Oklahoma Baptist conference center settles alleged rape lawsuit

Oklahoma Baptist conference center settles alleged rape lawsuit

In a case that reminds ministry leaders how important background checks and screening processes are when it comes to children, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO) has settled a lawsuit related to the alleged 2016 rape of a 13-year-old at the BGCO’s Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center.

The victim’s attorneys alleged in a court filing that adults were sent to Falls Creek by churches without background checks despite a BGCO policy requiring churches to do so.


The alleged rapist, Benjamin Petty, 37, pleaded guilty in January to first-degree rape, forcible sodomy and rape by instrumentation, The Oklahoman reported. Petty was a cook at Falls Creek at the time of the alleged offense, reports said.

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.”If you are wrongly accused of any crime, you have the right to defend yourself. If you are wondering whether can I decline a breathalyzer taking, you have the right to do so and can take the help of experienced lawyers for the purpose.

Both the Oklahoma case and the recent conviction of Gary Smitherman, a church member who worked with children at a church in Clanton (see sidebar, this page), are reminders that background checks are essential for those working with minors, but they might not tell the whole story, said Larry Felkins, director of missions for Chilton Baptist Association.

In the Smitherman case, “the church did a background check on him but everything checked out,” Felkins said.

He said many churches need children’s workers, which can make them vulnerable to predators. Official background checks and references from other churches are essential to assuring the safety of children.

Safe environment

Falls Creek policy now requires a signed Background Check Compliance Form from the lead sponsor of the church any non-camper over the age of 18 is attending with, according to its website.

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

The victim’s attorney Bruce Robertson told The Oklahoman, “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.”

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.”

Resources for checks

The Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions lists a number of resources on its website to help churches keep children safe on campus and during activities, including contact information for several providers of criminal background checks. Here are a few:

• Bradley Personnel Consultants: bradley-personnel.com/background-checks.html
• Employment Screening Services (full service screening including drugs and alcohol use): http://www.es2.com
• LifeWay Stores: www.lifewaystores.com/backgroundchecks
• MinistrySafe: MinistrySafe.org
• Protect My Ministry: www.protectmyministry.com
• Single Source Services: www.clearstar.net

See the full list and other resources at www.alsbom.org/safe/.

(BP, Carrie Brown McWhorter contributed)


Smitherman guilty of sexual abuse

A former children’s volunteer was found guilty Aug. 3 of sexually abusing a young girl he once tutored.

Gary L. Smitherman, 59, was convicted in Chilton County of one count of sexual abuse of a child under the age of 12. Smitherman was a member of Friendship Baptist Church in Clanton where he volunteered with the children’s programs.

According to testimony in the trial, Smitherman met the girl at church and then began to tutor her outside of the church. The girl told her family Smitherman was inappropriately touching her, and he was arrested in March 2017.

Media reports following Smitherman’s conviction identified him as the children’s minister, but Friendship Baptist Church pastor Hank Walker said Smitherman never served on staff at the church.

“Though an honest misunderstanding, it was a terrible misrepresentation from our church’s perspective,” Walker wrote. “Gary Smitherman, the named perpetrator, was never employed by Friendship Baptist Church — in any capacity.”

Practical value

Walker said Smitherman, like all children and youth Sunday School teachers and volunteers at Friendship, underwent a criminal background check before being allowed to work with minors. Church policy also required another adult present in any children’s class for which he volunteered, Walker noted.

The background check yielded no previous convictions or problems, Walker said.

“Unless that person has a previous conviction, there is little practical value in background checks,” he said. “If something seems suspicious, be suspicious.” (Carrie Brown McWhorter)