JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) — An attorney for the Florida Baptist Convention has voiced confidence that a judgment by a jury to award $12.5 million to a man molested by a former church planting pastor will be overturned on appeal.
“That confidence is based, in large part, on the jury’s express finding that Myers was an independent pastor who was not hired, employed or supervised by the convention,” Gary Yeldell, the Florida Baptist Convention’s attorney-of-record, stated.
The Lake County jury reached its judgment Jan. 18 after a six-day trial on the issue of damages.
Yeldell said as a general rule the Florida Baptist Convention does not specifically comment on pending litigation, but noted: “The recent verdict from the trial in Lake County is not yet final, nor will the matter be concluded once the trial verdict becomes final. The convention remains confident that the appellate court will overturn the jury’s verdict.”
In June 2012 the Florida convention filed two post-trial motions in the case seeking reversal of an “inconsistent” May 17 jury verdict that found it liable for sex abuse committed by Douglas W. Myers.
Myers, 64, was found guilty and in 2012 completed serving a seven-year sentence for molesting a 13-year-old in 2005 while Myers was pastor of Triangle Community Church in Eustis, Fla.
A prior judge ruled that liability and damages had to be tried separately.
After a two-week trial in May 2012, the jury found Lake County Baptist Association and Bay Street Baptist Church at least partially at fault although each party had previously made a financial settlement with the plaintiffs.
In a statement published in June 2012, John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, indicated “the good news is that the jury found that the church planter/pastor was never an employee of the Florida Baptist Convention.”
Sullivan added: “… regardless of the outcome of the motions — or the likely appeal to the appellate courts — we cannot let this case hinder our efforts to support church planting efforts in our state.”
An argument made in the January 2014 case for liability directed attention to the convention because of a grant to the Lake County Baptist Association for church planting — and the listing of the churches in a Florida Baptist Convention Annual and among new church plants in articles supplied to the Florida Baptist Witness by the Florida Baptist Convention. Both churches Myers planted are now defunct.
An attorney in 2012 had previously stated the argument is invalid because there is an explicit statement in the convention’s Annual that notes persons listed are “solely for information purposes with no endorsement or approval implied or expressed.”
In addition, according to Baptist polity, churches (of which there are more than 3,000 in Florida) are autonomous, solely responsible for hiring their own pastors — in contrast to other denominations. Unlike other denominations or religious groups, individual members of Southern Baptist churches and leadership teams vote to make decisions about who to hire as their pastor, how to build local houses of worship, how to budget their offerings, etc. — although they may choose to attend regional, state or national meetings in order to voluntarily cooperate in order to participate in larger projects. They have a bottom up, instead of a top down structure that people of other faith traditions might not be accustomed to.
After he was released from prison in December 2012, Myers was extradited to face charges in Maryland. He entered that state’s equivalent of a no-contest plea to three counts of custodial child abuse and was sentenced in October in Calvert County, Md., to 45 years in prison all but 15 years suspended, according to news reports. The offenses occurred in December 1997, April 1999 and March 2001.
The Florida convention completed criminal, traffic and credit background checks as well as personal references on Myers, according to a previous Witness story. After the charges in Lake County surfaced, some persons in prior churches came forward saying they had concerns.
In 2013, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Houston passed a resolution expressing affirmation for children and recognized the “ever-increasing criminal offense” of the sexual abuse of children even within Southern Baptist churches.
The resolution, in part, reminded “all Southern Baptists of their legal and moral responsibility to report any accusations of child abuse to authorities,” to “pray for children who are victims of abuse, to stand for their protection from abuse, and to support safe and healthy children’s ministries in our churches and communities.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness (www.goFBW.com), newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention.