23 Jan 2009

Former Baptist youth worker pleads guilty to molestation charge

Associated Baptist Press - January 22, 2009

by Bob Allen

LAKELAND, Fla. (ABP) -- A former volunteer youth worker at a Florida Southern Baptist megachurch pleaded guilty Jan. 21 to molesting three boys, putting his fate in the hands of a judge instead of a jury.

After jury selection and with opening statements set to begin, 41-year-old Marshal Seymour pleaded guilty and no contest to five felony charges. A sentencing hearing is scheduled March 12, where he could receive up to 65 years in prison, according to the Lakeland, Fla., Ledger.

Seymour was arrested in November 2007 on charges he molested three teenage boys he met through First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland. At the time Senior Pastor Jay Dennis called the scandal a "Category 5 storm" for the 8,000-member congregation active in the Florida Baptist Convention.

The congregation's unusual name owes to the fact that it meets in a converted shopping mall facility.

"The congregation and staff of FBC at the Mall are grateful that Marshal Seymour has acknowledged his actions and spared his victims from reexamining the events surrounding this prosecution," Steven Davis, the church's executive director, said Jan. 22.

"It is our fervent prayer that the healing process can begin, and we continue to offer our compassion and support to all persons and families affected by Mr. Seymour's actions," Davis said. "Finally, FBC at the Mall commends those victims who were so brave as to step forward to ensure that Mr. Seymour can no longer victimize children, and today's events are an affirmation that justice will be served. We have every confidence that the presiding judge will carefully weigh all of the evidence before pronouncing a just sentence in March."

Leaders at the church said they ran two background checks on Seymour before allowing him to volunteer for the student ministry in 1999, but after his arrest it was discovered he had previously been arrested on charges of sodomy and sexual assault while working as a youth minister at an Assembly of God Church in Mobile, Ala. He eventually got a suspended sentence and probation after pleading guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor assault.

In June the Southern Baptist Convention rejected a proposal to establish a denomination-wide database of clergy who have admitted or been convicted or credibly accused of sexual abuse. Instead, they referred local churches to the Department of Justice's list of convicted sex offenders.

The SBC Executive Committee added resources for preventing sexual abuse to its website, but in the end said the responsibility for weeding out sexual predators lies with local churches and not the denomination.

The Florida megachurch "has more resources than most Baptist churches," said Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "If a church such as this one couldn't manage to uncover prior allegations and charges against a minister, how likely is it that other churches can?"

"It is delusional for Southern Baptist leaders to keep thinking that local churches can handle the scourge of clergy sex abuse on their own," said Brown, who lobbied unsuccessfully for two years for an SBC abuse database.

"And background checks will never be enough because most active child molesters have never been convicted of anything," Brown said. "For the protection of children in Baptist churches, a strong, cooperative, denomination-wide effort is required."

According to news reports, Seymour's trial was delayed for several months. He turned himself in to police Nov. 2, 2007, and was originally scheduled to stand trial Aug. 11, 2008. The trial was postponed to seek expert advice about whether he was competent to be tried. A new trial date was set for Nov. 10, but that was also postponed when the defense requested a continuance.

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