Preachers Accused of Sins, and Crimes
20/20 uncovers ministers accused of abusing children in their congregations.
By JIM AVILA, BONNIE VAN GILDER, and MATT LOPEZ
Sanctuaries are designed to make us feel safe. They provide us peace and a place to pray. Bells call the good to worship and warn the evil to stay away.
This is the kind of American church that a young Christa Brown was drawn to. As a teenager in the 1960s, Brown learned to love music and her God. She grew up in the church, sang in the choir and played the piano.
But as Brown would find out, churches don’t always protect the innocent. Sometimes these sanctuaries shield the guilty and even lure predators to a place where young people gather.
The Catholic Church has been widely criticized for how it handled instances of priests sexually abusing young people. And a six-month investigation by “20/20” found Protestant ministers, supposed men of God from every denomination, sexually abusing the children who trusted them. The investigation uncovered “preacher predators” in every corner of the country.
‘Nobody Saw It Coming’
The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant organization in the United States. And the organization is structured in a way that makes it difficult to police these preacher predators. The convention has 16.3 million members and 43,000 independent churches.
Shawn Davies was a youth minister at one of those Baptist churches in the suburbs of Kansas City, Mo. Davies was close to his teen followers, and the members of his church soon found out that he was a little too close. In January of this year, Davies began a 20-year sentence for multiple counts of sexual abuse in Missouri and Kentucky.
One member of the Missouri church, Lee Orth, said that “Nobody saw it coming. I think we felt betrayed, blindsided. You know, Shawn was a very charismatic person.”
Davies seduced teenage boys by acting like one of the gang. He talked about girls and sex with the teenagers. He took them on trips, invited them into his office, and showed them pornography. And he took them downstairs or behind the sanctuary to sexually assault them.
Church deacon Greg Arbuckle said, “The viewing of pornography happened before Shawn would come out and lead the choir. Immediately after worship he would go do that, and that to me, taints the entire service.”
Eight boys were sexually abused at the Missouri church by Davies. What bothers people most about what happened is that Davies could have been stopped before he reached their church.
A History of Abuse
A young man in Kentucky was one of Davies’ victims years before he went to Missouri. For four years, the young man, who asked that we not use his name to protect his privacy, lived with his secret. He said that it nearly destroyed him. “It started with watching movies, and he would ask to masturbate,” the man said. “He said it was normal for guys to do it. … One day he just grabbed me while we were watching one of the movies and he just kinda did what he wanted.”
After four years, the man finally told his father, who then went to the police. Kentucky authorities opened an investigation and alerted the victim’s church. By then, Davies had moved on to other churches.
The family is now suing the Kentucky church for failing to supervise Davies. When “20/20” asked to talk to church leaders, their attorney declined our interview requests.
Davies ended up in Missouri in 2003; church leaders there wish the Kentucky church had tracked them down, especially after an indictment was filed.
Church leaders worry that there is no system in place within the Southern Baptist Convention to stop people like Davies. Each church is, for the most part, autonomous, so there is no tight connection with the other churches.
Brown, abused herself when she was 16, went on to form an organization called Stop Baptist Predators, because in her search for justice, she found that the Southern Baptist Convention had no central office, no readily available list of preachers under investigation or even convicted, and no one to help investigate allegations like hers.
Brown said this system allows preacher predators to move from church to church, seduce the devout and the young, and often get away with it.
Ken Ward is a Southern Baptist pastor and teacher in East Texas, who has admitted to molesting more than 40 boys. He said that being a teacher and minister is the perfect job for a child molester, because it puts the molester in direct contact with young people. “I [was] attracted to a certain child, and in my case, it was primarily prepubescent boys,” he said.
Ward is now under house arrest, after serving five years in state prison. He wears a GPS monitor so that he can be tracked by the sheriff’s department, and he cannot be around children anywhere, even in public.
Ward agreed to talk to “20/20” to give insight to parents on how to spot a predator. He said that parents aren’t worrying about the right things. “The idea of a guy in the park with a trench coat on or driving by slowly trying to get a child … I’ve never even dreamed of doing that. … I’ve never touched a stranger,” he said.
‘It’s God’s Little Secret’
Ward preyed on children for decades. One of his victims, Tommy Lee Burt, came forward about the abuse as an adult. He believes that Ward damaged him for life, and used his God to abuse him. “You’re struggling as a kid and you want to get up and he is telling you, ‘No.’ When I would try to leave, he would tell me it’s God’s little secret,” Burt said.
Burt added that he never really recovered, and last year he, himself, was arrested for solicitation of a minor and pleaded guilty to sending obscene material to a police officer posing as a 14-year-old.
There is no way of knowing how many Ken Wards are out there. The Southern Baptist Convention does not keep records, and local churches often seem to be in denial — such as one church in Denton, Texas, where the minister publicly confessed to “making a terrible mistake” last November after a woman sued, claiming she’d been raped as a teen.
Church members responded by throwing the minister a retirement party and raised $50,000 as a “love offering.” To this day, he has a church building named after him.
The Southern Baptist Convention said the problem is neither widespread nor systemic, despite a recent rash of cases. But just last week, a pastor of a Florida church — Lyle Whittaker — committed suicide after he was charged with sexually abusing an 11-year-old-girl.
The Local Level
Frank Page is president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a minister himself. He told “20/20” that independent congregations present a challenge when it comes to tracking preacher predators. The organization has yet to create a national database of preacher predators. “We have no such database and again, we encourage churches to investigate. … They have to do background checks,” he said.
But this approach puts a lot of pressure on the individual church, and a lot of faith in the ministers who were predators to come forward and tell the truth about their past.
And the autonomy of each Baptist church does not stop them from creating other kinds of databases, from Baptism lists to lists of ordained ministers.
Some Baptist church leaders are concerned that even if a Baptist preacher is convicted of sex crimes, the national organization has no authority to act.
The Southern Baptist Convention said the biblical and best way to handle these terrible cases is by the local church, which should call the police. But former minister and sex offender Ken Ward stayed under the local radar and moved from church to church for years, and he said the church can’t do it alone.
“Anybody could have talked to the churches I was with, and they would have praised me. They would not have said, ‘Don’t hire this guy, he likes kids.’ Never, never, and I suspect that has not changed.”