Southern Baptist churches in Cordova, Tenn., and Slidell, La., are the latest to receive unwanted publicity after their current or former ministers were arrested on charges of sexual abuse of minors.
Steven Haney, 46, pastor of Walnut Grove Baptist Church in suburban Memphis for 20 years before resigning a year ago, is charged with sexual battery by an authority figure. The Shelby County Sheriff’s Department said a 21-year-old man told detectives that Haney molested him at the church and other locations around Memphis between September 2001 and December 2006.
Haney is out of jail on $25,000 bond. If convicted, he could be sentenced to between three and 15 years in prison.
A volunteer associate pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Slidell, La., was arrested July 2 on two counts of aggravated sex crimes involving juveniles and 47 counts of possession of child pornography.
According to media reports, sheriff’s deputies booked James Griffin, 67, after finding 50 images of child pornography on his computer and as printed photographs.
The St. Tammany News Banner quoted a detective who said another Slidell church, Grace Memorial Baptist Church, fired Griffin a little more than a year ago for looking at pornography on a church computer, but he found another job at Immanuel Baptist.
Police said they received a complaint on aggravated sex crimes against Griffin less than a year ago. Two victims, between the ages of 5 and 7, reportedly are not members of either church, but detectives said they don’t know how long Griffin might have been preying on children.
“He is a predator, and there are probably more victims, and more charges will be forthcoming.” said Sheriff Jack Strain.
“I’d be shocked if we don’t find more victims,” Strain said. “These are horrific crimes with very young victims, and he was very deliberate in his actions.”
Griffin, who has no criminal record, was being held on $1.2 million bond and was under suicide watch by deputies.
Police said members of Immanuel Baptist were shocked at the arrest, and members of Grace Memorial were just as upset. “They had no clue that would resurface at Immanuel,” Detective Barney Tyrney told news media.
Back in Tennessee, Haney’s alleged victim told investigators the former minister approached him when he was 15 years old and became a mentor to him. Eventually, the victim said, Haney lured him into performing sex acts with him at the church study and other locations.
Sheriff’s detectives recently began the investigation after the victim told relatives about the alleged sexual encounters with the minister. Detectives say the investigation is continuing to see if there are more victims.
A Memphis television station said Haney’s arrest ticket accused him of forcing the 15-year-old to take an “obedience test,” which required him to perform various sex acts with the preacher. The victim said the abuse, which went on for five years, took place in the pastor’s study at the church, his home and elsewhere.
WMC-TV said nobody answered the door at Haney’s home, but there was a car in the driveway with a license tag bracket marked “Jesus is Lord.”
While covering the story, Action News-5 reporter Jason Miles said a man claiming to be a former deacon at WalnutGroveBaptistChurch pulled up and told him that he and others were forced out of the church more than 10 years ago after raising similar concerns about Haney involving another teen-aged boy.
Hunter Ryan, a member at WalnutGroveBaptistChurch, told the station he was “flabbergasted” by the news. “It just doesn’t sound like Steve Haney to me,” he said.
Griffin’s arrest in Louisiana drew a similar response. Bob Heustess, pastor of Grace Memorial Baptist Church, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that Griffin was part of the congregation about four or five years and there were never any problems. “He was like anyone else … nothing abnormal,” Heustess said.
Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said those sorts of things could be said about almost every clergy sex-abuse case. It’s why congregations have a hard time believing awful allegations against a beloved minister or doing anything about it.
Brown believes one solution is for the Southern Baptist Convention to set up an independent review board, where professionals who are objective and outside the realm of the minister’s influence can investigate such charges and make it harder for predators to move from church to church.
The SBC Executive Committee this year is set to study the feasibility of setting up a denomination-wide database of Baptist ministers who have been credibly accused of, confessed to or been convicted of sexual abuse or harassment.
In another recent case receiving media coverage, three ministers at GatewayBaptistChurch in Loveland, Colo., an independent Baptist church not affiliated with the SBC, faced charges for allegedly failing to report child abuse by a member of their congregation.
The ministers denied doing anything wrong. They said after they found out about the alleged abuse they told a 23-year-old mentally disabled adult member of the church youth group to turn himself in to police and helped him to find a lawyer.
Police said they spoke with the alleged abuser, Paul Lavertu, in late June, but he gave only minimal details. The alleged victims didn’t cooperate, preferring it to be handled by the church. Lavertu wasn’t arrested until July 11, police said, after he had molested another child, his fifth known victim.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.