Church web site hasn't purged alleged predators

Despite Baptist move against sex offenders, ministers directory lists convicts, suspects


Staff Writer

The Tennessean

June 24, 2008

Southern Baptist Convention leaders are railing against sexual predators, calling upon local churches to drive out anyone accused of sex crimes against children, but a quick Internet search shows the organization has not cleansed its own Web site.

An online minister search directory on the Southern Baptist Convention Web site contains the names of at least 10 Baptist ministers convicted of, or indicted on charges related to, sex crimes involving minors — including three in Tennessee.

Allowing those preachers to remain on the ministers directory angers Wade Burleson, an Oklahoma pastor who has pushed the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee to weed out church leaders accused of sexual misconduct.

"This is embarrassing," he said. "… At least we should have a way to get people off the list."

Sing Oldham, vice president for convention relations, said the online minister search is simply a list of Southern Baptist preachers and not an endorsement of any pastor.

Any church that considers hiring a pastor from that list should do intensive background checks, Oldham said. The executive committee has removed some pastors with criminal convictions from the online directory in the past and will do so again, he said.

Oldham said that when convention leaders first realized accused sex offenders were showing up on the minister directory they decided not to remove the preachers' names because they feared the public would misconstrue that decision as an attempted cover-up.

But after ABC's 20/20 program discovered convicted sexual predators on the Web site last year, the committee decided to begin removing names, Oldham said.

"The decision was made that if a convicted sexual predator became known, then just quietly the name would be removed," he said.

While the office of convention policy maintains the minister directory, no staff person has been assigned to police it, Oldham said.

At least one Tennessee preacher on the minister list has been convicted but his name has not been removed.

Mark Woodson Mangrum, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Parsons, Tenn., has pleaded guilty to one federal count of distributing child pornography to a minor. In February, he was sentenced to 70 months in prison.

Two other Tennessee preachers on the list have been indicted but not convicted of any crime. Tim Byars, former youth pastor at Springhill Baptist Church in Dyersburg, Tenn., was indicted in Knox County on charges of rape and sexual battery by an authority figure. He is charged with fondling a 14-year-old student he was driving to a Knoxville track meet in 2006. He was indicted in Davidson County on charges of fondling another student in Nashville on that trip. Both cases are pending.

Steve Haney, former pastor of Walnut Grove Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., was indicted in Shelby County last year on charges of rape and sexual battery by an authority figure. He also faces federal charges of sexual exploitation of a child and child pornography. His case also is pending.

There's no hierarchy

How to deal with church leaders accused of sexual misconduct is a topic of continuing debate among the Southern Baptist Convention's 16 million members.

Some Baptists advocate creating and maintaining a list of preachers accused of sexual crimes, but that is problematic for the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church or mainline denominations, Southern Baptists have no hierarchy. Each church is independent and ordains, hires and fires its pastors.

"The convention is a servant of the churches," said Greg Wills, professor of church history and director of the Center for the Study of the SBC, at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "It is under the churches, not over them."

For that reason, convention officials are reluctant to get involved in local matters. Since the convention can't compel churches to act, Willis said, convention leaders try to persuade congregations to do the right thing.

That was the message from Morris Chapman, president of the convention's executive committee, during the recent Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Indianapolis.

"One sexual predator in our midst is one too many," Chapman said in his report on June 10. "Our denomination and our local churches must condemn publicly this vile act."

'We have no authority'

The convention said it has taken some steps to better equip churches to prevent sexual abuse. For example, the Web site has a link to the Department of Justice's national sex offender registry. The convention also published a special section of SBC Life with articles on prevention. And LifeWay, the Southern Baptist publisher, offers discounted background checks through a third-party provider.

Still, concerns over local church authority have doomed a proposed database to track Southern Baptist predators.

"The fact is that we have no authority to require churches to report," Oldham said. "If you put together a database, you are totally dependent on churches. If they don't report upstream, then when churches go to the Baptist database, it will be incomplete."

But David Brown, a member of First Baptist Church in Millington, Tenn., and Memphis director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, rejects that argument.

"On one hand they make the statement that they will not allow there to be one single predator in the convention," he said. "But when it comes to the database, they back away. The more of these databases that are out there, the more resources local churches will have to draw on."

Convention leaders said they do act quickly to confront allegations of sexual abuse when Southern Baptists have direct oversight of employees.

Contact Bob Smietana at 259-8228 or