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Ill. church controversy erupts over sex abuser on staff

CHICAGO (BP)–A small Chicago-area Southern Baptist church knowingly allowed a convicted sex offender to preach and serve in high-level leadership in the past few years, although the director of missions for that area says he did everything in his power to stop it.

The convicted man, Jeff Hannah, since has resigned his position at First Baptist Church in Romeoville, Ill., a congregation that now is down to about 21 people and considering the possibility of folding. The resignation took place after the Chicago Sun-Times — which first reported the story — approached Hannah and others at the church about the matter.

Hannah was sentenced in 1996 to nine years in prison for having sexual relations with girls ages 15 to 17 while he was a married youth pastor at Crossroads Church in Libertyville, Ill., the newspaper reported. He was paroled in 2001 and joined FBC Romeoville, where his new wife was a member. When the pastor left, the church asked Hannah to serve as the interim, even though it knew he was a convicted sexual offender.

“In our church, we believe in forgiveness,” Del Kirkpatrick, a deacon at the church, told the Sun-Times.

Dan Eddington, director of missions for the Three Rivers Baptist Association — of which the church voluntarily is a member — said that when he heard about Hannah’s past, he urged the church to remove him from leadership roles.

“Once I learned of it, we began to take immediate action,” Eddington told Baptist Press…. “I made numerous phone calls to his previous church, to the district attorney’s office. Our attempt was to try to get the church to recognize that they could be redemptive with Jeff and have him be in the fellowship but not in the leadership. That was our real goal.”

Eddington came on as director of missions in August 2005 and, sometime thereafter, FBC Romeoville hired a new pastor, Charles Hamby. Hannah, though, stayed on as an adult Sunday School teacher, music leader and essentially the associate pastor, Eddington said.

In September 2006, Hannah even was elected associate moderator of the association.

“Right after that I found out he was on the sex offenders list,” Eddington said. “… I went and talked to Jeff and his wife and removed him from positions [within the association].”

Eddington learned of Hannah’s past when a church who was considering hiring Hannah from FBC Romeoville conducted a background check — a simple check that Southern Baptist officials have urged all churches to conduct on potential volunteers and employees. Someone from that church then contacted Eddington with the news. Eddington went and talked with FBC Romeoville’s new pastor, he says, but nothing was done and Hannah remained on the church’s staff.

“The man … paid his debt to society,” Hamby told the Sun-Times.

Some church members, Eddington said, believed that Hannah had been involved with only one girl, and one he thought to be much older and an adult. They did not know, Eddington said, that Hannah had sexual relations with three girls he knew to be minors. When those members earlier this year found out the full story about Hannah, a special business meeting was called to consider Hannah’s removal from leadership, Eddington added. There were approximately 30-40 people in the church at the time.

Eddington spoke at the meeting, laying out the reasons why Hannah should not be a church leader. He also told them the legal “ramifications” that could follow if Hannah was allowed to remain.

“The majority voted by a slim margin to keep him and also to retain their current pastor,” Eddington said. “… After that, those who were against [Hannah remaining in leadership] left. Some of them changed their membership and went to other churches.”

Hamby resigned in recent days about the same time Hannah resigned, the Sun-Times reported, leaving the church once more without a pastor. Hamby was divorced when he came to the church, and his subsequent remarriage caused controversy.

“A pastor should be the husband of one wife,” Kirkpatrick told the Sun-Times.

The story got even more surreal Aug. 21 when the Sun-Times reported that as interim pastor in 2006, Hannah invited one of his neighbors, Bryan Buckley — who also is a former convicted sexual offender who served jail time — to lead music at one service. Buckley and Hannah apparently met in prison, the newspaper said. Buckley in 1997 was convicted of four counts of assaulting a 14-year-old girl.

Lost in all the uproar over Hannah is the fact that church leaders apparently were in the process of leading the church away from the Southern Baptist Convention. But the departure of Hamby and Hannah likely prevented that.

When the Sun-Times story broke, the association was in the process of changing its constitution so it could discipline the congregation.

“[T]hat would have given us a little bit more bite in being able to move them to possibly a limited membership status while we continued to deal with it, and then possibly disfellowship,” Eddington said. “We had to rewrite our constitution in order to be able to move in that direction.”

With a limited membership, he said, the church would not have had its associational rights.

“We would be in a reconciliation mode trying to reconcile with them,” he said.

The new associational constitution will be voted on at the next associational meeting, Eddington added.

The church, with only 21 people, is scheduled to meet Friday night “to discuss the future of the church,” he said.

“All those 21 are old members who have come back,” he said. “Those who were the followers of the other two pastors have not come back.”
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press

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