Pastor 'groomed' teen for sex, suit claims
Woman says seeds of relationship with Lansford church leader were planted years ago.
By Andrew C. Martel
Of The Morning Call
March 11, 2008
A Carbon County woman is suing her pastor and church and its regional and national denominations, saying the preacher ''groomed'' her as a young teen for a physical relationship that began soon after she turned 18.
Shayna Werley, 20, of Summit Hill says in her lawsuit that the Rev. Jeremy W. Benack, 30, used his authority at First Baptist Church of Lansford to exploit and manipulate her ''to satisfy his own sexual desires.''
The suit, filed Feb. 19 in Carbon County Court, says Benack sent Werley explicit pictures of himself by
cell phone and performed a ''marriage ceremony'' that he said would let them be sexually intimate without violating church laws, even though he's married. He told Werley he expected his pregnant wife would die in childbirth and they could spend their lives together, the suit says.
When Werley's parents discovered the pictures, they ended the relationship and complained to the Southern Baptist Convention, the church's denominational body based in Nashville, Tenn., which the suit says formed a ''transition team'' that was to remove Benack from the ministry and give Werley spiritual counseling.
Instead, the suit says, Benack's removal was rescinded and Werley's care plan revoked, and she was subjected to ''insults and accusations'' at a public church meeting to which police were called and she was threatened with arrest.
The suit seeks unspecified compensation for the ''serious physical and emotional'' pain and suffering the ordeal has caused Werley, as well as punitive damages.
Benack did not respond to messages seeking comment left at his home and at the church. Werley and her attorneys at the Scranton firm of Myers, Brier & Kelly also did not respond to messages.
The suit also says the Southern Baptist Convention and the Northeast Pennsylvania Baptist Association should have known Benack was not sufficiently trained and experienced to be a pastor with responsibility for counseling and ministering to young people, and allowed the harassment to happen.
But an attorney for the Southern Baptist Convention said individual churches are responsible for hiring and firing its pastors. Pastors are not employees of the convention, so it cannot step in when wrongdoing is alleged, said Jim Guenther, the general counsel for the Southern Baptist Convention.
''We knew nothing about it. And if we knew anything about it, we could not have provided any relief or prevention,'' Guenther said.
According to the suit:
Werley was 14 when Benack came to the church in 2000 and her family joined. Benack developed ''a close personal relationship'' with Werley and her family, and at his urging she joined the church youth group and the praise and worship team, and became a peer leader.
He gave her guitar lessons and ''devised church-related duties and responsibilities as an excuse to spend time alone'' with Werley.
Shortly after she turned 18 in 2005, Benack ''began to pursue a sexual relationship'' with her, touching her ''in an inappropriate manner,'' hugging and kissing her and engaging ''in other overtly sexual behavior,'' according to the suit, which is not more specific about the nature of the relationship. He also offered her alcohol.
The suit continues:
''Preying on Ms. Werley's youth and vulnerabilities, Rev. Benack used his authority, influence and persuasion as a Baptist pastor to gain the trust of Ms. Werley and then abused that trust.'' He repeatedly assured her the activity ''was not immoral or inappropriate or otherwise violate the rules of the Baptist church.'' He also placed his wedding ring on Werley's finger when he performed the ''marriage ceremony.''
After the relationship was exposed last summer, Benack's father, also a Baptist minister, called Werley to discourage reporting his son to the Southern Baptist Convention and promised his son would go to counseling, the suit says. But Werley's mother had already contacted the convention and the Northeast Pennsylvania Baptist Association, which assigned an investigator who set up a ''transition team'' with seven church members.
Guenther, the attorney for the Southern Baptist Convention, said his organization never received a call from the Werley family or heard anything about the allegations against Benack.
The team appointed Benack's father to head the church temporarily, but then set up a ''spiritual care plan'' for Werley that prohibited her from dating for a year or to be alone with any man and undergo counseling, according to the suit, which says Werley complied with the plan.
But a month later, the measures put in place under Werley's counseling plan were reversed and the decision to remove the younger Benack was rescinded. The suit gives no explanation why the counseling plan was suddenly reversed.
At a congregational meeting called to address the matter, church members insulted Werley and made accusations against her, the suit says.
Benack continues to counsel and spend time with young members of the church, according to the suit.