An allegation of child sex abuse involving Columbia’s First Baptist Church was investigated by law enforcement and no charges were filed, the church, its student minister and longtime pastor say in their reply to a lawsuit.
The church’s response also says that lawsuit, filed earlier this month in Richland County Circuit Court, was wrong in alleging the church took no action after hearing about the abuse allegation.
The church, student minister Philip Turner and pastor Wendell Estep also denied covering up abuse cases and said they had no objection to unsealing several old cases, including one involving the church and a former deacon, John Hubner, now serving a 36-year sentence in state prison for lewd acts on a First Baptist child.
The law enforcement agency that investigated the sex abuse allegations is not identified in the court filings, and no details have been made public about that investigation.
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A fourth defendant in the lawsuit, former First Baptist youth mentor Andrew McCraw, the alleged abuser, is no longer a volunteer at the church and has not yet filed a legal reply. McCraw’s lawyer, James Flynn, declined to comment Friday.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, against the church was filed by a youth, identified only as “Joel Doe” and his parents.
It alleges McCraw started an improper relationship with the youth when he was 11 that took place at and away from the church. Growing intimacy between the two evolved into improper touching, the suit alleges, adding McCraw sent the youth numerous sexually explicit text messages and nude photos last year. The youth has suffered “severe emotional distress” because of McCraw’s actions, the suit alleges.
In their 10-page answer, filed by Columbia attorney Peter Farr, First Baptist, Estep and Turner deny the allegations against them.
The rebuttals included:
▪ Denying knowing that McCraw allegedly took Joel Doe alone to meals, movies and sleepovers. The church said Doe’s “parents would have been aware of any time their son was spending with defendant McCraw outside of the church environment.”
▪ Asserting “any injuries or damages sustained by the Plaintiff (Joel Doe and his parents ) were due to his own negligent, careless, reckless and grossly negligent acts or omissions. ...”
▪ Saying the church only became aware of McCraw’s alleged improper behavior after law enforcement began to investigate him.
The church also denied that Estep’s upcoming retirement was linked to the abuse allegations. Estep “decided to retire in a move planned before Defendant First Baptist Church ever learned of allegations at issue in this lawsuit,” the church said.
Founded in 1809, First Baptist is one of the Columbia area’s largest and oldest churches. It has about 7,000 members, and its $13 million, 3,300-seat sanctuary occupies a city block in downtown Columbia.
The 74-year-old Estep, who has led First Baptist for 31 years, will retire sometime in 2018.
After the lawsuit was filed earlier this month, Estep addressed the congregation. The church also has published a statement about the allegations on its Internet site.
It says in part:
“Last fall First Baptist Church became aware of allegations of inappropriate conduct by an unpaid volunteer in the student ministries department. 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. ... Our attorneys have advised us to make no further comment at this time.”
Late this week, Joel Doe’s attorneys – John Simmons, Derek Shoemake, and John Warren – filed an amended version of their original suit, alleging “rather than report defendant McCraw’s conduct (to law enforcement), the church defendants enlisted parishioners to help manage any negative fallout.”
The amended complaint also alleges the church did not notify McCraw’s new church or his employer about the allegations, adding he “works as a registered nurse with access to patients who could include minors.”
First Baptist has failed to “institute reasonable safeguards to prevent volunteer youth leaders from taking advantage of children,” the amended complaint alleges.
The amended suit also says First Baptist violated S.C. law by not reporting the alleged abuse to law enforcement. As a result, it should not be afforded any protections from damages afforded by its non-profit legal status.
In its answer, the church said it performs background checks on volunteers, and has “policies in place to train and to address” inappropriate conduct.