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Arkansas church calls for third-party investigation into sexual abuse cases, response

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that Executive Pastor Doug Pigg retired from Immanuel Baptist Church.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP) – Revelations of nondisclosure agreements for members of an investigatory committee, the retirement of its executive pastor and calls for a change in leadership have taken place over the past few months, including the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church stating that “nothing is more important than keeping our members and children safe.” 

Recent events culminated yesterday, Jan. 30, when former staff member Patrick Miller withdrew his petition to seal his criminal record. A hearing had been set for that determination Thursday (Feb. 1).

Miller was the assistant director of children’s ministry at Immanuel in 2015 when during a game of hide-and-seek at the church, he sexually abused a child in a closed closet. Miller left that role in January 2016, with his victim stepping forward in March.

Church leaders immediately notified authorities, though no action was taken at the time. A second victim came forward in the summer of 2018, and Miller was arrested in December of that year. In January 2022, a plea deal was reached for misdemeanor harassment and one-year suspended sentence.

The attorney for the two victims and others contends that had the accusations against Miller not been withheld by church leadership, more victims may have stepped forward. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which has covered the case extensively, broke the news of Miller’s attempts to seal his criminal record hours before Immanuel and Pastor Steven Smith publicly acknowledged the case for the first time.

“In all cases, public discussions of criminal matters can undermine the ability of the prosecution to bring an offender to justice,” Smith said in a Dec. 12 statement to Baptist Press.

“We can always do better and we’re working with national experts to create even more safeguards to protect the people in our church.”

After departing Immanuel, Miller was subsequently hired by First Baptist Church in Moore, Okla., where he was associate kids pastor until August 2018. In a written statement to the Democrat-Gazette, the church’s pastor from that time stated that no one from Immanuel alerted him to the accusations against Miller.

Case from 2020 surfaces

Last fall, staff member Courtney Reissig resigned her position as discipleship content director over an abuse case at the church in 2020, the Democrat-Gazette reported on Dec. 14.

Reissig said she wrote the letter before becoming aware of Miller’s actions. Her resignation was over a different abuse case in 2020 between a teenage boy and a student ministry volunteer in her 20s who was also a middle school teacher. That volunteer was subsequently reassigned to the music ministry, according to a response page on the church’s website.

Smith said complete information about the situation was lacking at the time and leadership thought the extent of interaction between the student – whose uncle is a deacon at the church – and the volunteer had been limited to “inappropriate texting.”

Instead, according to a letter written by Smith to the congregation on Sept. 7, 2023, and reported by the Democrat-Gazette, the volunteer was suspended but later allowed to volunteer in the children’s ministry for three years. She stepped aside after confessing that there in fact had been physical contact between her and the boy when he was 16.

Smith admitted on the church response page that reinstatement was a mistake.

“Looking back, the offending music volunteer should never have been permitted to serve again in any Immanuel ministry working with young people. Period,” he said.

Protests over attorney’s ties to Duggar case

In December, Smith, who began at the church in January 2017, stepped down from his role as an adjunct professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The church also severed ties on Dec. 21 with the attorney it had selected to help with its new Child Safety and Sexual Abuse Prevention program.

That decision came after protests from the church’s finance team – left out of the selection process, according to the Democrat-Gazette – upon learning the attorney was involved in the defense of reality TV star Josh Duggar’s child pornography charges.

Deacon David Choate, whose nephew was the young man in the 2020 instance, called for Smith’s departure in a nine-page letter on Jan. 11.

In his response on IBC’s website, Smith addresses Choate’s letter and said he “would never want to minimize the pain, anguish, anger, and disillusionment his and his nephew’s families experienced.” However, he added, the letter included items “that are simply not true, as well as things where he has wrongly assigned motive.”

Deacons barred from meeting, executive pastor resigns

Choate’s letter came one day after he and three other deacons were barred from a meeting of the deacon board. He told the Democrat-Gazette it was due to his and two others’ being related to the victims and another’s family relationship to Miller.

Executive Pastor Doug Pigg, in the lead role for overseeing IBC’s response to abuse allegations, announced in a Jan. 25 email to church members that Sunday, Jan. 28, would be his final Sunday at the church.

According to his LinkedIn account, Pigg served as assistant pastor of administration at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., from 1984-2006. In a report from Guidepost Solutions based on its investigation of the SBC Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse allegations, Tiffany Thigpen recounted the sexual abuse she experienced at First Jacksonville in 1991 by guest preacher Darrell Gilyard.

Allegations of sexual abuse would continue to follow Gilyard in the coming years and land him as a registered sex offender. In 2012 the Jacksonville Baptist Association sought a member church’s resignation upon learning Gilyard had been hired by the church.

An Investigation and Communication Committee has also been established at Immanuel. However, at least two members have since resigned upon learning they would be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which included a prohibition on even acknowledging the agreement’s existence.  

Over the last week Smith called for an independent, third-party investigation into Immanuel’s handling of sexual abuse claims in addition to the inquiry being conducted by the church’s insurer, which was described as “a necessary first step.”

“There are firms with specialized experience with Christian organizations, denominations, and churches,” Smith said of the forthcoming third-party investigation. “These firms are widely respected in the victim community and their work will be fully independent with full reign to interview anyone they wish, in strictest confidence, and to review any internal documents and communication.”

Baptist Press reached out to Smith and the church for additional comments, but did not receive any as of press time.