A prominent Southern Baptist church in Florida once picketed by homosexual groups for its opposition to gay marriage is now in headlines for the arrest of a volunteer youth minister accused of sexually abusing teenage boys he met through the church.

Pastor Jay Dennis called the arrest of 40-year-old Marshal Seymour a “Category 5 storm” for First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, Fla., the Lakeland Ledger reported.

According to his arrest report, Seymour is accused of sexually abusing three boys ages 15-17 at the time of the alleged acts.

The arrest followed a two-week investigation that began when the oldest of the three, who is now over 18, came to police saying he didn’t want any more youth to be victimized.

Church officials said they ran two background checks on Seymour before allowing him to volunteer for the church’s student ministry in 1999, but they came back clean.

But Seymour in fact had a criminal record. Police in Mobile, Ala., arrested him July 1, 1999, on charges of second-degree sodomy and second-degree sexual abuse of a 16-year-old boy, while working as a youth minister at Parkway Assembly of God.

The sodomy charge was dropped, and Seymour pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in lieu of the sexual-abuse charge. His one-year jail sentence was suspended and he was put on probation for a year.

“He did exactly what he did here in Mobile, Alabama,” Sgt. Gary Gross of the Lakeland Police Department told the Lakeland Ledger. “Sexual predators tend to be wanderers. They move from one location to another.”

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who attends First Baptist Church at the Mall, told the Ledger that even presumably safe places like churches must be on the lookout for sexual predators.

“Why do you find all these predators at church?” Judd said. “Well, that’s where the children are. Any place that children are, pedophiles and predators are not far behind.”

In 1999, Seymour moved to Lakeland and began volunteering at the First Baptist Church at the Mall, an 8,000-member church that sits on 32 acres at a 400,000 square-foot former shopping mall that it purchased in 1998 for $8.6 million.

Seymour turned himself in to police late Friday night. Police allege he met victims through First Baptist Church at the Mall and often paid them money in exchange for sexual favors or to keep quiet about sexual encounters after they occurred.

Seymour faces charges of unlawful sexual activity and three counts of using a child in sexual performance. He was also charged with tampering with or fabricating physical evidence for allegedly trying to bribe a clerk at a hotel where one of the incidents is believed to have occurred to remove his name from a computer register.

He is in jail on $325,000 bond and if convicted could be sentenced to up to 65 years in prison.

The church’s pastor told media Seymour, who is married, was a popular church member and no one had any reason to suspect him of inappropriate behavior. Dennis said his own son worked at Seymour’s company that services fire-safety equipment.

“Today we stand in sorrow, anger, grief and outrage,” Dennis said at a Saturday news conference. “We are troubled, devastated and shocked by the details of what we have learned.”

“What has happened here is every pastor’s worst nightmare,” Dennis continued in a statement later read on the church Web site. “I stand before you with a broken heart for every victim and each victim’s family. As pastor they are my first priority. At some point I hope to personally meet with any victim and their families to offer any help we possibly can, including counseling.”

On Sunday Dennis told church members: “The church has also been harmed by this situation. This is a Category 5 storm for us. Our church is a great church, but today we mourn the fact that innocent people have been profoundly wounded.”First Baptist Church at the Mall is one of the highest-profile Southern Baptist churches hit in recent months with scandals over alleged sexual abuse by ministers.

Dennis was president of the Florida Baptist Convention in 2001, and in 2004 he made a motion unanimously passed by the state convention urging legislators to support an amendment to the Florida constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Every Sunday after that, the Florida Baptist Witness reported in March 2005, members of homosexual organizations picketed the church, before eventually losing interest.

Dennis was active in a coalition called Florida4marriage.org that tried to collect 611,000 signatures on a petition to place a Florida Marriage Protection Amendment on the ballot in 2006. The final tally was 455,730, well short of the goal.

Dennis led members of The Church at the Mall to not only sign petitions themselves, but also to take the petitions to friends, family and co-workers. The church had a booth in the church lobby to distribute and collect petitions.

The church has also received publicity for its “Project Light,” a Bible distribution to senators and members of Congress in Washington, D.C.

In 2002 the church gave study Bibles to members of the House of Representatives, Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. This year team members visited 435 offices in three government buildings in one business day to personally thank staff members and hand each a Bible, according to the Florida Baptist Witness.

In 2006 Dennis was asked to pray at the National Day of Prayer Breakfast at the White House.

In June the Southern Baptist Convention asked its Executive Committee to study the feasibility of a national 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.”

An Executive Committee work group is expected to discuss the motion at its regularly scheduled meeting in February but said in September it is unclear whether the group will be ready to make final recommendations by the time the SBC meets next summer or if it will only bring an interim report.

“What a tragedy that, despite prior convictions, this man could still slip through the cracks of a Southern Baptist church and sexually savage even more young victims,” said Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “Our hearts go out to all the victims and their families, both in Alabama and in Florida.”

EthicsDaily.com reported Monday that the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship adopted a policy that includes “good-faith investigatory action” into allegations of clergy sexual abuse.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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