Jerry Falwell called high-profile allegations that a former pastor of a prominent independent Baptist church molested and raped numerous children over the course of decades a “bump in the road.”
“When you hit a bump in the road–the pastor has mentioned six months here of challenges–forget the bump in the road. That’s all it is. You’ve got to move on,” Falwell said in a keynote address of a three-day meeting of the Southwide Baptist Fellowship at Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla.
Robert Gray, the former 30-year pastor who led the church out of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1960s, was arrested in May. He is scheduled to stand trial Nov. 27 on two counts of capital sexual battery, because two of his accusers say he molested them when they were 6 years old.
Twenty-two people, including one man, have come forward since May to accuse Gray of abusing them. The other allegations involve children older than 12, meaning they cannot be prosecuted due to a statute of limitations.
If convicted, Gray, who is now 80 and reportedly in frail health, faces a mandatory life sentence without parole.
Trinity officials said the Oct. 22-25 conference featuring Falwell and other preachers including past SBC president Jerry Vines was scheduled long before Gray’s arrest. In a Wednesday night sermon, Falwell said the last time he spoke at the church was 1991, he had been there several times before, and “could not be happier” about the mega-church’s progress.
“Now let me tell you, I heard you say about the tough six months,” Falwell said in a sermon streamed on the church Web site. “You need to know that it’s never, never as bad as it seems. And neither is it ever as good as it seems. You have to settle down in the storm and in the blessing and keep your feet on the ground. Don’t get too flippant and giddy when everything is going well, because the phone will ring tomorrow. And don’t get too down when things are falling apart, because it’s all part of a plan.”
“Having been a preacher for 54 years and pastor of the same church 50 years and 17 Sundays, there are not many things that can happen that I couldn’t write a book on,” Falwell said. “And I found after all these years that nothing nor anyone can hurt any of us as we keep our eyes on him.”
“We can have our little setbacks, but I’m the only one who can hurt me. If I get disloyal to this book, or to the Lord or to my wife and family, I can hurt myself. But as long as I stay focused on him, there’s no way anyone, anywhere, from the Washington Post to the New York Times to all the television networks, and etcetera, etcetera, who can hurt me or you, or any of us, because we are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.”
One blog includes articles and testimonies by alleged victims who said church leaders protected Gray when they came forward. An internal investigation paid for by the church found “no indication of cover-up, deliberate or unintentional.”
Several former church members or students at Trinity Christian Academy, which Gray founded in 1967 and served as its administrator, have claimed abuse. Most are now adults in the 30s and 40s, but after hearing news reports, a 67-year-old woman told a local TV station that Gray fondled and tried to kiss her when she was 9 years old. He was then an assistant minister who worked with youth at Hampton Baptist Church in Hampton, Fla.
The Southwide Baptist Fellowship is made up of about 1,000 churches. It is a member of the International Baptist Network, a group aimed at unifying independent fundamental Baptists around the world. The group also reaches out to conservative Southern Baptists, looking for new partnerships after pulling out of the Baptist World Alliance in 2004.
Falwell has embraced the “conservative resurgence,” that gained control of the nation’s largest Protestant faith group, famously leading his longtime independent Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., to affiliate with the SBC in the 1990s.
The trend worries some of the more rigid fundamental Baptists, who view practices associated with Southern Baptists like contemporary worship, casual dress and use of Bible translations other than the King James Version as too lax.
A group that in the past drew attention to clergy abuse in the Catholic Church last month traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to warn SBC leaders the denomination’s bottom-up ecclesiology is a haven for sexual predators, who abuse a church’s trust and then when discovered move on to another state protected by a cloak of secrecy.
The group, the Survivors Network of those Abuse by Priests (SNAP), brought along a series of concrete proposals for a comprehensive response to the problem of clergy sex abuse.
SNAP is still awaiting an official response from SBC leaders. But a column last week in EthicsDaily.com by Christa Brown, founder of Voice to Stop Baptist Predators, and coordinator of SNAP-Baptist, prompted long discussions at an unofficial Web forum on BaptistLife.com.
Brown criticized Falwell’s dismissive choice of words. “When 22 people report having been sexually abused as kids by a church’s founding pastor, it cannot rightly be minimized as a mere ‘bump in the road,'” she said.
She said what Falwell should be sermonizing on is, “Why did no one in the church put up a roadblock and stop this man?”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.