Abuse victims’ lawyers seek to add defendants to $82M suit
Church associations may join Immanuel Baptist
A law firm representing eight boys sexually molested by a volunteer youth group leader at Immanuel Baptist Church in Colonial Heights has filed a motion to add three affiliated church associations as defendants to an $82 million lawsuit that says the entities failed to warn or protect the victims.
The personal injury firm Breit Cantor Grana Buckner originally filed suit last year against Immanuel Baptist, convicted child abuser Jeffrey D. Clark and two former church leaders, including Clark’s father.
The law firm now is seeking to amend the suit and add as defendants the Southern Baptist Convention, the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Petersburg Baptist Association.
Immanuel Baptist Church was a member of those associations when Clark abused the boys between 2010 and 2015 after meeting them through the church’s youth organization.
“The whole purpose of our complaint is that these are governing bodies so to speak, larger umbrella entities that the Immanuel Baptist Church was a member of, and they have the power to control and to put into place measures or policies — or to do something — in order to help protect these children,” Breit Cantor attorney Kevin Biniazan said Monday in an interview.
The Southern Baptist Convention, the world’s largest group of Baptists, has more than 47,000 churches and institutions with about 15 million members. From 2015 to 2018, SBC received from $190 million to $210 million from its member churches, including from $800,000 to $2 million every year from the Baptist General Association, according to the lawsuit.
In April 2016, Clark, then 46, was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison for sexually abusing seven boys from 12 to 17 years old. The abuse ranged from fondling to sodomy, prosecutors said at the time.
The lawsuit identifies an eighth alleged victim who was not part of Clark’s criminal cases in Colonial Heights and Chesterfield County. The plaintiffs are now between ages 14 and 24.
Clark molested two of the victims, 12 and 16, in Colonial Heights, including one incident that occurred in the youth room at Immanuel Baptist Church at 620 Lafayette Ave.
The five other boys, 12 to 17, were abused in Chesterfield, where Clark lives in the 3400 block of Burnettedale Drive, prosecutors said in 2016.
Clark selected his victims through their involvement with the church’s youth group, which Clark led, prosecutors said.
Breit Cantor originally filed an $82 million suit in May 2018 against Immanuel Baptist Church; Clark, the youth leader convicted of molesting the boys; Alvin “Ted” Clark, who the complaint says held various leadership positions at the church; and Fred K. Adkins Jr., who at the time was the church’s junior pastor and one of its administrators.
The lawsuit says that after one of the victims made an allegation against Clark, Clark and his father called the boy a liar and threatened him and his family unless he recanted his allegation, which the boy then did. That enabled Clark to continue working at the church and preying on children, the suit says.
Biniazan said adding the Southern Baptist Convention and the two other church associations as defendants shouldn’t “be a procedural issue for us.”
“Essentially, the only parties that can contest or object to this motion would be parties that already are within the action,” Biniazan said. If the court rejects the motion, “we could just refile” the suit and add the other defendants, he said.
The three associations have not yet been served with the amended 11count, 72-page complaint. That will be done once the motion to add them as defendants is granted, or a revised complaint is filed that adds them, Biniazan said.
Roger Oldham, Southern Baptist’s vice president for communications and relations, declined to comment for now.
“Southern Baptists grieve whenever they learn of an instance of sexual abuse in a church setting,” Oldham said in an email. “We have not yet reviewed the details of this case, so will reserve comment until after we file an answer.”
The suit says the Southern Baptist Convention for decades has exercised its power to control the conduct, policies and practices of its member churches and entities, including the Baptist General Association of Virginia, the Petersburg Baptist Association and Immanuel Baptist Church.
In 2002, according to the suit, the SBC issued a resolution titled On the Sexual Integrity of Ministers, “acknowledging its ‘fallenness and the need to prevent such appalling sins from happening within [its] own ranks’ when referencing sexual abuse by members of the Convention’s churches similar to the abuse exposed in the Roman Catholic Church.”
The SBC at that time urged the “training of pastors, missionaries and educators; accountability to the highest standards of Christian moral practice; discipline for those guilty of sexual abuse; [and] the removal of predatory ministers,” the suit said.
In making the pronouncement, the suit says, the SBC acknowledged that Baptist pastors, employees and volunteers were sexually abusing youth members of its Convention at its member churches, but still took no action against any known predators and failed to warn or protect its members from them.
The suit further contends that neither Immanuel Baptist Church nor the governing bodies conducted any background checks or other screenings of Clark, “an unmarried middle-aged man ... who lived alone with an elaborate game-room tailored for child entertainment, possessed child pornography, demonstrated sexually pervasive behavior [and] posted internet ads half-nude to gain the company of younger men.”
Even after the allegation of sexual misconduct against Clark had been made, Immanuel Baptist continued to allow Clark to supervise and host youth group members, included chaperoning overnight camping trips and sleepovers at his home, and he was promoted to “Leader of the Youth Group” in 2010, the suit says.
The suit seeks $10 million in compensatory damages for each of the eight victims, plus a total of $2 million more in punitive damages and to cover medical expenses.