Tuesday, November 29, 2011

“I was not asked to resign by the pastor or the elders.”

The recent allegations of child abuse out of Penn State and Syracuse have shed new light on the insidious nature of child exploitation and the way that otherwise decent institutions and individuals contribute to the problem by remaining passive or, in some cases, actively working to cover up the crisis.  Whether it’s the athletic director who looks the other way or the family member who chooses to keep up appearances, these stories have reminded Americans that inaction can play a big role in the terrorization of a child.

In the unfolding debate over whether or not Morrison Heights Baptist Church acted prudently or selfishly when church leaders chose to keep quiet about revelations that one of its ministers had allegedly engaged in more than one instance of child abuse, a mother from Texas deserves credit for speaking up.  Amy Smith, an advocate for survivors of clergy abuse and the writer behind the blog “Watch Keep”, set in motion the investigation that ultimately led to John Langworthy’s arrest.

In a blog post dated October 13, 2011, Smith describes her surprise upon learning that her former music minister was working at a church and public high school in Mississippi.  “As soon as I learned he was working in a school, I called the superintendent,” Smith writes.  She didn’t stop there.  “On Jan. 10, I emailed the pastor of Morrison Heights Baptist Church about my concerns about John Langworthy.”

This is where Smith’s story gets interesting.  “[The pastor] replied about a month later (February) asking me to call him.  I did call him and he stated he had been made aware of the allegations of abuse from a phone call from a past victim.  He stated he had confronted John who admitted the abuse.”  Inexplicably, in a telephone conversation with Morrison Heights Senior Pastor Dr. Greg Belser two months later (April), Dr. Belser informed Smith that the church had completed its “investigation” of the matter and had decided, despite Langworthy’s confession, that it would keep him on staff.  Smith’s understanding of the church’s decision is compatible with Langworthy’s public confession on August 7, 2011 where he announced to his church family that he had “had sexual indiscretions with a younger man” and that he “was not asked to resign by the pastor or the elders.”

Given the church’s decision to retain Langworthy as an employee, Smith was surprised when in May she received a call from Morrison Heights elder Rep. Philip Gunn (R-Clinton).  Smith writes, “I emailed him asking the purpose of his call.  He replied asking if I would be willing to discuss a resolution.  I said no.”  This is the complete e-mail string between Gunn and Smith, with Smith's personal email address removed at her request:


Gunn’s cryptic desire “to discuss a resolution” leaves many questions unanswered.  Chiefly, what type of resolution does a church elder seek from a victim’s rights advocate who has information relating to the prior “indiscretions” of one of the church’s ministers?  Secondly, why would a Morrison Heights attorney need a “resolution” if the accused claims to be blameless during his time at their church?

Gunn should answer these questions but more importantly, Morrison Heights should answer for the timeline.  In January, the church was approached concerning the prior sex acts of one of its ministers.  According to its pastor, the minister confessed to these acts by February.  In April, the pastor called Smith to explain that the church’s investigation was complete and that the minister would remain on staff.  In May, Smith was contacted by an elder/attorney/clergyman who asked if a “resolution” was possible.  In August, the minister publicly admitted the prior “indiscretions” and resigned, a decision he claimed was made out of deference for his family and not because he was pushed out by the pastor or elders.

To be fair, it could not have been easy for Langworthy to make a public confession about his prior bad acts.  What is striking is the failure of the same group that is now claiming a “priestly privilege” to hide behind technicalities and deny responsibility.

Morrison Heights Baptist Church "lay elders"


tom said...

I don't mean to be dense, but is there really any way of interpreting Rep. Gunn's message that doesn't suggest that he's trying to cover up clergy sexual abuse? This does not reflect well on him at all.

bill said...

I think you're making too much of the fact that Philip Gunn is a member of the church. He's obviously acting as an attorney, and his actions might well be the same if he went to church elsewhere or didn't go to church at all. As an attorney, are you suggesting that Gunn not provide the best representation he can to his client? I don't think this would be blog worthy if Gunn wasn't a Republican politician, but then I suppose I wouldn't be defending him. Like I always tell Kingfish, it's your blog so have at it. Bill Billingsley

Amy Smith said...

Philip Gunn was not only acting as Langworthy's attorney, but as legal counsel for Morrison Heights and as an elder who was involved in meetings with pastor Greg Belser and the other elders for months while they conducted their own internal "investigation" into Langworthy's confessed crimes of sexual abuse of children.

These elders also heard directly from past victims about the abuse. They heard what John did to these boys and remained silent, keeping the truth from the church members, leaving John in contact with kids, and failing to go to the police. They also heard directly from John admitting the abuse.

At one point, Belser asked one of these past victims to assist him and the elders with finding more past victims and if he found them, send them to him and the elders, so that they could speak with these victims "in confidence." This request was sent in an email to this past victim in April. In March, Belser also asked a past victim to tell me to "cease and desist." The victim told Belser he wouldn't do that. This came after I emailed a Clinton high school parent representative about my concerns who happened to be a Morrison Heights church member of which I was not aware.

Even after hearing from past victims, they concluded that John was "safe" to keep on staff. These were Belser's words to me.