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A day after canceling a Sunday-night sermon at a north Florida Baptist church facing pending lawsuits that allege molestation and cover-up, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee decided instead to address the congregation live via telephone.

Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who earlier applauded the former Arkansas governor for changing his plans to speak at Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, called it “a cold slap in the face for clergy abuse survivors.”

SNAP asked Huckabee to call off the appearance out of respect for alleged abuse victims of the church’s former pastor, Bob Gray, who died last year before standing trial on charges of capital sexual battery. Seven lawsuits claim church leaders knew Gray was a child molester but covered it up to avoid scandal.

Brown said she was “hugely disappointed” by Huckabee’s decision.

“Huckabee is choosing to speak at a Baptist church that has one of the biggest on-going clergy sex-abuse and cover-up scandals in the country,” said Sunday on her blog titled Stop Baptist Predators. “And Huckabee knows about it,” she added, citing a letter the victims’ support group sent to his campaign saying his appearance at Trinity would add insult to injury for victims and send a wrong message to clergy.

“By speaking there anyway, the unmistakable message Huckabee sends is that clergy sex-abuse and cover-ups are no big deal,” Brown said. “That would be a terrible message for ANY presidential candidate to send. It’s a message made even more tragic when the presidential candidate is also a Baptist preacher.”

SNAP alleges the Southern Baptist Convention is largely ignoring the problem of sexual abuse by clergy. The group wants the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Catholics to form an independent review board to better protect churches from sexual predators.

Huckabee was a Southern Baptist pastor before entering politics and is a past president of the SBC-affiliated Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

During a 15-minute telephone interview and prayer led by Trinity’s senior pastor Tom Messer, Huckabee apologized for his last-minute schedule change.

“I had hoped it would be possible to be in two places at once, but as a strong believer I do not believe in cloning, and I’ve not figured out a way to be in two places at once,” Huckabee said moments before he was scheduled to speak at East Brent Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla. “I appreciate your giving me this incredible opportunity just to visit with you tonight.”

Huckabee, who said he would have appeared at Trinity Baptist not for a political speech but a “personal testimony,” said one of his life’s greatest joys is to have a good relationship with his adult children.

“They, like all kids, sometimes broke my heart, but the truth is the greatest joy I have is not having been governor,” Huckabee said. “People say ‘What’s your greatest accomplishment?’ I say that it’s my wife and I have been able to say that we’ve raised three kids who still love the Lord, who live in a way that they love us–there’s not a day goes by they don’t tell us they love us–and I think the greatest joy I have is that of a father.”

Huckabee said he would “love to” speak at Trinity in the future and thanked the congregation for its prayers. He described the church as a “wonderful congregation.”

Trinity Baptist Church’s Sunday morning service featured an offertory prayer by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, in Florida to campaign for GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.

A member of Corinth Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Seneca, S.C., Graham is a featured speaker at this week’s New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta.

“I was looking for a Baptist church to go to. Pastor, my ship came in,” Graham quipped. “We’ve got more Baptists in South Carolina than we’ve got people, so I feel right at home.”

Graham’s prayer included the following: “As our young men and women struggle to maintain our freedom, let us all pray for their safety and their quick and safe return to home. But let us also understand: let’s pray for their victory, victory over an evil that has no place for any of us here in the eyes of the people that we’re fighting.”

Huckabee attended Sunday morning services at First Baptist Church in Orlando. Last week he received endorsement from the church’s pastor, David Uth, and from Bill Bunkley, legislative consultant for the Florida Baptist Convention.

“I have known Governor Huckabee for 32 years and have found him to consistently represent the biblical values that we can all hold dear,” said Uth, who succeeded former SBC president Jim Henry as pastor of the Orlando mega-church. Huth came as Henry’s co-pastor in May 2005, and Henry retired in March 2006.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Previous stories:

Huckabee Not Speaking at Church Mired in Sex-Abuse Scandal

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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