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BGCO’s Falls Creek settles lawsuit

DAVIS, Okla. (BP) — The Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma has settled a lawsuit related to the alleged 2016 rape of a 13-year-old at the BGCO’s Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center.

Terms of the settlement are undisclosed, The Oklahoman newspaper reported Aug. 5, but one sentence of the settlement agreement is not under seal: “Following this incident, the BGCO conducted a review of its policies and procedures and has recognized additional efforts to provide as safe [an] environment as possible for campers visiting Falls Creek.”

BGCO communications director Brian Hobbs said in a statement released to Baptist Press, “We have prayed for a respectful resolution of this very serious matter. Looking to the future, we are continually working with churches to take every measure we can, to provide a safe environment where our campers can experience life with Jesus Christ. We are thankful that the ministry of Falls Creek continues forward to bless thousands of people in Oklahoma and across the region, for the glory of God.”

Falls Creek, located in southern Oklahoma’s Arbuckle Mountains, hosts more than 54,000 students and sponsors at youth camps each summer, according to the conference center’s website.

The alleged rapist, Benjamin Petty, 37, pleaded guilty in January to first-degree rape, forcible sodomy and rape by instrumentation, The Oklahoman reported. A plea deal that let him avoid prison led to public outcry and the resignation of a prosecutor who negotiated the deal.

Petty, who is legally blind, was a cook at Falls Creek at the time of the alleged offense, The Oklahoman reported previously.

In addition to the criminal case, the unnamed victim sued the BGCO; Country Estates Baptist Church in Midwest City, Okla., which took Petty to Falls Creek without performing a criminal background check; and First Baptist Church in Terrell, Texas, which took the victim and did perform background checks on adult chaperones.

A background check on Petty would have revealed a drunk driving offense in 2014 and a municipal drug paraphernalia offense in 2000, The Oklahoman reported, adding “it is unknown whether that information would have prompted church officials to exclude him from attending the camp.”

The victim’s attorneys alleged in a court filing — based on subpoena responses from 15 churches which sent people to Falls Creek the week of the rape — that adults were sent to Falls Creek by churches without background checks despite a BGCO policy requiring churches to perform checks on adult sponsors.

The victim’s attorneys claimed one church brought a felon who had been in prison for two counts of first-degree manslaughter, and another church brought a felon convicted of methamphetamine manufacturing and child endangerment.

“While the BGCO purports to require that the individual churches run background checks on the adult sponsors, it makes clear that it does not want to see or know anything about the background checks performed,” the victim’s attorneys wrote in a court document obtained by The Oklahoman.

As of Aug. 7, the Falls Creek website stated, “In order for anyone, who is age 18 or over, and is not classified as a camper, to stay overnight, Falls Creek will require a signed Background Check Compliance Form from the lead sponsor of the church the guest is attending with. Falls Creek will not seek possession of, nor view individual reports, but the compliance form warrants that the checks were run. Falls Creek will honor checks for 18 months from the date of the check.”

Adults who arrive without background checks “will not be allowed to stay overnight,” according to the website.

Country Estates pastor Steve Holland, who was called to the church following the alleged rape, told The Oklahoman, “We have changed a tremendous amount of things in the way we go about training and preparing our volunteers to work with children and youth…. My heart breaks over this situation. I’m glad that we can come to a settlement and the victim and her family can hopefully move forward.”

First Baptist Terrell pastor John Lowrie was not available for comment prior to BP’s publication deadline.

The victim’s attorney Bruce Robertson told The Oklahoman, “We are glad the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of our client and her family, as they have suffered greatly from this event. We are glad the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma conducted a review of its policies and has recognized additional efforts are needed to provide Falls Creek campers as safe an environment as possible. We hope they follow through and implement the needed changes.”

LifeWay Christian Resources’ LifeWay OneSource program endorses backgroundchecks.com to perform background screenings for churches and other ministries. Through the OneSource program, ministries can receive discounts on background checks.