Offend, then repeat

Southern Baptist churches hired dozens of leaders previously accused of sex offenses

Houston Chronicle/February 12, 2019

By John Tedesco, Robert Downen, and Lise Olsen

Doug Myers was suspected of preying on children at a church in Alabama — but he went on to work at Southern Baptist churches in Florida before police arrested him.

Timothy Reddin was convicted of possessing child pornography, yet he was still able to serve as pastor of a Baptist church in Arkansas.

Charles Adcock faced 29 counts of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in Alabama. Then he volunteered as a worship pastor at a Baptist church in Texas.

The sordid backgrounds of these Southern Baptist ministers didn't stop them from finding new jobs at churches and working in positions of trust.

They're among at least 35 Southern Baptist pastors, youth ministers and volunteers who were convicted of sex crimes or accused of sexual misconduct but still were allowed to work at churches during the past two decades, an investigation by the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle reveals.

Some were suspected of misconduct but were allowed to leave quietly and work elsewhere. Others had been arrested, had criminal records or even had to register as sex offenders but later found jobs at Baptist churches.

All the men worked at times for churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest coalition of Baptist churches in the United States.

The SBC has rejected efforts to establish a registry to track sexual abuse cases and prevent churches from hiring predatory pastors. In some cases, churches knew of a pastor's past and allowed him to work anyway. In others, the SBC's inaction might have allowed offenders to move from community to community, ruining lives as they slipped through background checks and found jobs at unsuspecting churches.

"There's no other group that does pass the buck better," said Dee Ann Miller, a longtime victims' rights activist in Kansas who speaks out against sexual abuse by Baptist ministers and clergy in other faiths.

The practice of hiring pastors with disturbing pasts is part of a broader problem of sex abuse at Southern Baptist churches across the United States, the newspapers' investigation shows.

At least 700 people — nearly all of them children — reported being sexually abused by those who worked or volunteered at Southern Baptist churches since 1998. Records show that about 220 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have been convicted of sex crimes or took plea deals. The charges range from possessing child pornography to raping children.

The SBC had an opportunity to stop some of the abuse.

In 2007, at their annual meeting in San Antonio, SBC leaders considered a proposal to prevent sexual abuse by creating a database of ministers who had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct. But when the SBC met again in 2008, the committee assigned to study the proposal rejected it, saying it had no authority to compel churches to report sex offenders to the SBC.

With no centralized method of tracking sex abuse at Southern Baptist churches, the Chronicle and the Express-News spent months developing their own database of Baptist offenders by collecting news stories and public records to find perpetrators and gather details about their cases. Studies show most sexual assault victims don't contact police, which means the true number of offenders may well be higher.

August "Augie" Boto, interim president of the SBC's Executive Committee, said sex abuse in churches is a horrendous act. He said the newspapers' database would shine "the light of day upon crime."

"Taking advantage of the vulnerable is what criminals do," Boto said. "And when that happens, our job is to voice it. Not to hide it."

But it's unclear if anything will change at the SBC.

No religion is immune to sexual misconduct in its ranks. But unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which is wrestling with its own sex-abuse scandal, Baptists don't answer to a pope or bishop.

Local church autonomy is a bedrock foundation of Baptist faith. There's no diocese that assigns priests to a parish. Instead, each church is responsible for ordaining and hiring its own ministers.

Boto said the SBC can't force its churches to participate in any efforts to track sex abuse. That means each Baptist church in the SBC — there are 47,000 of them — decides for itself how vigorously to screen job applicants.

"Pastoral assignment among Baptists is kind of the Wild West," said Ed Stetzer, a Christian author and executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois. "There's no regulation. There's no system."

At some churches — especially small ones with fewer resources — the congregation's idea of vetting a potential pastor is deciding whether he's a "good speaker," Stetzer said.

"The Wild Wild West approach to moving from church to church has some real consequences for people who don't know that the pastor that they called is the pastor that got fired for abusing a child three churches ago," Stetzer said.

'A bad feeling'

In case after case, Southern Baptists with a sex offense or troublesome behavior in their past have had no problem finding jobs as preachers, youth group leaders or volunteers at churches across the country.

In Georgia, the pastor of the SBC-affiliated Eastside Baptist Church near Atlanta announced it was re-examining its hiring practices after Alexander Edwards, a volunteer youth pastor, was arrested in 2016 on charges of sexual battery involving an 11-year-old boy he had met at the church.

It wasn't Edwards' first criminal charge. While serving as a youth pastor at another Baptist church 160 miles away in Lee County south of Atlanta, Edwards was arrested in August 2013 and charged with using the internet to find a child for a sex act. That case was still pending when Edwards began volunteering at Eastside. He was convicted of the 2016 charges, and the charge in Lee County was dismissed.

"It was incredibly painful," said the current pastor at Eastside, John Hull, who blamed Edwards' hiring on employment practices that have since been revised.

Hull emphasized that Edwards no longer worked at Eastside when the abuse occurred. But he had met the victim and his family at the church and ingratiated himself with them.

In Arkansas, Timothy Reddin was director of missions for the SBC-affiliated Central Baptist Association in 1998 when he was caught with child pornography and sentenced to 27 months in prison.

Reddin told the federal judge at his sentencing hearing in 2000 that he would never molest a child. But last July, authorities say, Reddin attempted to solicit a 14-year-old minor for sex in an online chat. At the time, Reddin was pastor of Turner Street Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., despite his federal child-pornography conviction.

The "minor" was actually Gerald Faulkner, an undercover agent with the Department of Homeland Security who specialized in cases of child exploitation and child pornography.

"I'll never tell!" Reddin told the agent in an online message. "I could go to jail!"

Reddin pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted enticement of a minor to engage in sexual activity; in early February, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His lawyer declined to discuss the case.

In Alabama, Charles Adcock was charged in 2015 with 29 counts of rape and sodomy involving a 14-year-old girl he met at the SBC-affiliated Woodward Avenue Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, where he had worked as a youth minister a few years earlier.

While out on bail under the supervision of his parents, Adcock moved to Texas, where First Baptist Church in Bedford allowed Adcock to volunteer as a music minister at worship services, despite knowing about his arrest.

"There's not a chance in the world that I would ever hire somebody if they were facing charges like this," said William Rushing, the current pastor of the church in Muscle Shoals. "You just got to be a big idiot to say, 'Hey, you know what? I'm going to hire this person even though they've got this accusation against them.'"

Adcock insisted he was innocent. Without admitting any guilt, he pleaded to a single charge of second-degree sodomy in January 2016 and served 15 months. He is now a registered sex offender.

"He has always, and continues to assert, his innocence," his lawyer, Chris Rippy, wrote in a letter to the Chronicle.

Steve Knott, at the time the pastor of First Baptist in Bedford, said another pastor had hired Adcock. He wasn't allowed unsupervised access to children, court records show. That was little solace to victims' advocates who protested the decision.

"To quietly hire an accused child molester as a music minister, which automatically places him in a position of trust, was astoundingly reckless and irresponsible on the part of the church leadership," the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said in a statement. "It shows lack of sound judgment in the care and protection of the children of their church."

"A child was hurt, and it happened on our watch," Hull said.

'Broken Trust'

The SBC does not keep statistics on ministers accused of abuse, making it difficult to compare the rate of sexual misconduct at SBC churches to other religions, such as Catholicism.

"The problem with Protestants is, we don't have the ability to track," said Wade Burleson, a Baptist pastor from Oklahoma who proposed creating a database of offenders at the SBC meeting in 2007. "Where we should be skewered is that leadership is acting as if they don't care to track. OK, so which is worse, tracking and knowing and doing nothing, or knowing there's a problem and refusing to track?"

Church autonomy didn't stop one of the SBC's state conventions in Texas from keeping its own list of offenders.

Under mounting pressure from critics in 2007, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, one of many groups that fall under the SBC umbrella, published a webpage called "Broken Trust" that included a list of eight Baptist pastors who had been convicted of sex crimes.

One of the ministers on the list was John McKay, a pastor at First Baptist Church of Hondo, 40 miles west of San Antonio. A charismatic former Marine who had a strong following, McKay had once received a military commendation for keeping his men out of trouble overseas.

But in the spring of 2003, the parents of a girl who attended the church suspected McKay was sleeping with their teenage daughter. The girl's distraught father asked Medina County Sheriff's Sgt. Wayne Springer to investigate. Springer checked McKay's employment history and discovered a record of questionable behavior toward women at other churches.

"I started looking into his past and we started calling these other churches where he'd been," recalled Springer, now an investigator with the district attorney's office in Medina County. "And there wasn't one of those churches that we called that didn't tell me something bad about this guy."

The convention also kept a longer, confidential list of others who had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct. Churches could contact the organization to see if a job applicant was on the list.

Springer was told that McKay liked to rub his arm against the breasts of church secretaries when he signed paperwork at the office. One Baptist deacon, Edward Lozano, told Springer that McKay had committed "indiscretions" with married women at a now-closed Baptist church in San Antonio, according to Springer's investigative report about McKay.

In Hondo, McKay began "grooming" a teenager in his congregation when she was only 13 years old, telling her how special she was and how she was more mature than other girls, the report states.

After two years, the relationship turned sexual. The girl was 15; McKay was 57.

McKay drove her to motels in Devine and San Antonio weekly to have sex — a second-degree felony in Texas, since she was under the age of 17.

Springer arrested McKay on April 16, 2003. After pleading guilty to sexual assault and serving nearly nine years in a Huntsville prison, McKay moved to San Antonio, where he lived as a registered sex offender.

McKay's wife answered the door at their house in August. She said he was in the hospital being treated for cancer and was unavailable for an interview. They had put his past behind them, she said, and didn't want to talk. McKay died in September.

McKay didn't face any criminal charges related to his previous employment in San Antonio, and it's unclear if his past employers told First Baptist Church of Hondo about their concerns.

Mike Vasquez, senior pastor at the church in Hondo, said background checks are conducted for all employees, especially anyone dealing with children. The McKay case was before his time, Vasquez said, but he was told the church fired McKay.

"They dealt with it pretty swiftly," Vasquez said.

Springer said the father of McKay's victim said he "should have known better" but trusted McKay.

After all, McKay was the pastor of his church.

No silver bullet

The Baptist General Convention of Texas, also known as Texas Baptists, eventually removed the public list with McKay and other offenders and stopped maintaining its larger confidential list, saying it was rarely being used and that effectively dealing with sexual misconduct "falls directly on the local congregation."

"While the list was created out of a desire to help churches, utilization was low and maintenance was challenging," Texas Baptists said in a written statement.

"There were concerns about accuracy, given that the convention did not have the capacity to conduct investigations, and churches in their autonomy were free to choose whether or not to utilize the service," the statement read. "At the same time, the quality and availability of online background checks and registry searches increased dramatically."

A criminal-background check often includes a nationwide search of public records. But companies that offer such searches rely on a hodgepodge of data from thousands of county courthouses across the United States. In many cases, criminal records aren't online at all, creating gaping holes in the system.

Checking sex offender registries isn't always effective, either. Sex crimes are often difficult to prosecute, and some church leaders plead to less-severe charges that don't require them to register as a sex offender.

Given the limitations of background checks, the proposal for an internal SBC database of offenders could be a powerful way for Baptist churches to police their ranks, said Sean Bigley, a lawyer in Southern California whose firm specializes in background investigations.

But many employers — not just churches — are reluctant to release anything beyond basic information about a former employee because they're afraid of a defamation suit, said Michael Holland, a San Antonio lawyer who represents employers.

"It's a tough problem," Holland said. "It's a sad, frustrating topic, and I really feel bad for people who have been assaulted by folks in the ministry."

Burleson, the Baptist pastor from Oklahoma who proposed a database of offenders back in 2007, has had years to think about handling the sensitive information responsibly.

Burleson primarily views the database as a place for credible accusations — cases where investigators concluded something happened. Burleson also would encourage other Protestant denominations to participate.

Burleson said the SBC should pay the cost of maintaining the database. To avoid any hint of bias, he says that an independent nonprofit should oversee the data and diligently seek out court cases alleging misconduct so it's not entirely reliant on churches to report wrongdoing.

"Whoever's in power has a tendency to want to protect their buddies," Burleson said. "And I don't like a database in the hands of powerful people in the Southern Baptist Convention."

Pastor Doug's rule

Some ministers move from church to church for years until they're caught.

Concerns about Doug Myers' behavior around young boys followed him from Alabama to Florida before he was finally caught, then convicted in 2007.

Charles Canida first met Myers in 2000 at Concord Baptist Church in Russellville, Ala., where Canida was a deacon. Myers came from a Southern Baptist church in Maryland.

Myers quickly gravitated toward boys in the youth group, Canida said, despite being hired to minister to adults. Canida was soon suspicious.

"I just had a bad feeling about him," Canida said in a recent interview.

The concerns grew when, a few months after Myers' arrival, a boy told Canida about "Pastor Doug's" rule: Everyone had to swim naked.

Months later, a mother told Canida that Myers "held her son down on a table at the church on his back ... and was blowing on his stomach to tickle him," Canida said. "She was literally in shambles."

Canida said he met with the county's district attorney but no charges were ever filed.

Concerns about Myers eventually split the congregation at Concord. Canida and others started a new church; Myers moved to Florida, where he established new churches for a few years with help from state and local Baptist associations.

Canida wasn't surprised when he found out Myers was arrested. Myers admitted to molesting a minor he met at a church in Eustis, Fla., according to a probable cause affidavit filed in Lake County in 2006; he pleaded guilty a year later and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The family of the Florida victim sued, alleging that the Florida Baptist Convention and the Lake County Baptist Association had failed to contact Myers' previous churches before entrusting him to start churches in the Sunshine State. The victim, who according to the suit was 11 when he met Myers, said the assaults caused "shame, humiliation ... suicidal ideations and night terrors."

A Lake County jury later awarded the victim $12.5 million. The lawsuit was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount of money, court records show.

Before his release from prison in December 2012, new allegations surfaced in Maryland, where he had been a pastor. Myers was arrested on charges of custodial child abuse and sex offenses against multiple victims from 1995-2001. He was convicted in Calvert County, Md., and is serving a 15-year sentence.

Training and transparency

SBC officials stress the importance of conducting criminal background checks. The SBC's publishing arm, Lifeway Christian Resources, offers discounted screenings to churches through a partnership with a background-check company. They've handled 320,000 checks since 2009.

But even if no criminal records are found, Boto said, that doesn't mean a church's job is done.

When Texas Baptists stopped compiling its registry of offenders, the state convention partnered with MinistrySafe, an organization in Fort Worth that trains churches to develop stronger policies and techniques to prevent sexual abuse.

Katie Swafford, director of counseling services at Texas Baptists, said the training sessions have been eye-opening. One lesson is that background checks, while important, won't catch every threat because most pedophiles don't yet have a criminal record.

That means church members need to ask better screening questions during the hiring process and learn how to spot predatory behavior.

"If you don't understand the risk, you're probably not preparing for the right thing," Swafford said.

Larry Baker and Rex Miller, two FBI agents assigned to the San Antonio Child Exploitation Task Force, have spent years uncovering crimes against children. They once investigated a popular youth pastor who was always around kids — but interacted only with boys.

"It's tough," Miller said. "For a lot of people, it's hard to imagine that someone would have a sexual interest in children."

It was that very dynamic — the tendency toward denial — that made it difficult for people to believe the allegations against McKay, the charismatic former Marine who served as pastor in Hondo.

"Everybody just thought he was the best guy," said Springer, the Medina County investigator who led the case.

McKay's charm blinded parents and church leaders to the warning signs: the hugs McKay gave his underage victim at softball games; the suspicious phone calls at her home; the little favors McKay did for her.

After McKay's arrest, some who attended the church shunned Springer as if he were the criminal, he said.

Springer said it's crucial for church congregations to understand that sexual predators don't "groom" only victims to gain their trust. They groom everyone around them so no one suspects a thing.

"He was everything that the community wanted," Springer said. "But (they) didn't know about the devil inside him."

Part 3: All too often, Southern Baptist youth pastors take advantage of children

The pastor had "zero involvement" with girls, even though he was responsible for them.

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