Kentucky churches confront several cases of sex abuse by church leaders

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comSeptember 28, 2012 

On the Sunday that followed the arrest of a former youth leader on sex-related charges, the lead pastor at Southland Christian Church addressed the issue with the congregation.

Chris Hahn, the lead executive pastor, said Southland Pastor Jon Weece talked about the "sadness we feel over what's gone on in the last week." During the sermon Sunday, Weece reminded the church of Southland's procedures for hiring employees and accepting volunteers, Hahn said.

Jonathan David Hall, 29, of Danville is accused of sending sexual emails and text messages to a 15-year-old girl he met through church. Hall, who was released from his role as a youth leader at Southland Christian Church's Danville campus, was arrested Sept. 18. He faces charges of unlawful use of electronic means to induce a minor to engage in sex.

Hall's case is the most recent example of a persistent problem at churches in Kentucky and across the nation, officials said.

Since 2008, the Herald-Leader and local media outlets have reported at least eight cases involving church leaders who faced sex-related charges involving a youth.

In 2011, allegations involving child sex abuse were the top reason that churches were in state appellate and federal courts nationwide, said Matt Branaugh, editorial director of the church law tax group at Christianity Today, a non-profit media ministry.

"It's not the scary, demonized, back-alley person that we always warn kids about in 'stranger danger' talks," said Kentucky State Police Lt. Shane Bates, commander of the electronic crimes unit. "It could be the person coaching your team. It could be the person at your church."

Police said that's what happened in Hall's case.

Investigators said text messages between Hall and the girl came to light on March 24, when Lexington police took a report from a woman who said she had seen suspicious texts on her daughter's iPhone. There were exchanges of sexual text messages and emails for about a month.

The affidavit says it is "reasonably likely" that Hall contacted "other minors in sexual communications."

Hall has been released from jail on bond and is being monitored electronically. Hall is scheduled to be arraigned Nov. 6 in Boyle District Court.

Hall has declined requests for an interview.

Hall's case is the second case that has brought Southland Christian into the news.

In May, former University of Kentucky basketball player Michael Porter, a volunteer, was arrested on charges of sodomy and sexual abuse involving an underage girl he met through church. He pleaded not guilty last month.

Police say Porter had oral sex with a girl he met at functions at the church.

When asked about Porter's case last week, Hahn declined comment. At the time, the pastor would not say whether the church would be initiating policy changes.

Earlier this week, Hahn said the church has "made some adjustments" since the youth leader's arrest so church leaders have "a heightened awareness." The pastor said he could not elaborate on the adjustments.

At Southland, criminal background checks are coupled with a check of the state sex-offender registry and extensive talks with people given as references.

Hahn said the careful hiring process is followed by training and performance reviews once a person is on staff. Volunteers are vetted in a similar manner, Hahn said.

Hall was not an ordained minister, but he oversaw middle school and high school students under the direction of a campus pastor, Hahn said.

According to Hahn, Weece essentially told the congregation Sunday that "we respond in love and mercy, but also in truth.

"We know the enemy. Satan is going to attack. We're going to stay on mission," Hahn said. "We're going to continue to reach out and help those impacted by these kinds of things. It could be a victim. It could be someone with allegations against them. It could be just members of our church who are concerned."

Safeguards

Several cases have grabbed headlines and been featured in newscasts over the past few years. Among those is the case of Jeremy Dewayne Caraway, former pastor of Loyall Church of God.

Caraway was charged last year with two counts of second-degree rape, two counts of first-degree sexual abuse, two counts of sodomy and two counts of first-degree unlawful sex with a minor, according to Herald-Leader archives. The girl whom Caraway is accused of raping is younger than 14, according to police reports.

The former pastor was charged after the grandmother of a girl from the church saw an email between the two that concerned her.

A pre-trial hearing is scheduled next month in Harlan Circuit Court.

The Church of God International Office in Cleveland, Tenn., has suspended Caraway pending the outcome of his case, said Scot Carter, a church spokesman.

The church has not made changes in policy because it was a matter involving the individual; not the church, Carter said.

"We firmly stand against any kind of misconduct of this nature, whether it be with adults or children," he said. "Unfortunately, there's been other cases in the past as well just like there has been in many other denominations.

"Unfortunately, its an individual's decision that he or she makes ... that's just horrific, among other things."

In Bullitt County, the case of Bryan Dockery, who formerly was the youth director at Trinity Life Center in Shepherdsville, has been waived to a grand jury, a Circuit Court clerk said.

A 15-year-old boy told investigators that he and Dockery had sex at the church and at Dockery's home between August 2011 and June 2012, according to court documents.

Dockery is charged with third-degree sodomy and first-degree sexual abuse, a clerk said.

James McFadden, a minister at the church, said his church has had for years a system of checks and balances, including criminal background checks and a policy that a staff member cannot be alone with a youth.

Dockery was a minister who had recently graduated from an Assembly of God Bible College, he said.

"There weren't any signs that there was any kind of issue. He was completely vetted," McFadden said. "We've done our best to be diligent and help our people to feel safe."

But McFadden said the church will now "better enforce our existing policies about accountability."

Freida Curry's daughter, now 20, was 14 when she was a victim of a youth minister.

Timothy Scott Richerson first came in contact with Curry's daughter while posing as a 16-year-old boy on Myspace.com. The Greenburg resident was in his 30s at the time, Curry said. The minister eventually told her daughter his true age, Curry said.

Richerson was sentenced in 2008 for using a computer to entice the girl to engage in sex. He is now serving a 10-year federal prison sentence.

The Herald-Leader typically does not identify victims of sexual abuse or their parents, but Curry came forward with hopes that she might be able to help others.

Curry gives speeches about the problem to law enforcement groups.

Most people don't want to talk about it, she said. "They want to bury it."

The most vulnerable

Branaugh, the spokesman for Christianity Today, said churches should require youth ministers and leaders to limit their cellphone transactions with young people to basic information about events or require them to include a third party in the texts.

Criminal background checks and conversations with people who had observed the potential staff member work with youth are important, he said.

"Churches need to do everything they can to put safeguards and policies in place," Branaugh said.

Marian Taylor, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said more denominations are conducting extensive background checks and requiring training specifically to reduce the risk of sexual allegations involving children. Taylor said the Catholic Diocese of Lexington was among them. The diocese Web site outlines some of the efforts, but officials were out of town this week and did not return phone calls.

"The church should be committed to being a safe environment for children. Jesus lifted up children as an example of the most vulnerable people, and we are supposed to be there for the most vulnerable people," Taylor said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter:@vhspears.

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