June 24, 2007

Pastor scandals erode trust in pulpit

Staff Writer, Daytona Beach News Journal

HOLLY HILL -- Lori Lewis' pastor let her family stay in a church apartment when her husband went to jail.

Five months later, the pastor joined her husband behind bars. He was not there for inmate ministry. The Rev. Robert N. Riddle was charged in April with swindling an elderly widow out of more than $100,000.

While not personally affected by the scandal, the disappointment stung Lewis. "If you can't trust your pastor, who you can trust?" she said.

Churches are learning that the preacher in the pulpit should not be accepted on his word alone. Scandalous stories of bad pastors floating from one church to the next have also made some wonder whether denominations where there is little oversight over congregations are even more vulnerable to clergy abuse.

Church members at the Ridgewood Avenue Community Church describe Riddle as a "wise teacher" who spoke "with a silver tongue." But they regret not performing a criminal record check because Riddle has prior convictions in Georgia for theft and in Alabama for defrauding church-goers in an investment scheme.

He has pleaded not guilty to his new charge of exploiting the elderly. Riddle was released from jail on $50,000 bail on May 31 and has returned home to Georgia to await trial.

Reached by cell phone, Riddle declined to be interviewed. "Thanks, anyway," he said.

Advocates for victims of clergy abuse said abusers typically follow a familiar profile.

"The most corrupt clergy are extremely charismatic, charming and convincing," said David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and other clergy (SNAP).

"Most people can't believe they're capable of doing anything wrong," he said. "In every denomination, the instinct is to believe it doesn't happen and it doesn't get covered up."

Allegations against a popular preacher are as unfathomable to a congregation as a family trying to deal with incest, said Christa Brown, the founder of Stop Baptist Predators, based in Austin, Texas.

Brown knows how awkward it can be. As a child she was not taken seriously and was forced to apologize to her pastor and his wife after Brown accused him of molesting her, she said. She would like to see the Southern Baptists create an "independent review" that could investigate victims' complaints and recommend disciplinary action.

The Ridgewood church, formerly known as First Baptist Church of Holly Hill, belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention.

Unlike the Catholics and many Protestant denominations, a bishop or oversight authority does not appoint a pastor to a Southern Baptist church. A review board would help, Brown said, though so far her advocacy has fallen on deaf ears.

Some Baptists said their independence is a strength. A congregation can hire or fire a pastor without the meddling of a bishop, but the onus is on the local church to conduct a thorough search.

There's no central database to help local churches, and some churches are less than forthcoming with information about their former pastors, said Clyde Fant, a professor of religion at Stetson University.

"Everybody is afraid of lawsuits (for slander)," Fant said.

The system is so loose that a criminal conviction does not necessarily end the career of a Southern Baptist preacher. No credentials, not even a seminary degree, are required for Baptist preachers, Fant said, and no Baptist would ever interfere in the business of another Baptist church.

"That's too much like telling a neighbor how to raise their children," Fant said.

More oversight over congregations is not necessarily the answer, said August Boto, legal counsel for the Southern Baptist Convention. He noted the rampant scandal of sex abuse in the Catholic Church shows that even denominations with a high degree of centralized authority are vulnerable.

But churches need to be more skeptical, Boto said: "The days of assuming that a word-of-mouth recommendation can be taken at face value are over."

Danny Broyles, a youth pastor at First Baptist Church of New Smyrna Beach, has noticed church culture changing. When Broyles joined the staff at First Baptist New Smyrna Beach four years ago, background checks were not a consistent practice. Now, as the church looks for a new pastor, criminal record checks are mandatory, even for volunteers.

"It's only within the last 10 years that people have wised up," Broyles said. "We've all heard the scandals. We have to be careful about who we bring in."

Broyles has reason to be wary. He once gave Riddle $5,000 worth of Nautilus equipment to start an "exercise ministry" at Ridgewood Avenue Community Church.

Because he wanted to help another church, the understanding was that Riddle would pay him a nominal $500 for the equipment. Broyles said Riddle brushed off repeated reminders for the money.

The Rev. Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, said Riddle "leaves a trail of disappointment and disillusion wherever he goes."

Wright's church had reached out to Riddle's wife and children when Riddle was serving a five-year sentence for securities fraud in the early 1990s. The former pastor had pleaded guilty in 1988 to defrauding churchgoers in Alabama in a phony investment scheme.

Upon release from prison, Riddle set up a home renovation business and found many clients at Wright's church. Wright said many members felt like Riddle was taking advantage of them.

"When questions were being raised, he had moved to another church," Wright said.

Wright said his church contacted Riddle's next congregation in Atlanta, but Wright thought their warnings were not taken seriously. Churches, after all, want to give new members the benefit of the doubt and believe in forgiveness and redemption, he said.

Lewis, a member of Ridgewood Community, recalled feeling burned after putting her trust in Riddle. Her teenage daughters washed motorcycles on the church parking lot during Bike Week. They raised $300 and were supposed to split the money with Riddle, but Lewis said the pastor kept all the money.

Because of his personality, it would have been difficult to confront him, she said.

"Pastor Riddle is a very sweet guy, but if you don't do what he says, he gets all bent out of shape."