Crime & Courts

Lawsuit accuses Columbia’s First Baptist Church of history of covering up child sex abuse

Wendell Estep
Wendell Estep File Photo

A Richland County lawsuit quotes numerous sexually explicit text messages that a First Baptist Church youth worker allegedly sent to a boy in a church program, adding church officials did little or nothing for years while the worker sexually abused the youth.

That inaction is part of the downtown Columbia church’s history of failing to take action against potential molesters, the lawsuit alleges. The boy, now 17, was about 11 when the abuse began, according to the lawsuit, filed in Richland County Circuit Court this week.

Because of the assaults and touching, the youth suffered personal injury and “severe emotional distress,” the lawsuit alleges, asking for a minimum of $150,000 in damages.

To expose the church’s alleged pattern of concealing abuse, the lawsuit also seeks a court order to unseal three sealed civil lawsuits against First Baptist and an ex-deacon, John Hubner, a convicted child sex abuser. Hubner, 69, was convicted in 2002 in Richland County for lewd acts on a child at First Baptist and now is serving a 36-year sentence.

In response to questions from The State newspaper about the lawsuit, First Baptist released a statement Friday.

“Last fall, First Baptist Church became aware of allegations of inappropriate conduct by an unpaid volunteer in the student ministries department,” said the statement by R. Bryan Barnes, a First Baptist member and Columbia lawyer.

“As church policy dictates, the appropriate committee investigated. The committee concluded the volunteer violated church policies. Disciplinary action was taken. The volunteer no longer attends First Baptist Church and was prohibited from further contact with our students. ... Church lawyers advise against further public comment at this time.”

The statement did not address the lawsuit’s allegations that First Baptist has covered up instances of sexual abuse or whether the church had contacted law enforcement about the misconduct alleged, as required by state law.

Peter Farr, an attorney for the church, said Friday those and other issues will be addressed at the proper time, in the proper forum, as the legal action continues.

Founded in 1809, First Baptist Church is one of the Columbia area’s biggest, most respected and oldest churches. It has some 7,000 members, and its $13 million, 3,300-seat sanctuary occupies a city block in downtown Columbia.

The church’s pastor, Wendell Estep, 74, has led First Baptist for 31 years. He recently announced his retirement as of next year.

Estep is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with First Baptist Church, Philip Turner and Andrew McCraw. The lawsuit identifies Turner as First Baptist’s staff student minister and McCraw as “a youth assistant mentor and assistant small group leader in First Baptist’s youth group.”

A church spokesman said none of the individuals named in the lawsuit would comment.

The suit was brought by a minor child, identified by the pseudonym Joel Doe, and his parents, Jane Doe and John Doe. The identity of minors in sex cases is confidential.

According to the lawsuit, “Joel Doe” began attending First Baptist while in elementary school. At age 11, he began participating in a Sunday evening youth program, designed “to create a safe environment for children to discuss various religious topics with each other and various young adult mentors,” the lawsuit says.

McCraw was assigned to be “Joel Doe’s” youth mentor and began to invite the youth to movies and dinner, and to sleep over at his house with no other “adults or youth members present,” the lawsuit says.

McCraw also began to send “Joel Doe” text messages, sometimes dozens a day, that were “sexually motivated, inappropriate and illegal,” said the lawsuit, which quotes 17 texts between July 29 and Aug. 16 of 2016.

McCraw also sent nude photos of himself to “Joel Doe,” inappropriately touched the youth while on First Baptist’s property and “proclaimed his love” for the youth, according to the lawsuit.

During this time, First Baptist officials should have known McCraw was spending “inordinate amounts of unsupervised time with “Joel Doe,” the lawsuit says, adding church official Turner had reprimanded McCraw for having children at his house with no other adults present.

After being told of McCraw’s activities, church officials did not report them to law enforcement “despite having a statutory duty to do so” under the Child Abuse Victims’ Rights Act, the lawsuit alleges.

Efforts to reach McCraw Friday for comment were unsuccessful.

Over the years, First Baptist and Estep have fostered “a culture of secrecy that encouraged their employees ... to shield individuals” who prey on children, the lawsuit says. The church had an incentive to promote itself as a safe place because it depends “on the financial contributions of parishioners,” the lawsuit said.

First Baptist and Estep also failed to train staffers to “recognize and report” possible child abuse. Instead, church officials emphasized “secrecy and avoidance of scandal at all costs,” the lawsuit says.

“Joel Doe” is represented by Columbia attorney John Simmons, a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina and former chief prosecutor of the state grand jury, as well as attorneys John Warren and Derek Shoemake.

In a statement, the attorneys said they hope their lawsuit promotes reporting of child sex abuse and heightens “parental awareness for their children’s safety.”