Abuse vic­tims’ lawyers seek to add de­fen­dants to $82M suit

Church as­so­ci­a­tions may join Im­manuel Bap­tist

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARK BOWES

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.


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