Church's Members Rally Amid Sex Scandal

The Tampa Tribune/November 5, 2007

Lakeland -- Though the weather outside was clear and cool, a tempest continued to tear at the First Baptist Church at the Mall.

"We will get through this storm," Pastor Jay Dennis told those assembled at the Lakeland megachurch Sunday morning. "It's been an incredibly rough three weeks."

After weeks of investigating, Lakeland police on Saturday arrested Marshal Seymour, accusing the student ministry volunteer of sex offenses involving three boys he had mentored at the church.

Seymour, 40, paid them to perform sex acts or to keep quiet about sexual encounters that took place during the past two years, according to Lakeland police.

The victims were 15, 16 and 17 at the time, arrest records state.

During the investigation, Seymour also tried to bribe a person to delete a record of Seymour having been registered at a hotel where a sexual encounter took place, arrest records state.

Seymour was arrested on charges of unlawful sexual activity, tampering with a witness and three counts of using a child in sexual performance, jail records show. He remained in Polk County Jail on Sunday, with bail set at $325,000.

Investigators say none of the alleged incidents took place on church property. Rather, they took place at a local hotel, Seymour's business or in his vehicle.

Tim Parcheta, the church's executive director, said it was clear from the investigation that Seymour had exploited relationships built at the church.

Hundreds of church members attended the 9:30 a.m. service at the church's worship hall on Memorial Boulevard. Though the church has about 9,000 members, it cultivates the feel of a smaller congregation through outreach programs and support groups. Seymour's arrest seems all the more shocking at a church that becomes a way of life for some members, whether they come for the midweek supper and Bible study or ride with the motorcycle ministry.

Seymour, who owns a fire extinguisher business, was one of about 1,000 volunteers at the church.

Storm Will Pass, Pastor Says

With his sermon being projected onto two large screens, Dennis urged members to trust God to get them through troubling times.

"God is allowing you to go through a stormy season right now, but, one day, the sun will shine again," he said. "Your storm will not last forever."

He warned church members to guard against Satan, who might try and gain a foothold into the church.

"Be ready for Satan," Dennis said. "He wears many masks and costumes. He is the master of impersonations. He has many voices."

Fran Edwards, 36, of Lakeland, said she was grateful the pastor was rallying the congregation during such a difficult time.

"It's obviously an isolated incident," said Edwards, who has been coming to the church since May.

Bill Pilcher, 74, of Lakeland, said the church would put the situation in God's hands. "We feel like God is in control," he said.

Dennis acknowledged church members might question his decision to speak publicly about Seymour's arrest.

"I'm telling you that it is my responsibility as pastor to share with you not only the good and the great but the bad and the ugly as well," Dennis said.

Church Checked His Background

Reading from a prepared statement, Dennis promised to offer help to the victims, including counseling. He said Seymour never gave the church's staff any reason to doubt that his only desire was to help students. He read the same statement Saturday to local media outlets after Seymour was arrested.

"I want you to look at your pastor in the eyes," Dennis said. "I was deceived. Obviously, Mr. Seymour misrepresented what had happened in his past."

The Lakeland police investigation revealed Seymour had been arrested on felony sex charges in Mobile County, Ala., in 1998. Seymour was accused of victimizing a boy he met at church, Lakeland police said.

The charges were reduced to misdemeanor assault, though, with Seymour given a suspended one-year sentence in 1999.

Before becoming a First Baptist Church at the Mall volunteer, Seymour underwent a criminal background check, which came back clear, Parcheta said.

The church is not "oblivious to the devious methods of a determined molester," Parcheta said.

"The very methods used by those who prey on others is to deceive, to place themselves in a position of trust," Parcheta said.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.