Church leader questioned about handling of sexual abuse allegation

November 30, 2011

CLINTON, Miss. (ABP) – Questions about a Mississippi Baptist church’s
handling of child sex-abuse allegations against a former minister are
focusing on a church elder and politician who is nominated as the state
legislature’s first Republican Speaker of the House since
Reconstruction.

Philip Gunn reportedly advised elders at Morrison Heights Baptist
Church in Clinton, Miss., not to talk to police about their internal
investigation of former associate pastor of music and ministries John
Langworthy, who faces trial on eight felony counts of gratification of
lust stemming from acts alleged to have taken place in the early 1980s.

Gunn, an attorney and Baylor University graduate, claims church leaders
are bound to secrecy under priest-penitent privilege. A series of
reports by local television station WJTV questioned his interpretation
of state law. Mississippi College law professor Matt Steffey told the station Nov. 25 it does not exempt ministers from reporting a crime.

Steffey said the rule cited by Gunn applies only to testimony during a
trial, not when prosecutors are investigating a crime. Gunn denies the
church is withholding evidence, saying the charges against Langworthy
are now public knowledge since alleged victims have come forward.

County prosecutors say they would still like to know what Langworthy
told church leaders and may file a subpoena to force them to testify.

Amy Smith, a victims’ advocate, worked for a year behind to scenes to
make public that Langworthy was accused of sexual abuse of young males
in 1989 while serving on the staff of Prestonwood Baptist Church in
Dallas. She says leaders at the Texas church including future Southern
Baptist Convention President Jack Graham took the allegations seriously
enough to fire Langworthy but did not report him to the police.

Smith, who worked at Prestonwood as an intern at the time and now is
Houston representative for the Survivors Network of those Abused by
Priests, said one thing that bothers her most about Morrison Heights
Baptist Church’s handling of Langworthy was an e-mail she received from
Gunn offering to “discuss a resolution” to the case.

“It is
very troubling that Philip Gunn as the legal representative for Morrison
Heights Baptist Church is trying to keep information from Hinds County
prosecutors about a recently arrested and indicted child molester on
whose behalf Gunn attempted to ‘discuss a resolution’ with me last May,”
Smith said Nov. 30.

“It certainly seems that Mr. Gunn has
some explaining to do about why he, as an elder and attorney,
participated in an internal church investigation into child sex crimes
without going to the police,” she said. “It raises the question of what
he and the church leadership are trying to hide that could help
effectively prosecute a confessed child molester.”

In addition
to involvement in his local church, Gunn is a trustee of Southern
Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He was re-elected in
June to a second term that expires in 2016.

Southern Seminary’s
president, Albert Mohler, said recently that in light of public
attention to how abuse accusations were mishandled in the Penn State
athletic department, Baptist churches should immediately report any
suspicion of child abuse to legal authorities.

“We all need an immediate reality check,” Mohler wrote in a blog
Nov10. “I discovered yesterday that the policy handbook of the
institution I am proud to lead calls for any employee receiving a report
of child abuse, including child sexual abuse, to contact his or her
supervisor with that report. That changes today. The new policy
statement will direct employees receiving such a report to contact law
enforcement authorities without delay. Then, after acting in the
interests of the child, they should contact their supervisor.”

“In a real sense, the whole world changed today,” Mohler continued. “We
all know more than we knew before, and we are all responsible for that
knowledge. The costs of acting wrongly in such a situation, or acting
inadequately, are written across today’s headlines and the moral
conscience of the nation. The tragedy at Penn State is teaching the
entire nation a lesson it dare not fail to learn.”