Pastor seeks forgiveness for letting alleged sex abuser stay on staff

Just a few weeks after his church was removed from a Southern Baptist Convention watchlist, the pastor of a Turner County church apologized Thursday for not earlier removing a staffer who allegedly abused several children at another Georgia church.

The Rev. Rodney Brown, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Ashburn, asked for forgiveness from the victims and the Southern Baptist Convention in a statement published by the Christian Index, the publication of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

“Recently I have come to realize that I failed my duty as pastor in not taking action against an individual who had been accused of child abuse in the past at another church,” the statement read. “This was because of my long-standing friendship with the accused.

“Other victims have now come forward naming this person and he has admitted to assaulting several young people many years ago. I now realize that what I first thought was an isolated incident was much more. I should have understood that earlier and not doing so was a great mistake on my part. I cannot apologize enough for my actions.”

Ashburn, in Turner County, is about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Atlanta.

Brown, reached by phone Friday, said the staffer, who is not identified by name in the statement, was fired last week. The man was also asked to resign his church membership and is not to return to Trinity.

In a previous article in the Baptist Press, Brown said the man confessed he had molested a "young teen" decades earlier and had repented. He was fired but later reinstated. Brown said, though, he was never allowed to be alone with children.

When asked if he planned to stay on as pastor, Brown said yes because “the church won’t accept my resignation.”

He said the church was in the process of “getting more training for our people.” He said the church also wants to stiffen its policies. It already does background checks but “evidently background checks are not enough anymore. … We’re trying.”

Related: Two Georgia churches no longer under review by SBC

In the statement, Brown said his greatest failure has been to God. “This situation has greatly changed my thinking as pastor. I realize that friendship can never override the duties God has given me to protect those we serve in His name. My prayer is for God’s mercy and healing for the victims of these terrible acts and for any churches affected.”

Trinity was one of two Georgia churches named in a series of articles by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News that detailed years of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated churches and the SBC’s failure to take steps to address the issue, such as creating a list of offenders.

After the articles ran, SBC President J.D. Greear asked for a review of standing for 10 churches mentioned in the articles, including Trinity and Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta. One church was found not to be affiliated with the SBC.

The SBC Executive Committee bylaws workgroup said in a Feb. 23 statement in the Baptist Press that, based on the information provided, there was no evidence that church leaders at seven churches, among other things, knowingly hired a convicted sex offender, allowed that person to work with minors or did not comply with mandatory child abuse reporting laws. Those seven churches included Trinity and Eastside Baptist.

SBC officials have been careful to say, though, that the workgroup has no authority to “clear” any church. In fact, if additional information comes to the committee, as has already occurred, it may indicate further inquiries could occur.

Related: What Atlanta Catholics seek in wake of sex abuse cases

The statement, though, did little to ease the hurt and anger felt by David Pittman, who said he told Brown about the abuse in 2011. Pittman, now 50, said the abuse occurred in a Tucker church when he was 12 and continued for several years. He said he told Brown about other victims at that time.

“It was horrible, disgusting and offensive,” said Pittman, who now lives in Florida and is the founder of the nonprofit Together We Heal, which was formed to help survivors of childhood sexual abuse. “For him to say it was an isolated incident implies to a survivor that if it just happened one time, then it’s not as bad as if it happened multiple times. I can only assume that Pastor Brown still doesn’t get it, Pastor Brown doesn’t care or both.”

Pittman said he never told his family, church officials or police about the abuse. In fact, he didn’t share it with anyone for 25 years. When he did go to police, he was told the statute of limitations had expired. A police report was never filed.

Pittman said the abuse affected him in so many ways. He said he developed a drug habit to help numb the pain, but has been sober for 13 years.

He said he has followed the whereabouts of his alleged abuser as he worked at different churches and even at a school.

“I know to a certain degree a pastor’s hands are tied, but it doesn’t mean he couldn’t raise holy hell about it,” Pittman said. When other pastors allegedly found out about the allegations of abuse, Pittman said they let the alleged abuser resign and he just moved to another church. “This is a pattern that has been repeated and repeated. Nobody takes responsibility. No one takes accountability. They just kick it down the road.”

Georgia Baptist Mission Board Executive Director W. Thomas Hammond Jr. told the Christian Index that one victim was one too many.

ExploreIn the statement to the Index, he talked about Trinity. “It is my expectation that there is more work to be done at Trinity and more healing to be experienced by the victims; I am committed to both efforts.”

Christa Brown, a longtime advocate for reform in the SBC, said she would like to see an independent review panel to receive and assess allegations from abuse survivors, and then to relay information about credible allegations to congregations.

She said, “It’s dangerous when it takes several years and massive media attention for even an admitted child molester to finally be removed from a position of trust.”