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Mike Huckabee will not be speaking this weekend at a north Florida Baptist church facing pending lawsuits that allege molestation and cover-up. His campaign says he never agreed to it in the first place, contradicting a press release sent out by the church, while a support group for victims says he backed out after they complained.

Leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests on Thursday urged Huckabee to reconsider his Jan. 27 speaking engagement at Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. EthicsDaily.com reported Wednesday that the church Web site listed Huckabee as its Sunday-night preacher. That announcement has since been removed.

Friday’s Florida Times-Union reported that people at Huckabee’s Little Rock campaign office said they never agreed to the appearance, which a church spokesman termed “surprising.”

Pastor Tom Messer said in a press release Huckabee’s visit was confirmed both verbally and in writing by the candidate’s Florida and national offices, but his staff called the church Thursday afternoon to say the event was canceled due to a schedule change.

SNAP said Huckabee got cold feet after learning that numerous adults at the north Florida mega-church have recently come forward to report they were molested as children by Bob Gray, the church’s pastor for 38 years, who died last November before standing trial on charges of capital sexual battery.

“Whatever the reason, we are very glad for Huckabee’s schedule change and for the fact that he will not be speaking at a church that is so mired in a sex-abuse cover-up scandal,” said Christa Brown, SNAP’s Baptist outreach director.

SNAP said Huckabee’s appearance–while questions remain unanswered about what church leaders knew about Gray’s abuse and if they covered it up–would add insult to injury for victims and send a wrong message to clergy.

In a letter sent Thursday to Huckabee’s campaign, SNAP leaders asked the former pastor turned politician to consider the feelings of wounded victims and their families.

“These are people who have felt betrayed by their faith community, not only because of abuse inflicted on them, but also because of other religious leaders’ lack of transparency,” the letter said. “We ask that you avoid any possibility of rubbing salt in their wounds.”

SNAP leaders said by choosing another venue for his Jacksonville campaign stop, the candidate would send a strong message that clergy sex abuse is a “serious wrong” that should be exposed and not covered up.

“By altering your schedule, and avoiding Trinity Baptist, you will be helping to deter future cover-ups of sexual abuse,” the letter said.

Signing the letter were Brown, SNAP National Director David Clohessy and Barbara Dorris, the group’s outreach director. In addition to Gray, they said, there are unanswered questions about another former church leader, Tony Denton, who was arrested last October on molestation charges dating back 30 years to when he worked as a music minister in a Baptist church in North Carolina.

“At this time, please do not lend to Trinity Baptist Church the credibility of your presence as a presidential candidate,” they urged Huckabee.

“Because you are an ordained Southern Baptist minister and a former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, we also make a second request,” they continued. “If you choose to speak in a Southern Baptist church, please use the occasion to publicly urge Baptist officials to institute the same sorts of protective measures against clergy sex abuse that most other mainline faith groups have already initiated. It is time for the largest Protestant denomination in the country to get its house in order so as to assure that Baptist churches do not harbor clergy predators or conceal their crimes.”

The Southern Baptist Convention is currently studying the feasibility of a national database listing clergy sex offenders. In addition to a registry, SNAP would like to see an independent review board to help autonomous churches better avoid and respond to sexual abuse.

A Southern Baptist church in Arizona, meanwhile, finds itself in uncharted waters following the recent arrest of its youth minister on charges of sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl.

“This is new territory for us,” East Tucson Baptist Church Pastor John Anderson told the Tucson Citizen. “They don’t teach this in seminary.”

Christopher Decaire was arrested Dec. 11 after police served a search warrant at the church. Decaire, 57, had worked part-time in the church’s student ministries for two years but volunteered at the church for about six years before that. He faces charges of two counts of molestation of a child, four counts of sexual conduct with a minor, two counts of sexual abuse and one count of continued sexual abuse of a child.

“We are heartbroken and sad that we have to deal with these allegations,” Anderson said Thursday in a statement to EthicsDaily.com. “The entire congregation is speechless.”

Anderson said law-enforcement authorities asked the church not to speak much about the matter until their investigation is complete, and they were honoring that request.

“East Tucson Baptist Church sees our children as gifts from God, and it is our obligation to protect them as best we can,” the church said in a letter sent to its mailing list Jan. 17. “We work hard to protect children and provide a safe environment for Bible study, fellowship and recreation.”

The letter said church policy is to report any allegation of sexual misconduct to legal authorities, but in this case legal authorities came to the church. It said the church is cooperating fully with the Tucson Police Department and invited anyone with information to contact the pastor.

Decaire was placed on administrative leave, which is church policy for any church worker accused of misconduct. The policy also calls for termination any worker, volunteer or minister found guilty of misconduct.

“We are currently examining our policies to see what more can be done insuring the highest level of security and integrity for our children, volunteers, workers and ministers,” the letter said.

Media reports said Decaire was put through a background and credit check, and he did not show up in searches of sex-offender registry Web sites or online criminal records in Pima County.

“Please pray for us as we journey through these uncharted waters,” church leaders said in the letter. “Our desire is to remain faithful and true to God and His standards. We are ministering to and we will remain by the sides of the families involved. And, we will stand on the promise found in Romans 8:28-29: ‘And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son ¦.'”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Previous stories:

Huckabee Schedules Campaign Stop at Church in Center of Clergy Sex-Abuse Scandal

Arizona Baptist Youth Minister Charged, Former Texas Deacon Sentenced, for Sexual Abuse

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