‘Houston Chronicle’ Uncovers More Sexual Abuse, Cover-ups, and Harboring of Abusers in Southern Baptist Churches in Part 5 of “Abuse of Faith” Investigation

Fifth of six parts

Pastor Ruben Garcia was arrested nearly two years ago in Hays County, prosecuted on charges of sexually assaulting a teenage girl and prohibited by a judge from being alone with children.

But the preacher kept his job at a Southern Baptist church.

Garcia, 60, sang hymns and taught kids about the Lord at Betania Baptist Church in Austin, a church so small that Sunday services feel more like a family gathering.

In February 2016, a teenage girl told police in the Austin suburb of Buda, where Garcia lives, that he put his hands down her pants and sexually assaulted her multiple times in the summers of 2013 and 2014, records show. Police arrested Garcia in June 2017, and he was later released on bond.

Then Garcia continued serving as co-pastor of his church, where few members of the congregation questioned the appropriateness of their spiritual leader remaining in his post with sexual-assault charges pending against him.

Their support continued in 2018 after Garcia pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and avoided prison — but was prohibited from being around children as part of the terms of his sentence.

“All I have to say is that I love him,” said Edel Perez, a longtime church member.

Garcia is hardly the only Southern Baptist pastor to stay in the pulpit after being accused of a sex crime. The Houston Chronicle confirmed that since the 1990s, at least 30 SBC churches were aware that a pastor, employee or volunteer had faced allegations of sexual misconduct in the U.S. — yet the churches hired them anyway or allowed them to continue serving in their spiritual roles.

At two churches that harbored predators, employees faced criminal charges of failing to notify authorities about an allegation of sexual abuse involving a child. And in at least seven cases, Southern Baptist ministers who have been accused of sex crimes are still serving at a church.

These new revelations come as the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest and most influential coalition of Baptist churches in the United States, is wrestling with a burgeoning sexual abuse crisis as it prepares for its upcoming national meeting in Birmingham, Ala.

An investigation published in February by the Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, Abuse of Faith,” sparked a national outcry. Among the findings: At least 10 SBC churches knowingly welcomed pastors, ministers and volunteers since 1998 who had faced accusations of sexual misconduct.

More than 350 readers contacted the newspapers to offer tips or share their own stories of abuse. Some said they were concerned about other Southern Baptist churches that employed sexual predators out of a misguided sense of forgiveness or failing to hold a beloved pastor accountable.

With the help of tips from those readers and by reviewing news stories and court records, the Chronicle found another 20 churches that knew an employee or volunteer had been accused of a sex crime but allowed them to keep serving at the church.

“Once they’ve committed a crime of that nature, they should not work in any capacity around children,” said Rodney Pires, owner of Church Security 360 Degrees, an Atlanta firm that helps churches strengthen their hiring and security practices.

Pires said it’s commendable for churches to offer people a second chance. But sexual abuse is a crime, he said, and putting abusers in a position of trust places other children at risk.

“The number one priority of the shepherd is the sheep,” Pires said.

At least one church that knowingly employed an offender is tied to SBC’s leadership.

In the early 1990s, First Baptist Church in Rockwall welcomed back a former part-time church employee, Jason Leon Austin, as a volunteer assistant in the church’s youth program, despite a prior conviction of indecency with a child in 1991 in Harris County and despite a separate complaint that he had molested another child inside the church, according to court documents and a deposition.

A lawsuit filed against the church in Rockwall by one of Austin’s victims alleged that pastor Steve Swofford knew about the prior criminal conviction. Swofford is a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention of Texas and helped select the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, Ronnie Floyd.

Swofford declined to comment for this story. The lawsuit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had lapsed for complaints related to the alleged assaults.

SBC President J.D. Greear said he was “broken” by the findings in the newspapers’ investigation and promised concrete reforms to prevent sexual abuse. Greear said any Southern Baptist church that knowingly employs a sex offender doesn’t belong in the SBC.

“There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable,” Greear said in response to the newspapers’ stories. “Abuse can never be tolerated, minimized, hidden, or ‘handled internally.’ Those in leadership who turn a blind eye toward abuse are complicit with it and must be held accountable.”

But accountability is rare. Southern Baptist churches don’t belong to a diocese or answer to a bishop. From tiny churches such as Betania to megachurches with thousands of members, every Southern Baptist church operates independently and ordains or hires its own pastors.

The result: SBC leaders have no idea how many churches employ sex offenders.

In Austin, Garcia’s church is still listed in the Southern Baptist Convention’s directory, even though he continued to preach after his arrest.

Last year, Garcia reached an agreement with prosecutors in Hays County and pleaded guilty to a charge of enticing a child with intent to commit a felony. He was sentenced to 10 years deferred adjudication, a type of probation.

As part of the terms of the plea deal, Garcia didn’t have to register as a sex offender, but he was barred from being near children without supervision, except for his grandchildren. He currently serves as the church’s music minister.

“If you want a close relationship with Jesus Christ, study his word,” Garcia told the congregation at Betania at a recent worship service. “You’ll learn a lot more about him.”

After the service, Garcia declined to speak with a reporter. His lawyer, Bob Phillips, also declined to discuss details of the allegations against Garcia. But he said his client agreed to step down from his duties dealing directly with children.

“He’s not doing that kind of stuff anymore,” Phillips said of Garcia’s previous youth ministry. “He is well aware of the dangers of being misconstrued if he were alone with an individual or several youths.”

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SOURCE: Houston Chronicle, John Tedesco; Photos by Jon Shapley and Jerry Lara