Southern Baptist members detail allegations of grooming and sexual misconduct among clergy in new report
In the summer of 2010, a pastor and his wife from First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, said they received an invitation to vacation in Florida with Johnny Hunt, a senior pastor at their church whom they considered a mentor.
The 55-year-old church leader had been elected national president of the Southern Baptist Convention two years earlier, making him one of the most powerful members of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
Hunt allegedly helped secure a spot for them in Panama City Beach which, unbeknownst to them, was right next to his unit in the same condo complex, the unnamed young couple said in a 288-page hit investigation report released Sunday by the Southern Baptist Convention. When the pastor’s wife arrived alone after a day, she said she was greeted by Hunt and they interacted from their respective balconies.
But when she invited him inside her apartment to escape the heat and continue their conversation, during which she said she spoke about the stress she and her husband were going through at church , he became aggressive, she told investigators, as detailed in the report. According to her, he pulled down her shorts, made sexual remarks about her body, then pinned her to the couch and pulled up her shirt. She said in the report that he groped her and sexually assaulted her with his hands and mouth.
Moments later, she said in the report, Hunt – who is married and has two grown daughters close to her age – texted her to come out onto her balcony to discuss what happened. had passed. Instead of apologizing, she said, he proposed that they have sex three times a day.
Hunt did not immediately return a request for comment Monday on the allegations, but in a statement posted to Twitter after the report was released, he denied its contents while saying he had not yet read the findings in their entirety.
“To put it bluntly: I strenuously deny the circumstances and characterizations set out in the Guidepost report. I have never abused anyone,” he wrote.
The report details widespread allegations of sexual misconduct among named clergy and a cover-up involving the upper echelons of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The denomination’s executive committee hired an outside firm, Guidepost Solutions, an independent consultant that conducts surveys on behalf of faith-based organizations, to launch an investigation after delegates voted overwhelmingly last summer.
In his wake, Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2014 to 2016, resigned in October as head of the executive committee.
The report also reviews several reforms the church could implement, including creating and maintaining an “offender information system” to alert the community to suspected offenders, and restricting the use non-disclosure agreements and civil settlements that bind accusers to confidentiality in sexual abuse cases.
A church task force will present its own recommendations based on the report at its annual meeting next month in Anaheim, California.
Already, the reaction of some prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its supporters has centered on a demand for sweeping changes to ensure that the accused are not protected and the victims are not silenced.
“What has been released is heartbreaking, with some parts just awful,” tweeted JD Greear, a pastor from North Carolina and president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2018 to 2021, who spoke on behalf of victims of sexual abuse. “We have no choice but to learn from our past and change the future.”
In response to the report, current Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton said in a statement on Sunday that “there are no adequate words to express my sadness at the things revealed in this report” and that Southern Baptists “must resolve to change our culture and implement”. desperately needed reforms.
Litton could not be reached Monday for further comment.
Another denominational leader, Kevin Ezell, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, said he was not aware of any allegations of misconduct against Hunt, who resigned from his leadership position. on the board more than a week ago.
“I learned the details of the report today with the rest of our Southern Baptist family,” Ezell said, adding that the details of the report are “glaring and deeply disturbing.”
He said he had refused to speak publicly about Hunt’s resignation until the Guidepost report was released “out of respect for the investigation.”
Neither the woman who accused Hunt of misconduct nor her pastor husband were named in the Guidepost report, which comes after a survey 2019 by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News documenting two decades of cases, in which pastors and deacons of Southern Baptist churches allegedly abused hundreds of people while mostly remaining in their jobs. In response to the newspaper article, church leaders are committed to protect victims and bring about change.
According to Guidepost investigators, Hunt paid “unusual attention” to the pastor’s wife while at church and “groomed the couple with flattery and promises of ministry help.”
Investigators said they interviewed other witnesses who helped corroborate the claims of the pastor and his wife, including a First Baptist Church counselor who confirmed his attendance at a session between Hunt and the couple, during which, he said, Hunt admitted the woman’s husband. that he sexually assaulted her. At that meeting, the couple also said Hunt said, “Thank God I didn’t consummate the relationship,” according to the report.
Hunt also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on their accusations.
The alleged ‘survivor says that at the time she believed that although she had not consented to what Dr Hunt had done to her, she was made to feel it was consensual because she did not not retaliated,” the report said.
Additionally, Guidepost investigators said the council minister told them he remembered Hunt saying that “if this (story) comes out it could negatively impact 40,000 churches”.
Investigators said they interviewed Hunt twice, and on the second occasion he admitted he had known the young pastor and considered himself a “strong influence” on his life. Initially, investigators said Hunt did not recall spending personal time with the couple or inviting them to Panama City Beach, but later recalled seeing the pastor’s wife on the nearby balcony but did not had “no contact”.
“He also reaffirmed that it was not true that he was on the balcony or in the condo,” the report said. “When asked specifically if he kissed her, pulled on her shorts or fondled her, he said no. He denied sexualized comments about her appearance, panties, tan lines or perfume.
The Guidepost report goes on to mention other cases in which church leaders are accused of covering up wrongdoing. Among them are top leaders of Prestonwood Baptist Church in suburban Dallas, one of the largest churches in the country, who allegedly protected a music manager accused of abuse in the 1980s and failed to inform police .
Music minister John Langworthy was ‘quietly fired’ and moved to Mississippi, ‘where in 2011 he confessed to his congregation at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton that he had committed ‘indiscretions’ sex “with teenagers during his time in Prestonwood and before when he was in Mississippi,” according to the report.
Langworthy could not immediately be reached for comment on Monday.
Langworthy pleaded guilty to five counts of lust gratification related to incidents in Mississippi from 1980 to 1984 and was sentenced in 2013 to a total of 50 years, but avoided prison under an agreement advocacy.
In a statement, Prestonwood Baptist denied how the Guidepost report characterized the situation and said the church had “never protected or supported the abusers, in 1989 or since”.
Throughout the report, congregants who say they were abused by clergy at various Southern Baptist churches across the country told investigators how they were repeatedly blocked in their efforts to speak out.
Jennifer Lyell, a former Christian media publishing company executive who came out publicly in 2019 about sexual abuse, was described in the report as saying she was later harassed by others. other devotees, some calling her a “whore” and a “bitter and jealous woman.
Lyell said she was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when the abuse began and decided to speak out after learning that the man she accused of abuse had returned to the ministry. The seminary did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
While serving as legal counsel to the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention told the Associated Press in February that the body had apologized to Lyell earlier this year and given her a confidential monetary settlement related to the way he handled her case, she tweeted on Monday that there must be greater accountability for everyone.
“There are many reasons to remain silent in a situation like this,” Lyell said, according to the report. “But we must not be silent.”