SBC Covers for Jeremy Benack in Sex Abuse Allegations

The original article about this situation is lengthy so I encourage you to read the whole article entitled “The Bad Shepherd” by Elizabeth Ulrich in the Nashville Scene. I want to add commentary to some specific points in this so I’m not going to copy the whole article.

Also, if you read this piece, be sure to read my follow-up comments on this story. That post contains some important additional information about the original news story.


Shayna Werley was only 14 when the Rev. Jeremy Benack came knocking on the door of her family’s Pennsylvania home, asking them to join the First Baptist Church of Lansford. Soon Werley found herself, at the pastor’s urging, deeply involved in the church: in the youth group, the praise and worship team and Bible study. Benack, now 30, even enlisted her to set up for church functions, select music for services and take guitar lessons—from him, of course.

But when Werley’s parents found explicit photographs of their beloved pastor on their daughter’s cell phone in the summer of 2007, they say Benack’s true intentions were clear: The married pastor was grooming their young daughter for a sexual relationship. This all according to a little-known lawsuit Werley, now 20, filed in a Pennsylvania court in February. Shortly after the cell phone discovery, Werley’s mother called the Nashville headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to lodge a complaint against Benack. According to Werley’s lawsuit, the First Baptist Church of Lansford is affiliated with the SBC, so the Werleys turned to the church’s “parent organization” for help…

…Asked about its liability in this case, SBC general counsel Jim Guenther offers a curt email in which he simply writes, among other unstirred statements, “The law does not hold persons liable for things they had nothing to do with.” Never once in that message, or during a short phone interview, does Guenther express concern or sympathy for the victim. He does, however, speculate on the merit of her lawsuit.

“It is most likely that the plaintiff will voluntarily dismiss her law suit [sic] as to the SBC…” Guenther writes. “That is what routinely occurs when the SBC is sued in these kinds of cases…” Guenther has every reason to be confident. The SBC has never lost a lawsuit of any kind. In the nearly 50 years he’s represented the denomination, Guenther says the SBC has only been sued in sexual abuse cases five times and settled only one of those—not through admission of guilt, he adds, but because the denomination’s insurance company chose to pay the plaintiff a “small nuisance value” rather than the attorney fees to try the case…

Comments: Why did the SBC settle one case when they have a record they’re manifestly proud of – they’ve never been successfully sued? If they knew they could not be successfully sued the only reason they settled one is likely because this one had a very good chance of winning. I will readily admit this is my opinion, but it is an opinion that is not based on nothing. I have seen this done inside a Christian ministry to keep that no-successful-lawsuits front intact in the face of verifiably true sexual abuse allegations. It was not an SBC organization but this is a way to “keep God’s face clean.”

One Baptist sex abuse survivor who spoke to the Scene in February reached out to a litany of SBC officials, begging the men to take action against an SBC pastor who she says raped her for years, starting when she was only 15, and eventually fathered her child. Instead of offering to help or counsel the woman—or even meet with her face-to-face, as she asked—SBC officials such as president Frank Page dismissed her. Some simply told her to pray about it; others shamed her for turning to the “evil-doers” such as [Christa] Brown at SNAP [Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests] for help. That pastor, who admitted to having sex with the woman, today remains in the pulpit in a small SBC-affiliated church in Texas.

Comments: This example clearly demonstrates that the SBC will not stand up for the abused in their churches and will knowingly allow predators to remain in the pastorate without taking any steps to ensure the safety of the people who are paying their salaries and building their nice office buildings in high-end major metro areas. I live near the SBC’s home missions board (NAMB) building. That modern beauty built on prime commercial/office real estate in north Atlanta did not come cheap and I know the players there make some very decent incomes – because I personally have known the president, some VPs and other upper-level execs. How nice is that for them? The SBC cooperative program pays for the functions and operations of the SBC with money that comes out of the pockets of all those people in the pews in SBC churches. Yes, they have some responsibility to all those people!

When it comes to Werley’s claim that her mother called the SBC and received assurance from a representative who said the call was appreciated and promised to address the problem, it’s business as usual for the SBC. True to form, Guenther says it never happened. He told the Scene that he determined that such a call never came in to Nashville headquarters. Last month, Guenther went even further, telling a Pennsylvania newspaper that the SBC knew nothing about Werley’s claims, adding, “If we knew anything about it, we could not have provided any relief or prevention.”

When asked how he determined that Werley’s mother never made that call to Nashville, Guenther declines comment…

The Werley family certainly hoped the SBC would take action. They’re quite certain that Benack was prepping their daughter for a sexual affair, sharing intimate details of his life and using the pastoral trust he’d established with the young girl to encourage her to open up to him. By Werley’s 18th birthday, that grooming process was complete. Benack, who at the time was expecting a child with his wife, slipped his wedding band onto Werley’s finger. He said he was performing a marriage ceremony that meant they were wedded in the eyes of the church.

Therefore his sexual advances—the inappropriate touching, kissing, hugging and other overtly sexual behavior—were not in violation of church laws. Though, according to the lawsuit, Werley experienced “significant doubt concerning the propriety of her relationship with Rev. Benack,” he assured her that there was nothing immoral about it. It wasn’t until Werley’s parents discovered those cell phone photos that Benack was exposed.

Even when her parents stepped in to help, things didn’t get much better for Werley. According to her lawsuit, the SBC played a part in assigning a man by the name of Gerald Mounce to investigate her case and help remedy the situation by assembling a “transition team.” But court documents outline that the team developed a “spiritual care plan” for Werley that prohibited her from dating or even being alone with a man for a year.

Werley followed those terms until the transition team inexplicably revoked the plan and rescinded its decision to remove Benack from the pulpit, an act that culminated with Werley standing before the church at a public meeting to address the matter of her allegations… Guenther denies that the SBC was involved at all with the transition team…

Comments: So, we can’t say for sure whether this girl was a willing participant, but explicit photos are pretty hard to explain away. The girl’s age would indicate the inappropriate behavior began when she was a minor. Even if there was no sex, it is still arguably sexual predation.

Bottom line, a man who sent sexually explicit photos to a girl in his church is still preaching in his pulpit without consequences.

And I will keep on saying, if the SBC can put a church out of the organization for hiring a homosexual staff member, they can put a church out of the organization for hiring, or failing to fire, a sexual predator staff member. They can also maintain a list of offenders so churches can avoid unknowingly hiring a staff member with a known history of sexual predation or misconduct.

The SBC leadership who are knowingly covering and enabling sexual predators within their denomination are destroying what they are attempting to protect. They are building up a huge pile of consequences for themselves. God is not mocked forever. The only reason these men aren’t taking warning from what is happening in the Catholic Church is because they look down on the Catholic Church as an “anti-christ” false religion. The same thing will happen to the SBC. And to be even more pointed, covering sexual predators with the flimsiest excuses, is an anti-christ belief system. If Jesus wouldn’t tolerate money changers in the temple, what would He have done to sexual predators leading the synagogue? Would He have bothered to put out money changers (something He had no human authority to do, incidentally) or would He have addressed the greater problem of sexual predators as rabbis?

If these SBC leaders actually truly believe the organization’s hands are tied, don’t they feel any obligation on a personal level? Who among us is excused from protecting innocent, unknowing people from imminent danger? The attitudes and actions of SBC leadership in relation to sexual predators in leadership in SBC churches is ABSOLUTELY UNEXCUSABLE.

In fact, if these men have such dead consciences it makes me wonder about their spiritual condition. How can they be so lost to the Holy Spirit as to excuse these actions? It is past beyond my understanding.


27 Responses

  1. Ah, I just found where I wrote that. I believe Jeremy WAS a wonderful man, it was a typo 🙂

  2. Hi Pastor Close, First thing, the most important thing here is that this situation between the pastor and Shayna is abuse no matter how you seem to look at it, Believe me it took me alot of searching and seeking God and sorting things out to realize the truth. putting all human feelings and relationships aside I have come to realize what teally happened within the church walls. I to was lied to taken advantage of for a Long time.I myself knowing jer and shayna as long as I do jeremy told alot of people lies, and minipulated alot of stories to make himself look better and to cast shadows on shayna. As far as the guy you mention he to was put in an awful position, being used by the pastor and minipulated also, he was going to be put in a position right near the pastor so jeremy could keep a close eye on him.Not a good situation for that young man seeking to do God’s work in his life. But he was used and lied to also. As far as the so called people in a store that saw V being stalked or berated by shayna and her mom, this is surely a blatant lie made up again to slander the other party , I knowing shayna and her mom for years can honestly say that either one of them would stalk V or put a child in harms way,It doesn’t surprise me that they say there are people that saw, when within the church walls there has been lies, coverups. and stealing of funds and these people remain in leadership roles in the church,surely if one could rob God’s money they could lie about other issues. I would say if there is any merit (which I doubt) the police which as I said I havce contact with would have done sometihing about it. . Even as far as the lie about a rape, this to I was aware of and was something again fabricated by Jer to take the eyes off of him and falsely accuse another, and again the police know of that matter. Jeremy seems to be real good at things coming out in his timing, lots of crazy stories go around the valley believe me,I hear alot of things I could never imagine repeating.. Hopefully all involved will get the counseling they need. I do know that shayna has been in counseling, sadly,Jer from what i know at the time is claiming ” healed and restored” actually he is far from restored .,This is a wonderful site here, I must say to you that you seem to not fully underststand clergy abuse at all. Do you know there are 9 states that have laws against this abuse of power,that state if a clergy member has any physical contact with a congregant if doesn’t matter if they are 14,18 or 40 the pastor will go to prison? Believe me it took me a while to come to terms with everything but I did!!! Maybe you should do some searching on your own to understand clergy abuse, til next time we speak or our paths cross I look forward to speaking to you again.I’ve been notified that there will be a jury trial coming up in June 09,I’m anticipating my presence is going to be requested If I want to be or not.I do feel Shayna is doing the right thing in taking jer to court, she went through all the proper steps within the church and she was cast out.. Have a blessed Merry Christmas and remember lets try to keep our eyes on Jesus!!God Bless Brother….stay focused.

  3. Merry Christmas to you to!

    We are at an impasse, however let me say this: If Jeremy and Shayna had a relationship PRIOR to her turning 18 then believe you me I would be kicking down his door. Their relationship although immoral and totally against biblical teaching, from what I’ve heard and seen, was not illegal. I find it very hard to think that if there was anything illegal the police wouldn’t have arrested him.

    Again, Jeremy should bear the load of this decision. Not only was it totally immoral, it went against who the Bible has demanded him to be. HOWEVER, we are always going to disagree about the idea of abuse. In my current job I have had to counsel abuse victims, several rape victims as well. I will grant that there are similarities between the situation we speak of here, however they are not totally similar. I just can’t compare a 13 year old being abused and a 18 year old adult woman who continued in this relationship for months.

    To make it clear again, there is no way that what Jeremy did was right, but when the smoke clears I find it very hard to blame one over the other in this case. I have more anger towards Jeremy because he SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER! When this came out I defended Shayna, because I really saw that she was trying to do the right thing. Many around me called her Jezabel, and I told them they should be more worried about Pastoral Misconduct, not if this woman seduced Jeremy (which I don’t believe she did). I am extremely disappointed in Jeremy at this point, actually I’m extremely disappointed in the remaining members of the Church. They have continued to enable him.
    It is my opinion that Shayna should not be suing, we are going to disagree about this till the sun goes down. There are cases of Pastor abuse, I have seen them first hand. And I am no expert at spotting them, so I could be wrong, however I don’t believe that Shayna was a unwilling participant in this affair.

    And yes, Jeremy did put that young man in a really tough position and if nothing else, I will struggle to forgive that for the rest of my life.

    In Him

  4. dear pastor close, it was good to exchange thoughts with you, I wish you well , I guess you can’t see as It took me several months to see and understand ,that due to the imbalance of power the pastor over the congregant this simply can’t be labeled an affair. This certainly isn’t how Jesus would see it as Jer was put in trust over these in the church. Maybe In time you will come to terms with it.If you will struggle to forgive Jeremy over using this young man, how can you simply call what he did an affair? I knowing all parties here very well have a hard time that Jeremy minipulated me, the church,shayna and her family that also had trust in him as did the young man being spoken about here.As to shayna staying in any “relaionship” I personally know the burden of someone putting you in a position that you feel you are to blame and you cannot speak out and become entrapped and told you can’t speak out or “you will destroy a church and ministry” as I said many were used by Jeremy in ways you couldn’t know,but believe me I saw it firsthand and also needed to pray for forgiveness and mercy due to my devotion being placed on man not on God, God bless.

  5. Just wanted to add my thoughts… in the state where I live, the situation as stated in this thread is a class 4 felony. That is to say, a pastor having sex with one of his congregants falls under the counselor/therapist category, which is a crime. However, not every crime that is committed gets pursued by the police. They don’t have the manpower. Someone would probably need to press charges… which is a whole different can of worms to deal with… who wants to file criminal charges against a pastor?

  6. Jo, I too knew both Shayna and Jeremy and V very well. Considered Shayna and V good friends of mine. Thought the world of all them. Thought they were the last people on earth that this could ever happen to. Was TOTALLY devastated when I heard what happened. Felt totally betrayed and fooled into thinking of them too highly. Cause the truth is, if this was a one-night stand, or some little slip up for which both were extremely regretful and strived to make amends however God requires, that would be one thing I could forgive and get over and still pursue friendship with them.
    But according to all sources I heard info from, including persons VERY close to the situation (who btw informed me before most people knew about it) this was an ongoing thing that started slowly and progressed far beyond the point of propriety over time. This to me says BOTH parties made several wrong turn choices that led them where they should never have even come close to going. I know also that both parties were warned such a relationship was imminent if their choices continued to progress along the same immoral path. Yet they both chose to disregard the warnings and set themselves up for a big fall.
    I do hold Jeremy more accountable in this instance cause as Pastor Close said (whom by the way I agree with totally and can verify everything he/she said also) he was supposed to be the one above reproach, to be prepared and able to fight the onslaught of satan (which was inevitable in his position of leadership) by whatever means necessary, at the VERY LEAST, not to allow a woman of any age to be alone with him in the church at any time for appearances sake if nothing else. He should have had strong defenses up for such a situation and in that way, he failed himself, his wife, child and yes, Shayna, not to mention all those he called friends, and church members who loved and respected him immensely.
    HOWEVER, although I found it VERY difficult to believe my dear friend Shayna, who I thought of as very mature, smart and GODLY could have done such a thing to her friend, mentor, Pastor and friends-husband. It was just so completely unexpected of her character in my opinion. I however think I may have just had too much trust and naivity not to see some serious character flaws that were there all along….
    you see, she and I were friends with another girl who was struggling with sexual temptation and Shayna was almost horrified and acted a little high and mighty that this girl may entertain the idea of having sex before marriage. So you see I thought Shayna was totally innocent in her dating relationship she was in at the time (which once again trashes the idea that she was involved with Jeremy at this time as I KNOW she was seriously dating a young man at the time of her 18th to 19th birthday)
    I was however shocked to learn later on that she had actually committed the same offense to God probably at the same time and didn’t let on to me at all …until I heard about the rape charges, NOT from Jeremy, from herself!
    Yet I still couldn’t believe badly of her then, I just trusted that there was more to it and she couldn’t possibly be that kind of person to make up such lies.
    But the truth is, she still definitely played her part in this awful scenario and made choice after choice to continue to see Jeremy alone and put herself and him in a dangerous position to become attracted to each other. Knowing her as well you claim to, you must surely also know that she was not a stupid girl, she was quite mature for her age and had what I thought was a strong relationship with God and therefore also SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER than to be alone with him and let things progress that way even slightly. Even if she was scared of confessing what was going on for whatever reason, she simply could have walked away and said NO to whatever advances he made. She let herself be drawn in and wanted to be with him frankly.
    I, like Pastor Close, agree the suit is ridiculous, especially with all the accusations she made about the “wedding” ceremony, and having “groomed” her from age 14 etc etc. You should also know those as fabrications if you know her half as well as I did. That’s what makes me mad. What is really the purpose of it…I tried to email her and ask her what was going and why was she doing this and she wouldn’t respond. I believe she felt embarrassed and didn’t want to tell me the truth. I am so hurt that I lost a friend like this, if she had handled things a lot differently I would have been ready to encourage her and consider her a friend again but this nonsense just makes me so upset, it just isn’t the Shayna I used to know and love. 😦
    My memories of that church will forever be tarnished and bittersweet now and it just breaks my heart whenever I think of this happening. I just wish I could have helped prevent it somehow…

  7. Someone should keep better tabs on their Aussie Wife!

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