A lawsuit filed last month claims the Florida Baptist Convention, a local Baptist association and a sponsoring mother church were negligent in recruiting a church planter now in prison for sexual abuse of a minor.
The lawsuit, filed June 29 by the mother of a victim identified only by initials, says the state convention, Lake County Baptist Association and Bay Street Baptist Church in Eustis, Fla., should have known that Douglas Myers was unfit before recruiting him to establish Southern Baptist churches in the state. Myers, 58, received seven years in prison after pleading guilty to lewd and lascivious molestation.
The lawsuit seeks damages from Myers for sexual assault and emotional distress. But it also seeks to hold the church bodies liable for bringing Myers into the community where he went on to befriend an 11-year-old boy he later admitted to molesting.
As a church planter, the suit says, Myers acted as an “agent” of the convention, association and church, receiving organizational support including health insurance, retirement services and support through the state convention’s Cooperative Program budget.
The state convention further supported Myers’ efforts through training and resource material and signaled approval of a mission church started with Myers as pastor by reporting it in the Florida Baptist Witness.
The suit charges the Baptist groups with “wanton, willful acts and gross negligence,” saying they were required to “exercise due care and conduct an appropriate investigation” prior to retaining Myers as a church planter and pastor.
“Defendants knew or should have known through the exercise of reasonable diligence that Myers was unsuitable to act as pastor and was not suitable to mentor, counsel or minister to young children,” it says.
The association and state convention, the suit says, “maintained recruitment files for prospective ministers, which provide biographical data and information concerning such ministers to member churches.”
Those files “either failed to contain or report Myers’ prior history of sexual predation or misconduct with minors while a Southern Baptist minister in previous church assignments or reflected such history of sexual misconduct and predation but were ignored, resulting in Myers’ placement as a church planter and minister” at Triangle Community Church, the church where Myers was pastor at the time of his arrest.
While acting in distinct roles from one another, the suit says the state convention, association and mother church acted together “to promote, establish and found Triangle as a mission church” and “approved and supported the appointment of Myers as its founding minister.”
The lawsuit seeks costs for the victim’s continuing psychiatric care and compensatory damages for emotional distress and humiliation.
According to the lawsuit, Myers started Harbor Baptist Fellowship in Eustis, Fla., as a mission of Bay Street Baptist Church, in 2002. While at Bay Street, Myers allegedly met his future victim, who attended youth activities at the church. The boy’s grandmother was in charge of the preschool department at Bay Street.
In 2005 Myers founded Triangle Community Church. The lawsuit describes it as a mission of Bay Street Baptist Church, but the current pastor at Bay Street told the Orlando Sentinel that Myers started the church with his own money in a storefront.
Beginning in about July 2005, the lawsuit says, Myers began sexually abusing the boy, who was 13 at the time, with the abuse carrying on for about six months. When the boy’s grandmother learned of it, she contacted the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. Myers was arrested Feb. 24, 2006. He pleaded guilty Jan. 3, 2007, and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
The Florida Baptist Convention did not respond to a request for comment e-mailed Friday afternoon.
While civil lawsuits against churches following a criminal conviction are common, this case is one of the few were someone has attempted to sue a statewide Baptist organization, said Christa Brown, Baptist coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a support group for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
EthicsDaily.com reported in January that suspicions about Myers’ behavior around young boys followed him during a 30-year ministry in Southern Baptist churches. One former deacon at an Alabama church where Myers served before moving to Florida said a pastor at Myers’ earlier church in Maryland told him if the search committee at the Alabama church had done its job and called for a reference, he would have recommended against hiring him.
SNAP has called on the Southern Baptist Convention to establish an independent review board to receive and investigate complaints about sexual abuse by ministers and to make that information available to churches.
The Southern Baptist Convention last month in San Antonio, Texas, referred a motion to its Executive Committee asking the committee to “conduct a feasibility study concerning the development of a database of Southern Baptist clergy and staff who have been credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse and that such a database be accessible to Southern Baptist churches.”
A resolution passed at the meeting called on churches and convention entities “to exercise moral stewardship by observing responsible employment practices, including performing criminal background checks on all ministers, employees, and volunteers.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.