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Florida court finds state convention liable for pastorscomment (0)

June 14, 2012


State conventions have been the subject of many lawsuits through the years, but a recent verdict marks a historical moment with a state convention being held liable for a pastor’s actions. It could hold serious ramifications for all state conventions and other organizations if the verdict stands following the appeals process.

A jury found May 17 that the Florida Baptist Convention (FBC) is liable for failing to do an adequate background check before recruiting and training a former church planter now in prison for molesting a 13-year-old boy. 

According to the Orlando Sentinel, witnesses during a two-week trial testified that former pastor Douglas Myers, currently serving a seven-year prison term, faced allegations of inappropriate behavior with young boys at churches in Alabama and Maryland before he started Harbor Baptist Fellowship, Eustis, Fla., in 2002. That’s where Myers met the boy he confessed to molesting over a six-month period in 2005. 

Myers, 63, had no previous convictions prior to his 2006 arrest and January 2007 guilty plea. The convention’s lawyer argued that Myers was not employed by Florida Baptists and that criminal, credit and motor-vehicle background checks on him turned up nothing. 

After his arrest, however, a former deacon came forward to say his suspicions about Myers split a previous church in Alabama, prompting about half the active members to leave. The deacon  was told by the current pastor of one of Myers’ former churches in Maryland that if the Alabama congregation had “done its job” and contacted former employers they would have been advised that Myers was unfit to be a pastor or to work around children. 

A 2007 lawsuit filed by the mother of a victim identified only by initials accused the state convention, Lake County Baptist Association and mission sponsor Bay Street Baptist Church, Eustis, Fla., of “wanton, willful acts and gross negligence” by failing to do an adequate check into Myers’ background prior to retaining him as a church planter and pastor. 

 

The lawsuit claimed that as a church planter, Myers acted as an “agent” of the convention, association and church, receiving organizational support including health insurance, retirement services and support through the state convention’s Cooperative Program budget. 

“The issues in these kinds of cases are first, whether the person who did the act is an employee of the convention … and if so, whether or not he acted within the scope of his employment,” said Jim Guenther, an outside legal counsel for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). 

In a prepared statement released to the media, FBC executive director-treasurer John Sullivan, expressed confusion over the jury’s verdict. The jury “found that the church planter/pastor was never an employee of the FBC” but nevertheless held the convention responsible for negligent hiring and supervision. The jury’s decision was “completely inconsistent with the evidence presented,” Sullivan noted.

A state convention has never before been held liable for a pastor it had commissioned, Guenther said, though suits are leveled against state conventions regularly. 

Accusations of the conventions’ responsibility are done “in ignorance of our polity,” he said, because the conventions don’t technically control the churches. “We win those cases because no ecclesiastical body outside the congregation controls the church.”

At press time, the hearing to determine how the FBC is to compensate the victim’s family has not been scheduled. The convention plans to appeal the initial verdict, Sullivan said. 

(ABP, TAB)

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