Advocates Press Church to Seek Potential Victims in Case Alleging Sexual Abuse
The Baptist pastor with bright blond hair was popular among preteen boys in the small town of Commerce, a former resident remembers. Pastor Billy Bob Burge worked in Commerce around 12 years ago, says the man, who asked not to be named. His son's friends who were involved in the church youth group used to talk about going over to Burge's house to play video games or have sleepovers. Though Burge had a wife, the arrangement still sounded suspicious to him. "I knew there is a basic rule that you don't get one-on-one [time] with children," the man says. At events held at the church, the man recalls seeing Burge in person occasionally. The pastor wore baggy pants and sounded like a teenager when he talked. The man says he confided in one close friend about his concerns and then tried to warn the father of one of the boys who spent time with Burge. The boy's father was dismissive, "and that was the last I ever said to anybody." He says he felt in his gut something was off. "In a small town like that, even if you think it, you can't say it ... all you're doing is making yourself look like a dick accusing someone of that kind of stuff."
Burge fell off the man's radar as his son and his friends grew older and graduated from high school. At some point, Burge left town. Last week, the family of another one of Burge's former young charges, in another town, filed a lawsuit against Burge in Dallas County. At the time the lawsuit was filed, Burge was employed as the "connect pastor" at the Grace Community Church in Greenville.
The lawsuit accuses Burge of sexually abusing a boy in the 1990s. At that time, the suit says, Burge was a youth pastor at the First Baptist Rockwall Church, which is also named as a defendant in the suit:
"In the early to mid-1990s, Billy Bob Burge a Youth Pastor at First Baptist Church of Rockwall engaged in repeated sexual conduct with John Jeremy Sweet-Gomez, a minor. This sexual conduct began when Mr. Sweet-Gomez was approximately twelve to thirteen years old. Pastor Burge’s sexual abuse of Mr. Sweet-Gomez included sodomy, oral sex, and inappropriate sexual touching. These abuses occurred at various locations and times: including on church property and during church-sponsored religious trips."
The victim committed suicide as an adult, at the age of 37, his family says. The family's suit is asking for damages from Burge and the Rockwall church to cover their son's "wrongful death," including funeral and medical expenses. Burge has not responded to messages we left him by telephone and mail or on Facebook.
Several posts on Burge's Facebook page indicate that he continued working with youth in recent years at the Grace Community Church in Greenville. "It's almost time for the EPIC CHRISTMAS PARTY!... This is the last youth event of the year so don't miss it!" says one post from December 2013. "If you are looking for an amazing place to hang out, take on some cool games, worship with the greatest band (yea, I said it — the greatest band since...well you know, pick a band), hear the best teaching this side of the pond, and party like a rock star, I've got the place for you! EPIC Student Ministries @ Grace Church tonight @ 7PM!" says another post from around the same time.
Amy Smith, the local spokesman for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, captured a screenshot showing that Burge was also recently listed as the athletic trainer at Greenville Christian School, though his name is no longer there. "Billy Bob Burge has never been 'on staff' at Greenville Christian School, he has volunteered on and off helping with our football team," wrote Greenville Christian School administrator Steve Bowers in an email to Smith. "He is no longer a volunteer ball boy / water boy with our football team at Greenville Christian School. Most definitely, we are currently putting a plan in place to notify parents of the situation so they can take proper action."
Smith (whom we profiled in a cover story earlier this year about another scandal at another church, Prestonwood Baptist in Plano) and her fellow advocates are now making public pleas for the Grace Community Church to see if anyone else has claims about misconduct by Burge, part of the advocates' long-term strategy to expose clergy abuse. "Hope you'll urge others abused by pastor Billy Bob Burge to call police. Lives are at risk," Smith posted on Twitter, in a post that tagged Grace Community Founding Pastor Steve Lawson. Smith then Tweeted a news release about the lawsuit, and tagged Lawson in that post as well. Lawson was not pleased. "Please delete both of these Tweets attached to the article about Billy Bob," Lawson Tweeted back to Smith. "I absolutely am concerned. I just don't appreciate you attaching your agenda to my tweet which was meant for a different purpose." Lawson blocked Smith shortly after, she says.
Lawson posted on Twitter that he did not want to discuss the case on social media. "I'm no longer on staff at our church, but when I was, about 13 years ago, I unfortunately got a boot camp education on this," Lawson wrote to another user. He declined to discuss the case further. "I'm not really interested in getting involved in a story about Billy," he wrote to the Observer.
Burge resigned from Grace Community Church last Thursday, shortly after news of the lawsuit broke, the church's current lead pastor told the Rockwall County Herald-Banner.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.