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Jury: Church not negligent in former pastor’s misconduct

SANTA FE, N.M. (BP)–A church accused of not adequately supervising its pastor was found innocent Aug. 29 in a civil court case in Sante Fe, N.M.
First Baptist Church, Chama, N.M., was notified in December 1995 it was being sued for negligence — not adequately researching a man’s background before calling him as pastor, not adequately training him to fulfill his pastoral responsibilities, not adequately supervising him and not firing him for cause.
The suit originally also cited the New Mexico Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. The two Baptist bodies were dropped from the suit when the autonomy of local churches was explained.
The man who filed the suit said his 13-year marriage disintegrated after his wife and the Chama church’s then-pastor became romantically involved.
Chama, which snuggles in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains with a winter population of 1,200, is best known as the southern end of the nation’s longest narrow-gauge railroad, a tourist attraction that operates between May and October.
First Baptist, Chama, which has an average Sunday morning worship attendance of about 60 people, was started as a mission in 1945 and has met continuously ever since. It is one of the larger churches in town.
“Most of the precedence for this (court action) in this area (of the nation) has come from the Catholic church,” recounted Steve Candelaria, a native New Mexican and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate who became the church’s pastor in June 1995, 11 months after the former pastor resigned.
Family members in New Mexico have successfully sued the Catholic church for damages related to priestly misconduct, Candelaria continued. “After a long talk with our lawyer, we finally got it across that we are autonomous and there isn’t anyone higher than the local church.” The attorney is Catholic; the law firm for which he works is Mormon-owned.
A suit also was filed against the former pastor, who settled out of court for $4,000, according to a report in the Albuquerque Journal. The newspaper ran four page-one articles about the suit during the week-long trial.
Fortunately for First Baptist, Chama, the church had liability insurance, Candelaria said. The insurance company paid for the attorney. Candelaria credited the New Mexico Southern Baptist Convention some years ago with sounding the alert for churches to purchase insurance.
“I think people started realizing the church is no longer protected by the community,” Candelaria said. “Churches are sometimes out there as a target.”
The only concern about having insurance is since the insurance company pays the bills it gets to make the decisions, Candelaria said. At one point the insurance company offered to settle out of court, which could have given the impression the church was at fault, he explained. The plaintiff refused the proffered $5,000 settlement.
The plaintiff’s case claimed the pastor in question was not a trained counselor, although he had counseled both the wife and the now- former husband. The church should have provided the pastor with counseling training if it was going to have him counsel members, the plaintiff’s case claimed.
The church’s defense said there is a difference between clinical and pastoral counseling.
The plaintiff’s case also claimed if one member of the church had knowledge of the affair, then the church (embodied in that individual) had knowledge of it and should have done something about it. The pastor in question had spoken of the situation to a member of the church after securing a promise of silence.
And the plaintiff’s case claimed the church erred in not firing the former pastor when he admitted in a specially called business meeting he was having an affair. The church argued it considered the pastor’s resignation to be sufficient — rather than vengefully refusing to accept the resignation so he could be fired.
The plaintiff’s various claims failed to sway the jury.
First Baptist celebrated the innocent verdict with an ice cream social Aug. 31 at the church parsonage.