must decide to change our culture and make much-needed reforms.”

Litton could not be reached for further comment Monday.

Another denominational leader, Kevin Ezell, the chairman of the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he was unaware of allegations of misconduct against Hunt, who resigned from a leadership position more than a week ago. position on the council.

“I heard the details of the report today, along with the rest of our Southern Baptist family,” Ezell said, adding that the details in the report are “outrageous and deeply disturbing.”

He said he declined to speak publicly about Hunt’s resignation until the Guidepost report was released “out of respect for the investigation”.

Neither the woman who accused Hunt of wrongdoing nor her pastor husband were named in the Guidepost report, which comes after a 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News documenting two decades of cases involving pastors and deacons in Southern Baptist churches are said to have abused hundreds of people while, for the most part, they remained in their posts. In response to the newspaper report, Church leaders pledged to protect the victims and bring about change.

According to researchers at Guidepost, Hunt paid an “unusual amount of attention” to the pastor’s wife while she was at church, “grooming the couple with flattery and promises of ministerial assistance.”

Investigators said they interviewed other witnesses who helped corroborate the pastor’s and his wife’s allegations, including a pastoral counselor from the First Baptist Church who confirmed attendance for a session between Hunt and the couple, in which, he said, Hunt gave in to the woman’s husband. that he sexually abused her. During that meeting, the couple also said that Hunt stated, “Thank God I didn’t consummate the relationship,” the report said.

Hunt also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on their allegations.

The alleged “survivor states that at the time she believed that while she did not consent to what Dr. Hunt was doing to her, she was made to feel it was consent because she is not fighting back,” the report said.

In addition, the Guidepost researchers said the counseling minister told them he remembered Hunt saying that “if this (story) gets out it could negatively affect 40,000 churches.”

The investigators said they interviewed Hunt twice, and during the second time, he acknowledged that he had known the younger pastor and that he considered himself a “strong influence” on his life. Initially, the investigators said, Hunt did not recall spending any personal time with the couple or inviting them to Panama City Beach, but later recalled seeing the pastor’s wife on the adjacent balcony, but “no contact whatsoever.” ” had.

“He also reiterated that it was not true that he was on the balcony or in the flat,” the report said. “When asked specifically if he was kissing her, pulling her shorts, or stroking her, he said no. He denied sexualized comments about her appearance, panties, tan lines or perfume.”

The Guidepost report goes on to cite other cases where church leaders have been accused of concealing wrongdoing. Among them are top leaders of the Prestonwood Baptist Church in a suburb of Dallas, one of the largest churches in the country, which is said to be protecting a music director accused of abuse in the 1980s and who failed to alert the police.

The music minister, John Langworthy, was “quietly fired” and moved to Mississippi, “where he confessed to his congregation at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton in 2011 that he had committed “sexual indiscretions” with teenage boys during his time at Prestonwood and before. , when he was in Mississippi,” the report said.

Langworthy was not immediately available for comment Monday.

John Langworthy
Former Clinton High School choirmaster and music minister John Langworthy and his wife, Kathy, walk into a courtroom in Jackson, Miss., in 2013.Rick Guy / AP File

Langworthy pleaded guilty to five counts of lust-gratification related to incidents in Mississippi from 1980 to 1984 and was sentenced to a total of 50 years in 2013, but avoided jail time under a plea deal.

In a statement, Prestonwood Baptist denied how the Guidepost report characterized the situation, saying the church “never protected or supported abusers in 1989 or since.”

Throughout the report, churchgoers who say they were abused by clergy at several Southern Baptist churches across the country told investigators how they were repeatedly thwarted in their efforts to be heard.

Jennifer Lyell, a former director of a Christian media publishing house who came out publicly in 2019 about sexual abuse, was described in the report as saying she had later been the victim of harassment from fellow churchgoers, with some calling her a “whore.” and “bitter jealous woman.”

Lyell said she was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when the abuse began, and she decided to speak out after learning that the man she accused of abuse had returned to the ministry.

Seminary president Albert Mohler said in a statement that he was aware that the Guidepost report would contain information about Lyell’s allegations against a faculty member.

“From the outset, we were prepared and determined to assist the researchers in any way we could and support their work,” Mohler said. “What happened to Jennifer was without a doubt sexual abuse. The publication of the report is the beginning, not the end, of our challenge as a convention of churches.”

“The real test for Southern Baptists is how we deal with these sins,” he added, “now that they have been exposed and brought into the light.”

Legal counsel to the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention told The Associated Press in February that the agency apologized to Lyell earlier this year and gave her a confidential monetary settlement regarding the way she handled her case.

But Lyell tweeted Monday that everyone should be more accountable.

“There are plenty of reasons to remain silent in a situation like this,” Lyell said, according to the report. “But we must not remain silent.”

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