5 Nov 2007

Church's Members Rally Amid Sex Scandal

The Tampa Tribune - November 5, 2007


LAKELAND - Though the weather outside was clear and cool, a tempest continued to tear at the First Baptist Church at the Mall.

"We will get through this storm," Pastor Jay Dennis told those assembled at the Lakeland megachurch Sunday morning. "It's been an incredibly rough three weeks."

After weeks of investigating, Lakeland police on Saturday arrested Marshal Seymour, accusing the student ministry volunteer of sex offenses involving three boys he had mentored at the church.

Seymour, 40, paid them to perform sex acts or to keep quiet about sexual encounters that took place during the past two years, according to Lakeland police.

The victims were 15, 16 and 17 at the time, arrest records state.

During the investigation, Seymour also tried to bribe a person to delete a record of Seymour having been registered at a hotel where a sexual encounter took place, arrest records state.

Seymour was arrested on charges of unlawful sexual activity, tampering with a witness and three counts of using a child in sexual performance, jail records show. He remained in Polk County Jail on Sunday, with bail set at $325,000.

Investigators say none of the alleged incidents took place on church property. Rather, they took place at a local hotel, Seymour's business or in his vehicle.

Tim Parcheta, the church's executive director, said it was clear from the investigation that Seymour had exploited relationships built at the church.

Hundreds of church members attended the 9:30 a.m. service at the church's worship hall on Memorial Boulevard. Though the church has about 9,000 members, it cultivates the feel of a smaller congregation through outreach programs and support groups. Seymour's arrest seems all the more shocking at a church that becomes a way of life for some members, whether they come for the midweek supper and Bible study or ride with the motorcycle ministry.

Seymour, who owns a fire extinguisher business, was one of about 1,000 volunteers at the church.

Storm Will Pass, Pastor Says

With his sermon being projected onto two large screens, Dennis urged members to trust God to get them through troubling times.

"God is allowing you to go through a stormy season right now, but, one day, the sun will shine again," he said. "Your storm will not last forever."

He warned church members to guard against Satan, who might try and gain a foothold into the church.

"Be ready for Satan," Dennis said. "He wears many masks and costumes. He is the master of impersonations. He has many voices."

Fran Edwards, 36, of Lakeland, said she was grateful the pastor was rallying the congregation during such a difficult time.

"It's obviously an isolated incident," said Edwards, who has been coming to the church since May.

Bill Pilcher, 74, of Lakeland, said the church would put the situation in God's hands. "We feel like God is in control," he said.

Dennis acknowledged church members might question his decision to speak publicly about Seymour's arrest.

"I'm telling you that it is my responsibility as pastor to share with you not only the good and the great but the bad and the ugly as well," Dennis said.

Church Checked His Background

Reading from a prepared statement, Dennis promised to offer help to the victims, including counseling. He said Seymour never gave the church's staff any reason to doubt that his only desire was to help students. He read the same statement Saturday to local media outlets after Seymour was arrested.

"I want you to look at your pastor in the eyes," Dennis said. "I was deceived. Obviously, Mr. Seymour misrepresented what had happened in his past."

The Lakeland police investigation revealed Seymour had been arrested on felony sex charges in Mobile County, Ala., in 1998. Seymour was accused of victimizing a boy he met at church, Lakeland police said.

The charges were reduced to misdemeanor assault, though, with Seymour given a suspended one-year sentence in 1999.

Before becoming a First Baptist Church at the Mall volunteer, Seymour underwent a criminal background check, which came back clear, Parcheta said.

The church is not "oblivious to the devious methods of a determined molester," Parcheta said.

"The very methods used by those who prey on others is to deceive, to place themselves in a position of trust," Parcheta said.

Reporter Billy Townsend contributed to this report. Reporter Jason Geary can be reached at jgeary@tampatrib.com



  1. Fourth pastor arrested in one week on child sex charges in Polk County

    By Cheryl Glassford/Jason Lanning, Central Florida News 13 December 18, 2011

    A Polk County church pastor arrested on five counts of sexual battery on a child will remain in custody.

    Polk County Sheriff's detectives arrested Winter Haven resident Arnold Mathis, 40, on Saturday.

    Mathis has a court-appointed attorney. He was scheduled to have a first appearance Sunday morning but they opted to have a bond hearing later in the week.

    It's the fourth time in one week a church pastor has been arrested and charged with one or more child sex-related crimes in Polk County.

    Mathis is a current assistant pastor at Higher Praise Ministries, in Lake Wales, but officials said the incident happened in 2005 while he was the senior pastor at Saint City Power and Praise Ministries, in Winter Haven.

    According to officials, Mathis met the victim at a basketball game and turned into a mentor to the child.

    Detectives said Mathis approached the boy and offered financial help, including offering to buy new shoes.

    The victim did not have a father figure in his life and felt that Mathis was trying to be a mentor.

    Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Mathis wasn't what he seemed: "He's a monster."

    Judd said monster truly describes Mathis.

    "Arnold Mathis was the master of grooming. He had grooming children down to an art," Judd said.

    Victim comes forward

    Detectives said the victim contacted PCSO deputies Friday and advised them of the alleged sexual battery incidents from 6 years ago.

    The victim said the alleged abuse occured in Mathis' home and other places.

    According to an arrest report, then 34-year-old Mathis met the victim at a local park, took him to his home and engaged in oral sex with the 14-year-old boy.

    After the alleged incident was over, Mathis allegedly gave the victim a $100 bill and told him to buy a prepaid phone to allow the two to communicate.

    Over the the next two months, Mathis is accused of engaging the victim in more sexual activity, and providing more gifts and money.

    Officials said the incident occurred seven years ago, when the victim was a 14-year-old. The victim is now 21.

    "Children are not safe around him," Judd said.

    Suspect's current church head pastor speaks

    The head pastor of Mathis' current church, Harold Lonton, said Mathis is, in fact, an associate pastor at the church.

    Lanton would not say if Mathis is a youth pastor or if they have any prior knowledge of Mathis' sexual offenses.

    Lanton said Mathis was a volunteer and was not in a paid position.

    He said the church never had any problems with Mathis.

    History of sexual abuse

    Mathis was arrested by Polk County Sheriff's deputies in August 2004 and in January 2011 for failure to register as a sex offender.

    Mathis was required to register as a sexual offender after a 1997 Leon County conviction. He served 4 years for the crime.

    Judd said "the shock of this investigation is, he's already a sex offender, he's already been to prison and he's still a youth pastor or associate pastor? That's terrible."

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  2. continued from previous comment:

    Disturbing string of child-related sex crimes arrests shock Bay area

    Also arrested this week were Mulberry youth pastors Ricardo Navarro, 28, and Edward Demoreta, 30.

    Navarro had been a youth pastor at First Assembly of God church in Mulberry until he was asked to leave one year ago.

    He was accused of flirting with a 14-year-old girl during his time at the church. The alleged victim said that two weeks ago, Navarro began sending her text messages asking her to send him nude pictures of herself. Navarro has admitted to inappropriate relations with the minor.

    The pastor of the church, Lee Thomas, contacted the sheriff's office over concerns about his most recent youth pastor, Demoreta. Thomas was suspicious that Demoreta was having inappropriate relations with the same girl.

    The investigation found that two years ago, when Demoreta was a teacher at Mulberry Middle School, he engaged the victim, who was 13 at the time and a student of his, in oral sex. The investigation also found that he engaged in sexual relations with the girl on two more occasions. -- DETAILS

    Auburndale youth pastor arrested Monday

    A 25-year-old youth ministry leader at an Auburndale church is facing lewd molestation charges.

    Lakeland Police arrested Darryl Leonard Taylor, Jr. Monday night.

    According to police, the investigation began on November 14, 2011, when a father contacted police to report his child had been sexually molested by Taylor.

    Police say the victim had revealed to an elder at the church that he had been molested by Taylor and the elder contacted the child's father.

    Police say an investigation revealed three other victims. -- DETAILS

    George Jenkins head football coach arrested Wednesday for allegedly having sex with 17-year-old:

    The Polk County Sheriff's Office arrested the head football coach at Lakeland's George Jenkins High School on sex-related charges against children.

    Matt Thompson, 30, was arrested Wednesday morning and charged with having sex with a 17-year-old female student, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said at a press conference. Judd said Thompson had sex with the girl at least three times. -- DETAILS

    St. Pete College baseball coach busted in child sex sting December 6:

    St. Petersburg College baseball coach Robert Francis is out on bond after being arrested in a sex sting.

    According to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Francis was busted in an underage sex sting in Orlando.

    Deputies said Francis, 31, planned to have sex with a 14-year-old girl he met online. The girl was actually a sheriff's deputy, who told him to show up at a Kirkman Road home. -- DETAILS