PORT-AU-PRINCE (BP)–A Haitian prosecutor Thursday charged 10 members of a Baptist volunteer team with child kidnapping and criminal association for allegedly not following the law in attempting to transport 33 children into the Dominican Republic.
Haitian Deputy Prosecutor Jean Ferge Joseph then handed the case to an investigative judge, Reuters news service reported.
“That judge can free you but he can also continue to hold you for further proceedings,” he told the group, comprised of five men and five women who were arrested Jan. 29.
The charges carry prison terms of up to 15 years, The New York Times reported.
The case has garnered national and international attention and has adoption and Christian aid agencies concerned it could tarnish their work. The 10 volunteers maintain they are innocent. A Haitian pastor who assisted the team told the Associated Press that the volunteers had permission from parents of children in the group who were not orphans to transport them into the Dominican Republic and into an orphanage there. The pastor, Jean Sainvil, described the controversy as a misunderstanding stemming from the volunteers not having the needed paperwork for the children. Sainvil said the Baptist volunteers were acting “with a good heart.”
Prior to the Thursday hearing, group leader Laura Silsby told a group of reporters, “We’re just trusting God for a positive outcome.” Southern Baptist Convention leaders, including SBC President Johnny Hunt and Executive Committee President Morris H. Chapman, have urged Southern Baptists to pray for the jailed volunteers.
Gil Lain, senior pastor of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas — where one of the volunteers, Jim Allen, is a member — said in a statement Wednesday on the church’s website that the volunteers’ goal simply was to “take care of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), just as Jesus said.” He also discounted accusations that the 10 volunteers knew what they were doing was wrong.
“Here’s what you may not have heard or read: They spent three days getting the proper paperwork in order,” Lain said. “The problem arose when they got to the border and still lacked something due to a change in the laws.”
Allen’s wife, Lisa, told CNN’s “Larry King Live” she has not spoken with her husband since he was arrested.
“I think it’s a big misunderstanding that’s kind of been blown out of proportion,” she said. “Their intentions were to go there and help the kids that were in need.”
The families of the volunteers released a brief statement Wednesday that read in part, “Our hearts and prayers continue to go out to our family members who are being held in Haiti. We are concerned and worried about them, but the two governments need time to work this out.”
P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, was quoted in a CNN.com report as saying American and Haitian officials are “working to try to ascertain what happened [and] the motive behind these people.”
“Clearly, there are questions about procedure as to whether they had the appropriate paperwork to move the children,” Crowley said.
Silsby was seen in several video interviews Feb. 1 and Jan. 31, which were permitted by authorities, as stating that the group had thought their plans were in order for transporting the children into the Dominican Republic until they were stopped by Haitian guards at the border between the two countries.
Silsby, in a Feb. 1 interview with a CNN reporter, said, “We believe that we have been charged very falsely with trafficking, which of course that is the furthest possible extreme, because, I mean, our hearts here -– we literally all gave up, you know, everything we had, I mean, income, used of our own funds to come here and help these children and by no means are any part of that horrendous practice.”
Of the 33 children the team was seeking to aid, Silsby said, “They really didn’t have any paperwork. This is, again, probably a misunderstanding on my part, but I did not really understand that that would really need to be required.”
Told by the CNN reporter that at least 10 of the children had a mother or father and a telephone number, Silsby said, “I can tell you our heart and our intent was to help only those children that needed us most, that they had lost either both mother and father, or had lost one of their parents and the other parent had abandoned them.”
Silsby is a member of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, as are group members Charisa Coulter, Carla Thompson and Nicole and Corinna Lankford. Three detainees are from Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho: pastor Paul Thompson, his son Silas and church member Steve McMullen. The other detainees are Allen and Drew Culberth, a firefighter who also is an assistant youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Bethel Baptist is the only church not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Hunt, the SBC president, released the following statement Tuesday, Feb. 2:
“We lift up in prayer the ten volunteers from Baptist churches detained by the Haitian government. Our hearts go out to their families and churches as they face the uncertainty of the day-by-day health and well-being of their loved ones. We are grateful for the efforts of the U.S. State Department to provide services for these brothers and sisters in Christ, praying that our government will be able to work with the Haitian government to effect an amicable resolution to this tense situation.
“We also applaud the efforts of our state convention Disaster Relief teams, NAMB, and IMB in their immediate and timely responses to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Haiti. They are working closely with other disaster organizations and with governmental entities in Haiti to bring resources to those who are in need. While we know that the Convention cannot require any church to coordinate its local church ministries with Convention ministries, we strongly encourage all cooperating Baptist churches planning ministry trips to Haiti to contact their respective state conventions and our two mission boards, which are working together to provide ministry to this devastated region.”
Compiled by Michael Foust, an assistant editor of Baptist Press, and Art Toalston, editor of Baptist Press.