Chad Foster, a former firefighter from Missouri, arrived in Texas soon after his divorce and with his 30th birthday fast approaching. He described himself as a fairly new Christian with a history of hard drinking.
He was hired and later ordained as a youth pastor by Houston's Second Baptist Church, one of the largest Southern Baptist congregations in the country.
"When I took the job," Foster later said, "I didn't know anything about it."
Foster preached abstinence and urged teens to sign a contract to save themselves for marriage. But he soon targeted underaged girls at the church's Cypress campus for intimate text messages and physical contact. His brief career as a youth pastor ended in 2013 with guilty pleas to three counts of sexual assault of a child and two of online solicitation of a minor.
A 16-year-old girl with whom he illegally had sex testified at his sentencing.
"I thought I really loved him," she said. "He's not the person I knew. I feel like he's a sick person. I think he's going to do it again if he's on probation. I have no doubt in my mind that he will."
There are many others like Foster. Scores of Southern Baptist youth pastors across the country, many with little oversight or formal training, used their church positions to groom and sexually abuse children in their flocks, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reveals.
More than 100 Southern Baptists described as former youth pastors or youth ministers are now in prison, are registered as sex offenders or have been charged with sex crimes, the newspapers found. Their most common targets were teenage girls and boys, though smaller children also were molested, sometimes in pastors' studies and Sunday school rooms.
"You can't let your guard down," said Amanda Griffith, a federal prosecutor in San Diego who has handled dozens of sex crime cases, including those involving predatory youth pastors. "There's the belief that church is sacrosanct, but this can happen anywhere."
Foster toted chicken nuggets to school lunchrooms and delivered passionate sermons as part of his ministry. But behind the scenes, he was prolific in his flirtations, using cellphones and laptops to message multiple girls at Second Baptist and later at a different church.
He asked girls as young as 12 for graphic details about "temptations." He shared his sexual fantasies and masturbated online, displaying himself via social media webcams or describing his activities in texts. He urged his favorites to send their own explicit images and to visit the suburban tract home where he lived alone, Harris County court records show.
Second Baptist quietly fired him in 2010 after receiving complaints about lying and other inappropriate behavior, court records show. Church members and employees were among those who pointed out problems before his dismissal.
But church leaders did not inform youth group members and parents that Foster had been fired or why. Nor did they tell leaders of another church, the Community of Faith Church in Cypress, a non-SBC church that hired Foster to run its youth group in 2011. He found more targets there, court records show.
Second Baptist officials stayed quiet about Foster's 2010 dismissal, even after Harris County detectives arrested Foster in 2011, investigators say.
Southern Baptist churches are the nation's largest Protestant group, but they lack common hiring protocols or standard pastor training programs. They do not have uniform policies for sharing information about pastors fired or convicted of inappropriate sexual behavior, sexual abuse or assault — the kind of transparency that could protect churches and their congregants from sexual predators such as Foster.
Second Baptist officials declined an interview request. But in a statement, the church said that Foster's termination on Dec. 6, 2010, had "nothing to do with sexual abuse or allegations of sexual abuse." The church said "Second Baptist was not made aware of any sexual misconduct by Foster until he was arrested in November 2011, almost a year after his termination."
The church, however, had received complaints about Foster's general conduct and about his behavior with an adult girlfriend, court records show. Those complaints included questions about his dishonesty regarding going on a job interview, exceeding time and texting limits on his church-provided cellphone, and sharing a hotel room with his girlfriend on an out-of-town trip.
Regardless, Second Baptist gave Foster a "great reference," according to testimony from the pastor of the church that later hired Foster, Community of Faith.
In 2013, Foster begged a female Harris County judge for leniency after pleading guilty to five felonies that were uncovered after he had become youth pastor at Community of Faith. Three victims – two who had met him at Second Baptist and one at Community of Faith — requested a long sentence.
Foster was sentenced to five years in 2013, a fraction of the maximum possible penalty. He was released in 2017 and is now living in College Station as a registered sex offender. He declined to comment for this story.
The view from prison
Former Southern Baptist youth pastor Gary Welch says he prays for forgiveness every day for having abused his church position to groom and then repeatedly have sex with a teenage girl.
Welch was married and nearing his 40th birthday when he began to cultivate his victim, who was then 13. They met at his church in Navarro County south of Dallas.
Clandestine meetings and sexual contact continued until the victim was 16 and sought help. When confronted, Welch quickly confessed. He pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated sexual assault in 2012 and was sentenced to 55 years in prison.
He's incarcerated in a dorm reserved for participants in a faith-based program in the Wynne Unit prison on the outskirts of Huntsville.
Like many other Southern Baptist preachers and youth pastors, Welch never attended college or seminary. His father was a preacher and he was a teenager when he felt called by God to teach Sunday school. He worked in churches for years before being formally ordained as a youth minister by a church in Corsicana.
The process was simple. He was observed by the pastor. Deacons posed a few questions, and then they voted him in. At a ceremony, the whole congregation clapped and cheered. He's still proud of what he accomplished in the name of the Lord, including taking children on mission trips to build a cinder block church in Mexico and pray with the homeless on the streets of Austin.
Welch said all youth pastors need training and strict guidelines. His church offered both, but when he took the wrong path, no one noticed. Supervisors saw only his successes, he said. And teens tend to glorify their pastors.
"For students, a lot of times, students will say that's what Christ looks like," he said. "... and when you do something that causes them to question what Christ is or who Christ is ... it causes a lot of destruction in people's lives."
Foster's ordination was delayed after Second Baptist leaders received complaints, including reports that Foster lied about a trip he took, sent excessive texts and behaved inappropriately, court records show. But ultimately his certificate was signed by a group that included Ed Young, a nationally-known religious broadcaster, longtime pastor of Second Baptist and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Foster later told a Harris County judge that he lacked any training in how to teach or counsel adolescents in his youth group at Second Baptist's fast-growing Cypress campus.
The only advice Foster contends he received before being dispatched to save the souls of dozens of junior- and senior-high kids was to "become friends" and "become popular" and let the parents know if children were actively suicidal, according to a sentencing transcript.
That simple formula seemed to work. Soon after Foster began as youth pastor in 2007, the Cypress campus' youth group population boomed. Junior and senior high girls fought over who would bring him coffee, recalls Nicole, who initially admired Foster but later counted herself among his victims. She asked that her last name be withheld.
Nicole, now in her early 20s, described herself as naive and deeply religious as a teen. Foster began to break down boundaries with her and others by sending flirty texts, sharing bus seats on a church trip and inviting girls to his house, she said. Receiving sexually-charged missives from the man who delivered sermons and performed baptisms left her troubled and confused. As a young teen, she didn't realize she was one of several targets.
Later, she and her parents left the Baptist faith.
For years, Second Baptist Church leaders have denied that they knew Foster was behaving inappropriately with teenagers before his well-publicized arrest.
Foster was fired by Second Baptist in late 2010 and told to cease communicating with church teens, according to court documents and his sentencing transcript. His confused youth group members and their parents got no explanation.
In its statement to the Chronicle, the church noted that the youngest victim, who first met Foster at their church when she was 12, was hit with a barrage of sexual texts that were the subject of criminal charges only after Foster was terminated by Second Baptist.
Second Baptist later settled at least two lawsuits filed by two of Foster's victims.
Foster first attracted his 16-year-old victim — whose name is being withheld because she is a sexual assault victim — during a 2011 summer church camp for his new church, Community of Faith. He visited the girls' dorm late one night to share his message about being saved by God from the depths of drinking and divorce and later managed to get her alone on the beach in Alabama. On the way home from camp, they exchanged cellphone numbers.
A few days later, she began texting Foster about a problem she was having with a boy when he stopped her. She was "ruining the mood," he said. When she asked why, he replied that he was masturbating, according to Harris County court transcript. Foster then began to share his detailed sexual fantasies, swore her to secrecy and pressured her to begin a "relationship."
Foster had been leading the youth group at Community of Faith for less than a year when the mother of the 16-year-old spotted his texts. By then, Foster had already invited the girl alone to his home and illegally engaged in sexual intercourse with her at least three times.
The 16-year-old suffered an emotional crisis. She confided in a teacher who alerted police; police alerted the church. Her pastor at Community of Faith quickly reached out to others.
That's when a second victim came forward — the girl who first met Foster at Second Baptist when she was just 12.
The same girl testified that Foster began texting her with inappropriate messages when she was 12 and 13, but his behavior accelerated to web-cam displays of his erections and ejaculations after she got a computer for Christmas in 2010. Over the next year, she received 15,000 texts as well as Skype and Facebook messages from Foster, including explicit live videos of masturbation, invitations to send him nude photos and warnings to delete all logs and never tell anyone.
"My life has turned upside down. I can't relate to what people are going through any more. My innocence is gone," his youngest victim later said in court, breaking down in tears. "I no longer have a relationship with God, and that was once something very special to me. I don't trust anyone in churches anymore."
As part of the criminal case and civil lawsuits that unfolded after Foster's arrest, Second Baptist officials were informed that Foster had aggressively flirted and sent sexual texts to the 12-year-old as well as at least three older youth group members during the time Foster still worked at their church — including one who testified under oath that he seduced her five to 10 times while she was still in high school, court records show.
It's unclear from court records whether church officials reviewed the content of Foster's cellphone texts or the contents of his church computer email either after receiving complaints prior to firing Foster in 2010 — or later when police and a parent requested help to identify additional youth group victims.
The methods Foster used to cultivate Houston-area teens show up in dozens of other cases nationwide. Other sexually abusive youth pastors have changed churches, left the state or received support for mission trips abroad even after complaints surfaced or criminal probes began, court records show.
Some predatory youth pastors were caught and charged only after they began distributing images of teenage victims across state lines.
Two brothers — guitar-playing music minister Jordan Earls and his brother, Joshua, a newly-ordained youth pastor — worked together with a youth group at a Southern Baptist Church in Garland for nearly four years beginning in 2009.
They were the sons of a Southern Baptist preacher and rented an apartment where they threw pool parties. The brothers were single and still in their 20s. They sent girls explicit texts and exchanged pornographic photos and videos with the teens, criminal and civil court files show. The younger brother inappropriately touched girls while in the church and elsewhere, according to the Dallas civil lawsuit.
"Essentially, these men, who lived together in a one-bedroom apartment, ran a child pornography ring using their positions of authority and (church) facilities to exploit impressionable pubescent girls," parents of one youth group victim alleged in a lawsuit that the church settled.
Those parents alleged that the younger of the two brothers, Jordan Earls, sexually molested their daughter inside the church and attacked another girl in a home. A related Dallas County prosecution was dropped after federal charges were filed.
The pair left the church before Garland police sought to formally question them about complaints of inappropriate contact with teens, according to court records and interviews with a Garland police detective and a federal prosecutor. Both Jordan and Joshua continued to work with youth in other churches despite the ongoing criminal investigation.
The Earlses ultimately were caught mainly because they continued to contact Texas victims after leaving the state. Federal prosecutors got involved because both exchanged graphic images of masturbation with teen victims via the internet and cellphones.
Joshua Earls had moved to another church at the time of his arrest in 2013, and Jordan Earls had traveled to South Carolina to work at a church run by their father.
Ultimately, the brothers were convicted of possession of federal pornography for sending and receiving lewd images of their victims and themselves across state lines. At sentencing, Joshua Earls in 2015 begged forgiveness from his victims, from his family and for "having sinned against the government."
"And most importantly, I am sorry to God. I sinned against him, and I should have known better."
Both remain incarcerated: Jordan Earls was sentenced to 15 years and Joshua 12.
Arapaho Road Baptist Church in Garland settled lawsuits filed by parents of two victims and declined comment because of a confidentiality agreement. Leaders "continue to pray for all parties involved," said spokesman Carolyn Alvey. "From the moment they learned there was anything inappropriate going on, they wanted it to be in the light and they wanted to make sure the parties responsible were held accountable."
In other cases, pastors made arrangements to meet victims online, using Back Page ads, chat rooms or email to meet and seduce minors from out of town — sometimes encountering undercover police instead.
It's not just youth pastors who cruise online for teenage victims. Joe David Barron, then a 52-year-old pastor at Prestonwood Baptist in Plano, drove 200 miles after arranging online in 2008 to meet someone he thought was a 13-year-old girl. He primed her for the experience by sending along an image of himself in his underwear with an erection. He arrived at the meeting place, an apartment building just outside Bryan, with large box full of condoms after promising to be gentle when he took her virginity.
Barron was arrested by undercover officers who intercepted his SUV as he circled the parking lot. Barron was fired by his church, which cooperated with investigators, according to Bryan Police Detective Travis Hines.
In a letter to the Chronicle, Barron said he took responsibility for his "choices and behaviors." He attended treatment and has had no reported problems in a decade as a registered sex offender. He now works with ex-offenders in a nonprofit.
"I determined my life would not be defined by my failure," he wrote. "Rather I want my life to be defined by how I responded to my failure."
Chad Foster was found guilty of three sexual assaults of the 16-year-old and two more felonies for his obscene online behavior with the younger girl. During his 2013 sentencing hearing, he asked a Harris County judge for mercy and probation.
At Foster's sentencing, three victims testified. Nicole, the eldest of the trio, took the stand first to tell the judge that there were even more youth group members who were afraid to speak out.
"Although these girls didn't come forward, this is not an isolated incident, and there are a lot more that have come to me," she said.
In an interview with the Chronicle, she described a long-term pattern of aggressive flirtation or abuse that Foster conducted with her and at least five other youth group members at Second Baptist.
Nicole said Foster started with a barrage of texts and detailed personal questions about what she would do in various sexual scenarios. His behavior with her escalated after she turned 17 — the age of consent in Texas — and after her parents moved away from Houston. She stayed in the region as a college student and au pair.
In 2013, she testified about an incident that began when Foster offered a ride after her car broke down. Instead of driving her home, she said, he illegally supplied her with beers and then took her to his place, invited her to sit on his couch and put his hand on her upper thigh.
In an interview, she told the Chronicle she had to repeatedly request to be taken home before Foster finally agreed.
After that episode, she suffered nightmares and panic attacks for years. She still has trouble staying alone in locked rooms, she said.
Two lead investigators at the Harris County Sheriff's Office told the Chronicle that Foster likely groomed and sent suggestive texts to more girls from the Second Baptist youth group, based on texts and emails they reviewed, along with other evidence.
Foster's computer contained a trove of inappropriate, explicit or obscene messages and images addressed to many girls who appeared underage but were identified only by first names or emails and could not be readily identified, according to documents and interviews with Philpot and Gary Spurger, another investigator who also worked the case.
Philpot and Spurger said Community of Faith officials were cooperative but that Second Baptist church leaders didn't supply information.
"We obviously knew he'd worked at a previous church," Philpot said. He said Second Baptist didn't tell detectives Foster had been fired and didn't provide information to help identify other victims.
Second Baptist and Community of Faith were later involved in confidential settlements of two civil lawsuits filed by the families of the two girls who were the subject of Foster's criminal convictions, according to civil court records and interviews. Family members and attorneys declined to comment.
Harris County prosecutors and victims opposed Foster's parole. Nicole's mother informed Texas officials in a letter that her daughter and others still suffered from Foster's long pattern of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior.
"He is a predator and a manipulator," she wrote in 2015. "It sickens us to know that he had us all fooled and did a very good job of it."
As part of the lawsuits, another teen who attended Foster's youth group before he was fired by Second Baptist provided sworn testimony that Foster seduced her at least five times while she was still in high school and began doing so after she turned 17.
Harris County Lt. J.D. Philpot, who has investigated sex crimes for decades, described Foster as a particularly prolific sexual predator who used his position and "charismatic personality" to build trust and cultivate multiple victims simultaneously.
"There is no doubt that the victims in this case truly believed themselves special to him and that they were boyfriend and girlfriend," he said.
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