11/12/03 - East Texas
KLTV EXCLUSIVE: Former Preacher/Child Molester Released

We have an exclusive story tonight out of Henderson. A former teacher and pastor, who admitted to molesting more than 40 children, is free, after serving only four years in jail. Fifty-seven-year-old Kenneth Ward is now at a Dallas halfway house. The mother of one victim says she'll fight to change the law against pedophiles.

Stephanie Burt's idea of security was shattered when she learned what Kenneth Eugene Ward had done to her son, Tommy, when he was only seven years old. In a signed confession, Ward admitted to molesting Tommy for about three years. There were similar acts with dozens of other boys. Most of those parents, like Stephanie, didn't find out about the abuse until more than a decade after the fact.

"He started shouting at me that I didn't understand, that my best friend's brother had molested, had hurt him," said Stephanie Burt, as she sat at her kitchen counter in a house she is moving away from, to try to forget the bad memories.

Stephanie says Ward spent time observing her, to see if she would be a trusting friend: "He had still used the church and scripture and befriending mothers and had picked out young boys that needed a father image."

Ward admits to being a pedophile since he was 13. His offenses in East Texas started in 1971 in Henderson, where he was a teacher at Northside Elementary School. Later at Chamberlain Elementary, Ward says he continued molesting young boys.

In 1978, Ward became pastor at Eastside Baptist Church in Henderson, and that's where he found Tommy Burt.

Tommy's mother said, "Kenneth Ward was a trusted friend of mine. I sang in the choir behind him. He ate lunch at Tommy's grandparents' house, which was the house right next to the church, and then asked if Tommy could run errands or help him at the church in some way or go on a youth outing or ride motorcycles, you know, any excuse."

In the early 80s, Ward got married. The marriage was annulled a few months later. Stephanie claims Ward's wife informed school officials about his offenses, but Stephanie says, the school system never notified authorities. According to Ward's confession, the molestations continued, even while Ward was getting treatment at a Tennessee hospital. Then in the 1990s, Ward found one of his youngest victims, while teaching Sunday School in Grand Prairie. It wasn't until 1998 that someone put a stop to Ward.

"Tommy had moved home. He seemed to be just in his room and not leaving his room. He had gained weight, like 300 pounds. You could almost feel his life decaying in there," said Stephanie Burt.

Tommy, who was now 26, began to remember the abuse. Then, one morning in 1996, Tommy told his mother everything.

"Death, sickness, nothing compares to that morning when it seemed like my whole world dissolved," said Stephanie.

In October 1998, Tommy Burt became the first victim to press charges against Kenneth Ward. But because the statute of limitation had expired when Tommy turned 18, the charges had to be dropped. That was not the case for one victim in Grand Prairie. It was this incident that led to Ward's prosecution on a single count of child indecency. Ward got 12 years, but served only four.

Today, he's out of jail, living at a Dallas halfway house, tracked constantly by a GPS system.  It's not enough comfort for Stephanie and parents like her.

"He destroyed a lot of lives and he's destroyed a lot of those boys' faith because he used the Bible and their trust," said Stephanie.

Today, Stephanie Burt uses the pictures and documents to tell inmates her story, hoping to put a face to the victims criminals hurt. Through those speeches, she hopes for healing, and she hopes freed criminals won't ever strike again.

The statute of limitation law has changed since the time Ward committed his sexual assault offenses. Today, victims have 10 years after their 18th birthday to press charges against their offender. Still, Stephanie Burt doesn't think there should be any limit to when a sex offender can be prosecuted. Kenneth Ward is set to be released from the Dallas halfway house in seven years.

Julie Tam, reporting.


SNAP Note: Eastside Baptist Church in Henderson, Texas, is shown as a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.