Apology, $300K payout in church sex abuse settlement

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP) -- An apology, admission of liability and a $300,000 payout are among the terms First Baptist Church of Columbia, S.C., reached to settle a case involving a child who was reportedly sexually abused by a former church volunteer.

Confessing "a broken and contrite heart," the church apologized and read an explanatory statement including the full terms of the settlement to its congregation in its Sunday morning service Feb. 4, church spokesman Bryan Barnes told Baptist Press.

"Today, we want to offer an apology for the inappropriate and unacceptable conduct this young man endured and express regret for what we failed to do to prevent it," the church said, according to a near 1,400-word document Barnes gave BP. "We are sorry that this young man was wronged and that our policies and procedures as well as our enforcement of those policies and procedures were insufficient to protect him.

"No student should have to experience what this young man endured," the statement reads. A teenager identified in the October, 2017 lawsuit as "Joel Doe" reportedly suffered abuse, which included inappropriate text messages, at some point between the ages of 11 and 16 from former youth volunteer Andrew McCraw.

"[Joel Doe] and his family deserved our best efforts, as does every family who entrusts their child to the programs and activities of our church," the statement reads. "We are grateful this student alerted his parents to the wrong actions of this trusted volunteer. … The young man (student) did the right thing. The legal matter with this young man has been resolved and First Baptist Church is taking steps to better protect the youth of this church."

In a statement to Baptist Press and other news services, Barnes said the church regrets that it did not have a policy specifically regarding texting in place to prevent such abuse.

"First Baptist has accepted responsibility for this even though we had strong policies in place and performed a background check on the volunteer which revealed no issues," Barnes said in the press statement. "What we did not have at the time was a policy specifically forbidding texting between an adult and a student without copying another adult. Such a policy, if followed, could have prevented these messages."

The settlement did not require First Baptist of Columbia to admit to what the lawsuit claimed was a long-held practice of concealing sexual abuse, a claim the church continues to deny. In alleging a conspiracy, the lawsuit pointed to a 2002 criminal case involving former First Baptist deacon John Hubner, currently serving a 36-year prison term for sexually abusing a teenage girl who attended the church.

The church's insurance company will cover the $300,000 payout, the church told congregants. In addition to the apology and admission of liability on the part of the church and Senior Pastor Wendell Estep, the church agreed to have its applicable policies updated by a third party experienced in sex abuse prevention. The church also agreed to keep confidential the name of the child who was abused.

Joel Doe and his parents are still pursuing their lawsuit against McCraw.

In the case against McCraw, an alternative dispute resolution hearing is set for May 8 in Richland County 5th Judicial Circuit Court, according to online court documents.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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