In 1999 in Calvert County, Maryland, a student had to change her plans to deliver her high school graduation prayer after a fellow student objected, with backing from the ACLU and the state attorney general's office.
Former pastor Doug Myers received seven years in prison for sexual abuse of a minor. (WTFT.com)
During an allowed "moment of reflection," a Southern Baptist pastor named Douglas Myers began reciting loudly the Lord's Prayer. The entire audience joined in, creating an event that made national headlines.
This week, the 57-year-old Myers is back in the news. On Wednesday a Florida court sentenced him to seven years in prison for repeatedly molesting a parishioner's grandson.
A television news report said Myers' congregation viewed him as a trusted pastor, but his arrest came as no surprise to some who crossed paths with him in a ministry spanning 30 years.
"I always knew he would get caught up with," said Charles Canida. "It finally happened in Florida."
Canida was a deacon at Concord Baptist Church in Russellville, Ala., when "Pastor Doug," as he insisted on being called, arrived about five or six years ago. Canida said he was almost immediately suspicious.
"I firmly believe one of my spiritual gifts is the gift of discernment," Canida told EthicsDaily.com. "My spirit was deeply troubled by this man immediately."
Discussions with a youth minister only added to Canida's concern. Myers surrounded himself with boys ages 10-12. After one un-chaperoned swimming trip, one of the boys reported that "Pastor Doug" made it a rule for them to go skinny dipping.
One night, Canida said, a mother came to his home in tears, upset because Myers held down her 10-year-old son on a table, pulled up his shirt and blew on his stomach. Confronted by the chairman of deacons and told such behavior was unacceptable, Myers replied "that's the way I warm up to these kids" and that he would continue.
Viewing these and other incidents as red flags, Canida tried to raise the issue of Myers' leadership with the deacons. That only split the church, he said. Canida and his family eventually left Concord Baptist, along with about half of the active members.
Shortly thereafter Myers left Alabama. In October 2002 he was founding pastor of Harbor Baptist Fellowship in Eustis, Fla., a mission of Bay Street Baptist Church, a 1,350-member church in the Orlando area affiliated with the Florida Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. He befriended a woman who worked in the nursery at Bay Street, who went on to join the mission church.
For six months beginning in July 2005, police say, Myers sexually battered the woman's 13-year-old grandson in her home, where Myers picked up the boy to take him to school.
The sheriff's office in Lake County, Fla., arrested Myers, who by now had started yet another church called Triangle Community Church, at his home in Tavares, Fla., Feb. 24. Myers was charged with three counts of lewd and lascivious battery and released on $45,000 bail. If convicted on all three counts, he could have been imprisoned for 45 years. In exchange for pleading guilty to one the charges, prosecutors agreed to let him serve seven years behind bars.
Myers will continue to be monitored after his release from prison and still faces a civil lawsuit. Investigators said they hadn't found other victims but if any are discovered he could face more charges.
"What you have done to my child is unforgivable; from a position of authority you took a young boy and took away his youth and childhood," the boy's mother said in a letter to Myers read at his sentencing hearing. "You have turned my family upside down, and for that you will go to jail for a long time."
"Do you believe in God?" she asked. "Being a preacher I hope that you would. Then how in God's eyes could you do this? You are not a man of the cloth nor should you ever be allowed to again pretend that you are. You used the church and God both for your sick and perverted ways to lure children in."
Myers allegedly told his victim he had done the same thing with a boy in Maryland, who is now in college. Canida said the pastor who followed Myers at Bayside Baptist Church in Chesapeake Beach, Md., told him Myers left amid issues with three teenage boys. If the search committee at the church in Alabama had done its job and contacted the Maryland church, he said, they would have recommended against calling him as pastor.
Attempts to reach Bayside Baptist Church on Wednesday and Thursday were unsuccessful.
Worried that Myers, whose parents live in north Alabama, might try to return to the area one day, Canida said he asked his pastor to alert directors of missions in his association and two neighboring counties about his suspicions. Canida also contacted the local district attorney's office, but he was told there was nothing they could do without evidence and the best thing the church could do was to run him out of town.
Christa Brown, an advocate for survivors of sex abuse by Southern Baptist clergy, said the case points to the need for a central office in the Southern Baptist Convention where people like Canida could report people like Myers and expect someone to look into it.
Brown and other members of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) asked leaders of the SBC to establish such an independent review board and to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy toward churches that shield suspected sex offenders in a letter hand-delivered to SBC headquarters Sept. 26. SBC leaders have yet to officially respond.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.