Stung by criticism since appearing as a character witness for a former church youth worker who confessed to child molestation, a leader in the African-American Baptist community Asheville, N.C., pledged to find ways to help churches protect children from sexual abuse.
L.C. Ray, president of the Buncombe County Baptist Ministers Union and pastor of Greater New Zion Baptist Church in Fletcher, N.C., was one of six ministers and three others who appeared in court last month asking for leniency for Leonard Smith, 53, a former music director who worked with youth at Sycamore Temple Church of God in Christ in Asheville.
Smith received a 14 year prison sentence after pleading guilty to five counts of indecent liberties with a child. The charges involved three children dating back 20 years. Three more serious charges dropped in a plea bargain dated to 1976.
“It really hurts,” Ray testified, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times. “But I can’t get around the fact that God calls me to fall on the side of mercy.”
The newspaper reported Nov. 29 that about 50 people turned out in support of Smith. Another minister said Smith “is still needed in the church.” The other side of the courtroom, where the family of one of the victims sat, was nearly empty. “We have been ostracized,” said a spokesman for the extended family. “Not one church leader has reached out to us.”
But in a story this Tuesday, Ray told the newspaper he did not know the charges facing his longtime friend until he was in the courtroom, despite media attention given the case.
“I felt trapped,” he told the Citizen-Times Monday. “I would never, never condone what happened.”
Ray, who co-founded a mentoring agency called One Youth at a Time, told the newspaper he hoped publicity about the case would help educate parents and children about sexual abuse in churches.
“So many churches don’t have anything in place,” he said. “We need to change that so our children are safe. These people are out there, and we have to protect our children.”
Ray said the Baptist Ministers Union, a group involved in social justice advocacy on issues like a living wage and HIV/AIDS awareness, plan to take action to protect the children in their churches.
“I’ve learned children aren’t safe just because they’re in church,” Ray said. “I always thought this was something that happened in other places, in big urban settings. Now we know we have to educate our children to speak up, and then we have to believe them.”
Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said seeing people rally around an accused minister while the victim’s family is ostracized sends a strong message to other victims of clergy sexual abuse.
“It tells them that, if they speak of it, they and their families will be shunned,” Brown said.
“I hope that Rev. Ray will indeed work hard to try to correct the counterproductive message his own conduct helped to send and that he will proactively reach out to any other clergy abuse victims in the area,” said Brown, who runs a Web site called Stop Baptist Predators. “People find out about clergy-perpetrators only when victims report them, and victims are much more likely to report them if they know that they will be supported in doing so.”
Meanwhile, prosecutors in Puyallup, Wash., on Tuesday charged a Baptist pastor with four counts of child molestation for allegedly fondling and kissing two sisters, now ages 12 and 13, whose family attend his church.
Forrest Lee Hudson, pastor of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church, denied the allegations and entered a plea of not guilty. Hudson’s is attorney said he would “vigorously fight” the charges, according to The News Tribune in Tacoma.
The newspaper described Hudson’s church as a predominantly black congregation that made headlines in 1996 when it was torched by an arsonist around the time dozens of fires were being set at African-American churches in the South.
The church is listed as affiliated with both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Northwest Baptist Convention, a regional body of Southern Baptist churches in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and one congregation in northern California.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.