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Attorney in abuse case says verdict is ‘wake-up call’ for Baptistscomment (0)

January 30, 2014

The attorney for a man awarded $12.5 million by a Florida jury for childhood sexual abuse suffered at the hands of a Baptist minister says the verdict could be a game-changer for how Southern Baptists handle credible accusations of clergy misconduct.

“I think it’s a good thing for the Florida Baptist Convention to clean up their act,” attorney Ronald Weil of the Miami-based law firm Weil, Quaranta, McGovern said Jan. 22 of the Jan. 18 judgment by a Lake County, Fla., jury against the 3,000-church statewide affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). “Hopefully this is a wake-up call for them to do that.”

The jury handed down a unanimous verdict, awarding damages to a victim now in his 20s who claimed he was molested as a child by a church planter trained and supposedly vetted by the Baptist state convention. A previous jury found the convention responsible for the minister’s actions in 2012.

Douglas Myers was arrested in 2006 on felony charges of molesting the boy repeatedly over a six-month period ending in 2005. 

Weil, a 30-year civil trial lawyer who specializes in sexual abuse and victims’ rights litigation, said to his knowledge it is the first time for an SBC state convention to suffer a verdict in a case involving child sexual abuse.

A 2008 article in the Nashville Scene quoted SBC General Counsel Jim Guenther saying the SBC has never lost a lawsuit of any kind in the 50 years he has represented the denomination.

Guenther said the SBC had only been sued in sexual abuse cases five times and settled only one of those. That was not through an admission of guilt, but because the insurance company chose to pay the plaintiff a “small nuisance value” rather than the attorney fees to try the case, he added.

Augie Boto, legal counsel for the SBC Executive Committee, said in a blog interview quoted in the article: “Though the SBC is named as a party in legal proceedings about twice per year on average ... it has not ever had a judgment rendered against it throughout its entire existence. SBC polity is the major reason for its frequent dismissal out of lawsuits on motions for summary judgment.” 

Guenther said in the denomination’s system of governance, local churches are responsible for choosing and supervising their ministers and not the national organization. “The law does not hold persons liable for things they had nothing to do with,” Guenther told the Nashville Scene.

But Weil said the local-church autonomy argument is “really a legal strategy and not so much a reality,” noting that voluntary cooperation doesn’t prevent state and national conventions from chastising churches that affirm homosexuality or call a woman as pastor.

Gary Yeldell, the state convention’s attorney of record, said he is confident that the judgment will be reversed on appeal. “This confidence is based, in large part, on the jury’s express finding that Myers was an independent pastor who was not hired, employed or supervised by the convention,” he said in a statement Jan. 21.

Weil said regardless of who signed the minister’s pay check, he was an “agent” of the state convention, which gave him training and conducted criminal, motor vehicle and credit checks but didn’t bother to contact “his two immediate previous churches, where he was run out of town” over inappropriate conduct with boys.

Weil said his client is now attending college and does not wish to be identified.

“He has good days and he has bad days,” Weil said of his client’s recovery from childhood trauma and betrayal. He said one thing the jury “absolutely rejected” was the idea that the victim would be able to walk through the experience unscathed.

Christa Brown, a victims’ advocate and survivor of sexual abuse herself, welcomed the judgment against Florida Baptists.

“Cases such as this are what it will take for kids to ... gain better protection against preacher-predators in the [SBC],” Brown said. “I believe it is only a matter of time before courts will recognize that, in the context of clergy sex abuse, Southern Baptists are distorting their doctrine of local church autonomy so as to make it function as a legal strategy for minimizing the risk of liability rather than as a true religious doctrine.”

Eight years ago Brown fought unsuccessfully to get the SBC to adopt safeguards like an independent panel to receive and evaluate reports of clergy sex abuse and a database listing confessed and credibly accused individuals for use by search committees.



Florida Baptists to appeal verdict

The Florida Baptist Convention plans to appeal a jury’s decision Jan. 18 to award $12.5 million in damages in a lawsuit claiming Baptist officials didn’t check far enough into the background of Douglas Myers, a church planter convicted in 2007 of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy (see story, this page).

Another jury in May 2012 found the Florida Baptist Convention liable for running criminal, credit and background checks but neglecting to check references before helping Myers plant two now-defunct churches with training, financial aid and what the lawsuit termed implied endorsement by reporting news of his endeavor in the state Baptist newspaper.

At the time a lawyer representing Florida Baptists challenged the ruling. 

He said it was inconsistent for the jury to agree with the convention’s main argument that Myers was not an employee of the state affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention and yet still hold convention officials accountable for actions of someone they did not hire or supervise. 

An appeal could not be filed until after the penalty phase.


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