Columbia’s First Baptist Church and its longtime minister, Wendell Estep, are apologizing to a child who was sexually abused by a former church volunteer and have agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the youth and his parents for $300,000.
The apology and $300,000 payout are laid out in an eight-page settlement agreement. In the settlement, the landmark downtown church accepts responsibility for the abuse and pledges to reform its child-safety practices.
“We want to offer an apology for the inappropriate and unacceptable conduct this young man endured and express regret for what we failed to do to prevent it,” says part of a statement, which will be read to the congregation after a Sunday church service.
“We are sorry that this young man was wronged and that our policies and procedures, as well as our enforcement of those policies and procedures, were insufficient to protect him,” the statement says. “No student should have to experience what this young man endured.”
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The statement was drawn up by the youth’s lawyer, John Simmons of Columbia, and church lawyers, who included Pete Farr of Columbia.
“My clients are pleased to resolve a portion of this troubling matter, particularly the agreement by the church to implement long overdue steps to deter future cases of child abuse,” Simmons said. “Protecting children from future similar events has always been the primary concern.”
First Baptist spokesman Bryan Barnes issued a statement Thursday to The State, saying, in part, “First Baptist has accepted responsibility for this even though we had strong policies in place and performed a background check on the volunteer which revealed no issues. What we did not have at the time was a policy specifically forbidding texting between an adult and a student without copying another adult. Such a policy, if followed, could have prevented these messages.
“The conduct is isolated and is repugnant to the values of this congregation, its leaders and its ministry. Law enforcement investigated and closed the case with no criminal charges filed. Nevertheless, the church launched an inquiry and permanently removed the volunteer from further service.
“The church condemns the volunteer’s conduct in the strongest terms possible,” the statement says.
The settlement — on behalf of First Baptist, Estep and student minister Philip Turner — does not include the former church volunteer youth worker, Andrew McCraw. McCraw’s lawyer, Jamie Flynn of Columbia, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The settlement includes:
▪ First Baptist Church and Estep “admit(ting) liability in that they negligently monitored and supervised Defendant Andrew McCraw”
▪ The church, Estep and Turner agreeing to cooperate with the plaintiff’s pending civil case against the ex-volunteer
▪ Praising the victimized boy for alerting his parents “to the wrong actions of this trusted volunteer. The young man did the right thing.”
▪ A promise by First Baptist to institute better practices for reporting suspected child abuse to law enforcement, including providing “abuse awareness training for staff, volunteers and students”
▪ Requiring a church official to read a statement about the case’s resolution after an upcoming Sunday service. Estep and Turner are to be in attendance.
▪ Agreeing to hire outside experts to “better protect the youth” of First Baptist
The statement ends, “With a broken and contrite heart, we pledge anew today our commitment to do our best to safeguard potential victims in our church.”
The boy’s lawsuit was filed in October. The State does not identify sex victims.
The lawsuit cited numerous sexually explicit text messages, including nude photos, that the youth volunteer allegedly sent to the boy. It alleged church officials did little or nothing for years, and the worker engaged in improper touching of the youth.
The lawsuit also alleged that inaction against child molesters is a part of the downtown Columbia church’s culture.
The boy was about 11 when the abuse began, according to the lawsuit, filed in Richland County Circuit Court.
Because of the assaults and touching, the youth suffered personal injury and “severe emotional distress,” the lawsuit alleged. It asked for at least $150,000 in damages.
Victims’ advocate Laura Hudson praised First Baptist on Thursday for settling the case and promising reforms.
But Hudson questioned whether the church will follow through over the long term, noting three sex-abuse lawsuits against First Baptist in the early 2000s. A First Baptist deacon, John Hubner, subsequently was found guilty of sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl. He is still behind bars.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, a First Baptist member, has worked with the church to upgrade child safety. On Thursday, he praised the church for having the settlement open and unsealed — “not trying to hide behind lawyers.” Added Lott, “Hopefully, our new standards will set an example for other churches.”
Founded in 1809, First Baptist is one of the Columbia area’s biggest, most respected and oldest churches. It has some 7,000 members. Its $13 million, 3,300-seat sanctuary occupies a city block in downtown Columbia. Estep, who has announced his plans to retire, has led the church for 31 years.