Mike Huckabee’s scheduled Sunday night campaign stop in Florida will be in a Baptist church at the center of a nearly two-year-old scandal involving alleged sexual abuse by clergy.
The Web site of Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., lists the former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate as a guest speaker for the 6 p.m. worship service Sunday, Jan. 27. As of late Tuesday afternoon, Huckabee’s campaign Web site reported public events only through Thursday. His press office did not respond to an e-mail requesting confirmation in time to be included in this story.
A press release posted late Tuesay on the church Web site said Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister and former pastor, will deliver the evening sermon.
“Trinity shares common moral and spiritual values with Governor Huckabee and anticipates the message he will bring to the congregation and community in attendance,” the statement said.Along with a 2,200-seat worship center, Trinity Baptist Church is also home to Trinity Baptist College and Trinity Christian Academy, the largest private school in Northeast Florida.
Recently, though, the mega-church has received far more attention for its long-time former pastor Bob Gray, who in the last years of his life was accused of being a serial child molester, and allegations of cover-up by church officials who knew about Gray’s past but kept it quiet.
Gray, 81, died last November before facing trial on charges of capital sexual battery involving 21 women and one man. After his arrest in May 2006, seven civil lawsuits were filed naming not only Gray, but also claiming Trinity Baptist Church didn’t do enough to protect children from a pedophile.
Last fall judges threw out two of those lawsuits, finding they were filed too late due to statutes of limitation. On Jan. 11, however, the judge in a third case denied summary judgment for statute of limitations, ruling the case could move forward.
In 2006, a Jacksonville TV station aired the first of a series of reports alleging that leaders in the prominent Baptist church knew for years their former pastor was a pedophile, but covered it up for fear public knowledge would harm the church’s ministry, shipping Gray to Germany where he served 10 years as a missionary, possibly with access to other children.
Trinity’s current pastor, Tom Messer, denied there was a cover-up.
A second wave of controversy hit last October, when Tony Denton, a former counselor at Trinity Baptist Church, was charged with 16 counts of taking indecent liberties with children between 1977 and 1981 while employed as a music minister in North Carolina.
Clergy sex abuse made headlines in Jacksonville most recently in the arrest of Darrell Gilyard, a high-profile African-American Baptist preacher charged with sending obscene text messages to underage girls.
“We hope Governor Huckabee will reconsider his decision to speak at a church that is still so mired in a sex abuse and cover-up scandal,” said Christa Brown, Baptist coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“He should not lend to Trinity the credibility of his presence as a presidential candidate, because Trinity is a church that has left behind too many wounded people and too many unanswered questions,” Brown said. “For Huckabee to speak there would rub salt in the wounds of people who have already been greatly betrayed.”
Brown, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her Southern Baptist youth minister when she was a teenager, is asking the Southern Baptist Convention to establish an independent review board to make it easier for victims to report abusive clergy and give churches better information to help them prevent unwittingly calling a predator as their pastor.
Trinity Baptist is an independent church not affiliated with the SBC, but it has good relationships with prominent leaders of the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Catholics.
Jerry Vines, a past SBC president and retired pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, has spoken there, and Jerry Falwell once consoled the congregation rocked by the Gray scandal that it was merely a “bump in the road.”
Gray was a Southern Baptist pastor early in his ministry, but he led Trinity Baptist Church to become an independent Baptist church in the 1960s, because he viewed the SBC as too liberal.
More recently the congregation has become part of the Southwide Baptist Fellowship, a group of independent Baptists reaching out to a Southern Baptist Convention they now see as purified by the so-called “conservative resurgence” of the 1980s.
Huckabee is former pastor of Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana, Ark., and past president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, an affiliate of the SBC.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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