Former Southern Baptist pastor pleads guilty to sexual abuse

Associated Baptist Press/April 30, 2009

Memphis, Tennessee - A former Southern Baptist pastor arrested in 2007 on charges that he sexually abused two teenage boys has avoided prison - for now.

Steven Haney

Steven C. Haney, 48, pastor of Walnut Grove Baptist Church in the Memphis suburb of Cordova, Tenn., for 20 years before his resignation in December 2006, pleaded guilty April 29 to rape and sexual battery by an authority figure in a settlement intended to allow victims and their families to avoid the stress of testifying.

According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Judge John Colton Jr. approved the settlement, sentencing Haney to probation for eight years and adding his name to the Tennessee Sex Offender Registry. He was given suspended, concurrent sentences of eight and three years. Haney still faces federal child pornography charges in an indictment handed down in October 2007, punishable by a minimum of 10 years in prison.

Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Haney in July 2007, after a 21-year-old man told detectives that Haney molested him for more than five years beginning when he was 15. The alleged victim testified at a preliminary hearing in September 2007 that Haney lured him into a long-term sexual relationship by convincing him it was God's will and a test of his faith.

After the arrest, a former member of Haney's church told a Memphis television station she wasn't surprised by the allegation, because about 30 members left the congregation after similar accusations involving another teenager surfaced in the 1990s.

At one point police said detectives were interviewing as many as 10 people who may have been former victims of Haney.

In 2008 Haney's former church changed its name from Walnut Grove to Gracepoint Baptist Church, seeking a fresh start and break with the recent past.

Because Southern Baptist churches are autonomous, they make their own decisions about hiring and firing ministers. The Southern Baptist Convention offers guidelines for protecting against sexual abuse, including a link to a national sex offender database.

Christa Brown, Baptist outreach director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, says sex-offender databases aren't enough protection, because they list only those convicted of a crime and the vast majority of molestations are never prosecuted.

Two years ago Brown asked Southern Baptist leaders to create a national database of clergy convicted, admitted or credibly accused of sexual abuse and create an independent review board to receive and investigate allegations of sexual misconduct.

After study, the SBC Executive Committee opted against the proposal, saying the convention lacked authority to investigate local churches. Time magazine ranked that denial one of the top 10 "under-reported" stories of the year.

In an address to the convention in 2008, Executive Committee President and CEO Morris Chapman strongly condemned "those who would use our churches as a hunting ground for their own sick and selfish pleasure" and said that while the number of Baptist ministers who are sexual predators appeared to be small "one sexual predator in our midst is one too many."

SNAP has tracked media reports of dozens of Southern Baptist preachers arrested and convicted of sexual abuse in recent years.

Just days ago the longtime music minister of a prominent Arkansas Southern Baptist church was charged with sexual indecency with a minor.

Police say David Pierce, 59, music minister of First Baptist Church of Benton, Ark., arrested April 24 for alleged indecency with a teenage boy, is expected to face additional charges. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported April 28 that at least three men have come forward alleging they were abused by Pierce in incidents dating back several years.

SNAP issued a press release April 30 calling on all Baptist leaders who have worked with First Baptist Church in Benton during Pierce's 28 years on staff to "search their consciences" and report any relevant information to police.

SNAP also urged the church to reach out to any other possible victims with a public offer of independent counseling and applauded the teenager and men who have already come forward.

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

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