Historic African-American church focus of sex-abuse scandal

The Baptist Press/April 20, 2009

Birmingham, Alabama - A Baptist church that gained national prominence as the scene of a racially motivated bombing that killed four African-American girls in 1963 is now reeling from the weekend arrest of its music minister on charges of sexual abuse.

Police in Birmingham, Ala., arrested Patrick Jerome Whitehead April 18 and charged him with sexual abuse by force and sodomy on a student at a local high school where Whitehead works as band director.

Whitehead also worked as a music minister at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a shrine of the Civil Rights Movement and host church for the recent New Baptist Covenant southeast regional meeting.

Local media quoted the church's pastor, Arthur Price Jr., as being "shocked" by the allegations and describing Whitehead as someone who "always carried himself in an exemplary fashion."

"We are deeply saddened by the allegation against our minister of music, Patrick Whitehead," Price told the Birmingham News. "Mr. Whitehead has been a very valuable asset to our church family, and we are devastated by this situation. We are not quick to rush to judgment, but we are committed to praying for him and his family and all parties involved as we anticipate a just resolution to the matter through our legal system."

Christa Brown, Baptist outreach director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, urged the historic church to set an example publicly pleading for anyone with relevant information to contact police and proactively reach out to any other possible victims with an offer of independent counseling.

"Rarely do sexual predators strike only once, so we believe there could be others who may have been hurt by this Baptist minister," Brown said. "We hope that anyone who saw, suspected or suffered any questionable misdeeds by this minister will call police immediately."

The first black Baptist church to organize in Birmingham, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church celebrates its 136th anniversary this year. It became known around the world on Sept. 15, 1963, when members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite outside the basement of the church. They exploded at 10:22 a.m., killing four young girls as they prepared for a "Youth Day" worship service.

The bombing marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, inspiring many moderate whites to begin to advocate on behalf of disenfranchised African Americans in the South. President Johnson secured passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act the following year.

The church became a national historic landmark in 2006. It is a central landmark in the Birmingham Civil Rights District and receives more than 200,000 visitors a year.

On Jan. 31 former President Jimmy Carter spoke to a racially mixed crowd of about 1,200 people packing the church's sanctuary. It was the first of a series of regional meetings this year following last year's New Baptist Covenant celebration, which brought an estimated 15,000 Baptists from a variety of denominations to Atlanta.

Brown, an attorney from Austin, Texas, and survivor of clergy sex abuse, has been advocating for nearly three years for Baptists to rid their ranks of clergy predators. A first step, she says, is for churches to speak openly about the problem instead of hushing it up to avoid embarrassment or bad publicity.

"When victims and witnesses speak up, there is a chance for justice, healing and prevention," Brown said. "But when victims and witnesses stay silent, predators often walk free and kids get hurt."

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