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The lawyer for a former Southern Baptist pastor charged with using the Internet to entice a minor for sexual purposes said his client is looking forward to his day in court.

“My client maintains that he didn’t do anything wrong,” attorney Mark Donahoe told the Jackson Sun. “We look forward to presenting a vigorous defense of the case in court.”

Mark Woodson Mangrum, 47, was one of six people indicted by a grand jury in Memphis, Tenn., Feb. 13, on federal charges of child pornography or using a computer to solicit sex from a minor. If convicted, Mangrum could serve between 10 years and life in prison and/or up to a $250,000 fine.

According to news reports, Mangrum was pastor of the 200-member First Baptist Church in Parsons, Tenn., for six years before resigning in January because of the investigation. A local newspaper attempted for weeks but was unable to confirm rumors surrounding his mysterious resignation two days after a car accident, until announcement of Mangrum’s arrest in a press release from the U.S. district attorney in western Tennessee.

Located 45 miles east of Jackson, First Baptist Church of Parsons describes itself on a Web site as “a conservative Southern Baptist Church that believes in evangelism and missions, and fully supports the SBC’s Cooperative Program.”

“We aren’t perfect–just forgiven!” it says. “Come join in with us!”

A testimonial by Mangrum is included on a LifeWay Christian Resources promotion offering Web services to Southern Baptist churches. “In its first three weeks our Web site has become an important contact between our church and the community,” Mangrum reported. “We have a ‘community’ page for the locals to go to, but first they go through us. We’ve already had over 1,000 hits, and we are a small church (160 in Sunday school).”

Mangrum is among the most recent Southern Baptist ministers involved in public scandals involving sex with a minor. An advocacy group called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), says in recent months it has tracked about 40 cases involving Southern Baptist ministers, some dating back many years. SNAP claims it is likely there are many more that go unreported.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s top-down polity, which leaves matters of hiring, firing or deciding what to disclose when a minister leaves, SNAP says, creates a loophole for sexual predators seeking access to children to move from church to church without detection.

SNAP has asked SBC leaders to follow the example of the Roman Catholic Church by establishing an independent review board to monitor charges of sexual abuse by clergy and adopting a “zero-tolerance” policy similar to one already existing against churches that affirm homosexuality.

SBC leaders say the denomination has no authority to create such a panel and can help churches deal with the program only through resources, many of which are already available.

A newspaper columnist in North Carolina, however, argued this week along with SNAP that argument doesn’t fly.

“Although there’s no official hierarchical structure in the 16.3-million-member SBC, and churches hire and fire their own pastors and are in theory independent, there’s definitely top-down leadership,” wrote John Railey of the Winston-Salem Journal.

“SBC leaders call many of the shots, and churches pretty much follow the leaders, whether that means taking a firm stance against homosexuality or making sure the head pastor is a man,” said Railey, a religion writer in a Bible Belt city for many years. “Most of the churches that really believe in the treasured tradition of Baptist autonomy have long since stopped dealing with the convention.”

Railey said a denomination so cohesive should be able to circle its churches and root out child molesters. Top-down leadership, by itself, he said, “can help foster an unresponsive, secretive bureaucracy in dealing with–or not dealing with–sexual abuse by clergy, as happened with the Catholic Church.”

“But that type of leadership paired with brutal honesty might do wonders,” he advised. “The SBC has the former. And often, it’s shown the latter. Whether you agree or disagree with SBC leaders, some are among the straightest shooters you’ll ever meet”

Railey said Southern Baptist leaders several years ago talked freely to him about a pastor who neglected to tell his new congregation about felony convictions for misstating his income on federal tax returns.

“One of the leaders told me that if they want their denomination to be a moral authority, they’d better come clean when there’s trouble in their own ranks,” he said. “Amen.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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