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.