The letter was anonymous, just like other warnings that came before it. In late January, it arrived in the mailboxes of advocates who work on behalf of Christian sex-abuse victims. For 26 pages, it offered a rambling defense of a place that shouldn't need one — Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Plano mega-church with 37,000 members, three campuses, decades of mostly good publicity and a celebrity pastor named Jack Graham.
But for the last several years, the church has come under scrutiny from a small, vocal group of Christian critics for its handling of child sexual abuse. None of the critics has been more effective than Amy Smith, the daughter of a former Prestonwood deacon. Five years ago, Smith alerted a church in Mississippi that a pastor on its staff had been quietly accused of child molestation at Prestonwood decades before.
John Langworthy, a former youth minister at Prestonwood, resigned from the Mississippi church not long after Smith spoke up and soon faced criminal charges in that state. He pleaded guilty to molesting five boys between the ages of 6 and 13 in the early '80s in Mississippi. He avoided prison time and is now registered as a child sex offender. Smith was widely credited for bringing Langworthy's crimes to light and causing him to admit to "sexual indiscretions" from the pulpit of his Mississippi church. The case disappeared from headlines soon after, but Smith has stayed on Prestonwood's case, holding rallies outside the church, seeking other victims and publicly pressuring Graham to open up about what he knew of Langworthy's crimes.
Yet the anonymous letter that arrived this January insisted that Smith was a liar. Smith had an agenda, the author wrote, but didn't say what it was. She had fooled countless activists, journalists and Prestonwood officials. "I am dead serious and committed to exposing Amy Smith's many falsehoods and stopping her continued and relentless attacks upon Prestonwood and Jack Graham," the author warned.
The letter didn't faze David Clohessy when his copy arrived. He's national director for the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, where Smith volunteers as the Dallas spokesperson. "Many people who speak about child sex crimes and cover-ups get criticized, and rarely but sometimes harassed," Clohessy says. "Amy has suffered much more than most."
Smith wasn't surprised, either. Her father, the former deacon, was furious with her for exposing Langworthy and had already warned her about there being "repercussions" for her activism a few years ago. He no longer wants anything to do with his daughter or the grandchildren, Smith says.
The vague threat at the end of the letter is proof, Smith says, of "what, whoever this is, is willing to do to silence this story and make it go away."
Prestonwood Baptist Church and its supporters have never liked talking about the convicted pedophile who once worked there and have let that be known in very pointed ways. Prod hard enough and the knives may come out — either in the form of anonymous hate mail, ridicule from fellow church members or trouble from the church staff itself.
The teenage boy who first tipped Prestonwood to the possibility it had a child molester on staff is a grown man now. He still doesn't want to reveal his name, but he recently gave his mother the OK to talk with the Observer. "He just doesn't want it to come back on him or me" she says. "I told him, 'Look, anything I can do to make Prestonwood's life miserable, I want to do.'"
When the family moved to Dallas and began attending Prestonwood in the late 1980s, her 15-year-old son was a quiet kid who never gave his parents trouble. "I don't know what I would have done if I had a child that didn't do the right things, but he was a model child," his mother says.
But she sensed something was off early on, when Langworthy paid a surprise visit to their home shortly after they arrived. "I just love your son," Langworthy told her as he put his arms around him.
The next warning the mother remembers are the letters. Langworthy had been mailing notes to her son. She doesn't remember what they said exactly. They weren't sexually graphic, but were suggestive enough to raise flags. Her mother-in-law looked at the letters too, she says, and was even more alarmed. "She was afraid that John was a pedophile," she says. So the family called Langworthy. He couldn't get there fast enough. They told him not to hurt their son.
The mother says she looked Langworthy in the eye. "Under no circumstances are you to write any more letters to my son," she says she told him. The parents explained to their son that the letters were wrong and destroyed them, but they continued to go to the church and let their son be part of the youth group, just like before.
The mother says she didn't think Langworthy would actually abuse her son, especially after being warned. "Even if [Langworthy] wanted to, he would not hurt my son now because we had confronted him with it," she rationalized.
Life briefly returned to normal, or so she thought until the day she got a phone call from a psychiatrist to confirm an appointment with her son. She knew nothing about it.
Later on the day of that surprise call, her son came home with a guest, Neal Jeffrey, who remains on the Prestonwood staff as an associate pastor. Together, she says, her son and the man broke the news that her son had been hurt. Jeffrey was there, the mother thinks, because her son "wanted somebody there to tell us, because he didn't want to do it by himself." Still unsure of the specifics, she only knows that Langworthy had sexually abused her son, somehow. They had a group hug, and she agreed to send her son to the psychiatrist, appointments that she believes were funded by the church. "We sure weren't going to pay for it," she says.
Within days, Langworthy left town, she says. The family had been at the church for a total of two years before Langworthy left, the mother says, making her son 17 by the time he came forward.
Already angry at the church for how it let her find out about the abuse and the psychiatric appointments, she was even more distraught several months later when she got wind that Langworthy had a job at an elementary school in Clinton, Mississippi. (None of his admitted molestations took place there.) She says her husband called the school's principal. "He said back to my husband, 'Well you have put this in my lap and now I've got to do something about it.'"
But the family never reported Langworthy to the police. A phone call they got from a deacon named Allen Jordan convinced them it wouldn't be a good idea. He wasn't yelling, but he was emphatic the family not say anything, the mother recalls. "You better be careful about what you write, that's all I've got to say," Jordan said when reached for comment. "That's a warning to you. You better be careful about what you write."
And those letters still had her worried. "We were concerned that, well, John wrote notes, but [her son] wrote notes back to him, and I don't know what those notes contained. I'm sure it was an innocent 15-year old boy," she says, but "we were afraid that if John would have kept those letters, the church would have found those letters and would have tried to do something" to make it look like "it was initiated from the other side, not from John. We did worry about that."
In 1989 in Mississippi, Langworthy found a doctor who called the mother and told her Langworthy had been cured. She agreed to meet Langworthy, but wasn't convinced. "I'm no doctor," she says, "but I know once a pedophile, you're always a pedophile." Still, her son stayed at Prestonwood, married and went on to become a minister himself. He remained close to Neal Jeffrey. Decades passed before what happened to her son came into the open. It started in 2010 with a Facebook message to her son from Allen Jordan's daughter, a woman named Amy.
"I admire Amy very much," the mother says. Her son last spoke to Jeffrey as the allegations were bubbling to the surface. Jeffrey didn't even remember he had been abused, her son told her. "I think [her son] always gave Neal the benefit of the doubt, but when that happened and Neal didn't remember he was one of the boys, he washed his hands of him," she says.
By appearances, Amy Smith — that's her married name — is everything a good Southern, Christian woman should be: polite and a believer in the Bible. She lives in a large home in a wealthy enclave north of Dallas. A bowl of pink and red M&M's decorate her kitchen counter the week before Valentine's Day.
She used to work as a nurse but now spends her days taking care of her family and muckraking against the mega-church she once loved.
"The environment was actually a lot of fun, and I was very involved in the youth group and the choir," she says. John Langworthy was her choir director in 1986. He was only eight years older, and she remembers he was a talented, charismatic musician who made church even more fun than it already was. "I looked up to him," she says. She was 16.
Langworthy grew close with her family and, a young seminary student at the time, he stayed with her parents in their home, an arrangement not uncommon at Baptist churches. At the time, Smith says, there were no alarm bells. She liked living with him. He helped her prepare for the Miss Junior Pageant, giving her pointers on her walk and her flute-playing.
When Langworthy later moved out and married, Smith played the flute in his wedding. Even the choir boys he seemed to favor didn't raise red flags. "The Baptist church environment is that you love on kids and you make it really fun, but yet that can sometimes blur the boundary line of what's inappropriate and what's appropriate," Smith says.
She left home for nursing school at Baylor, and in 1989 she first heard the rumors — Langworthy had abruptly left because of a relationship with at least one teenage boy.
The news was devastating and not something she could ever talk about with her conservative family. It didn't come up again until six months later when, Smith recalls, Langworthy's wife sent her mother a letter, letting her know that as part of his therapy, he would be working with kids again at an elementary school in Mississippi. "I remember thinking, and I may have even said to my mom, 'What in the world, that doesn't make sense?'" Smith says. Her mother said nothing.
Smith moved on, became a nurse, married and had four children. She grew older, and sometimes she still thought about Langworthy. She started having a recurring nightmare, she says, about being in a church and trying to talk but no sound would come from her mouth. By 2010 she decided she had to do something to find her voice, after talking to an old church friend who remembered the rumors too. Smith took her first simple step and looked up Langworthy online.
She soon found he was still working with children at an elementary school in Clinton and as a pastor at the Morrison Heights Baptist Church there. Smith picked up the phone and called the school district superintendent. "I just said I'm from Texas, I have something very serious I need to talk to him about, a staff member, and it involves alleged sexual abuse of children," she remembers telling the secretary. The superintendent got right on the phone and listened to her for 45 minutes. He said he'd look into it.
Emboldened, Smith sent a Facebook message to one of the boys she had heard rumors about. Then she started emailing Prestonwood. Neal Jeffrey thanked her. "I am thankful that someone has come forward and that the situation is being confronted," he wrote back in a 2011 email. In a follow-up, he said he called Prestonwood's attorneys "who were involved in all of this back then."
A few months later, the victim Smith contacted on Facebook finally replied and agreed to write to the Morrison Heights church directly. The pastor's response was not assuring. "We had a long and frank discussion with John, and he was as transparent as any man I have ever talked to," Morrison Heights Pastor Greg Belser wrote back. "He insists that you and [redacted] were the only two involved. All others were just crude play and vulgar behavior, and we are evaluating it all."
Belser asked the man to continue to search for other victims. "John is insistent that you will find none, other than just the crude and vulgar behavior," Belser wrote. "If you do find someone, we would want to talk firsthand with them and in complete confidence." To Smith, sending victims to speak to the church first no longer seemed like a good idea.
Then Morrison Heights' attorney, Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, left Smith a voice mail. Suspicious of his intentions, she emailed to ask why he called. "To discuss a resolution," Gunn wrote back to her. "Are you willing to speak with me for a few minutes?" No, Smith responded.
The work was happening behind the scenes, through calls and emails, when in the summer of 2011 Smith's efforts finally seemed to have effect. First, Langworthy agreed to resign from his job at the school. Then she heard a rumor that Langworthy confessed to some sort of inappropriate behavior from the pulpit and had resigned from his job at the church. Smith told the local Clinton newspaper about it and WFAA's Brett Shipp in Dallas. Shipp told her he couldn't report it until she found a churchgoer who had heard the sermon first-hand who would agree to an interview. So Smith wrote a message in the comments section of a local Christian blog, asking if anyone who was there would give an interview. She got something better: a cellphone video of Langworthy's sermon from an anonymous tipster.
"Prior to coming to Clinton 22 years ago, while serving at a church in Mississippi and then Texas, I had sexual indiscretions with younger males," Langworthy told the congregation. "These decisions were ungodly, and I deeply regret them"
The sermon made headlines in Dallas but was a much bigger deal in Clinton. Hinds County District Attorney Jamie McBride got a call about the sermon from a police officer who said a man had come forward claiming to be a victim. Another tip came from a friend of a coworker, who had broken down and cried when he watched a local newscast. McBride eventually found five adult Mississippi victims to bring the case forward and one Prestonwood victim who agreed to testify as a witness. "I don't think, had Amy not gotten onto the Morrison Heights Baptist Church, if she hadn't been talking to them and pushing it to them, I don't think John would have given that statement, and absent that statement I really didn't have any corroboration other than just the victim's testimony," McBride says.
But the case was still difficult. Langworthy's lawyer claimed the statute of limitations had passed on the cases, and the victims didn't want to testify if they could possibly avoid it. Some of their families still didn't know. "They just didn't want to open up that can of worms," McBride says.
So Mississippi offered Langworthy a deal. He pleaded guilty to molesting five boys between 1980 and 1984 — abuse that happened in Clinton before he worked at Prestonwood. He was sentenced to 10 years on each count, but the 50-year sentence was suspended under the plea agreement. He must register as a sex offender for life.
Just over two years have passed since. Langworthy's wife still works at the church. She did not return messages seeking to speak with him, nor did his former defense attorney.
For people connected to the victims and Prestonwood, the case is far from over. They want the church to apologize. As a wealthy, powerful church, it has a special duty to admit it made a mistake many years ago by not reporting Langworthy to the police, they say. No one has come forward claiming he was abused after 1989, the year Prestonwood fired Langworthy and sent him back to Mississippi. Still, victim advocates believe that if there are such victims, they may not come forward unless they know they have support from their church and from officials in the Southern Baptist Convention
"A church as large as wealthy as Prestonwood really should take these tangible steps," says Clohessy, the SNAP director.
Instead Prestonwood has taken a curious approach. In public statements, Prestonwood officials continue to describe Langworthy's abuse as merely an "inappropriate" relationship.
"In the summer of 1989, the church received an allegation that John Langworthy had acted inappropriately with a 17-year-old male student," Executive Pastor Mike Buster said in an email statement, the only comment the church agreed to give in response to requests for interviews with Graham, Jeffrey and Buster. "Based on this allegation, he was dismissed immediately from our student music ministry. In no way did officials of the church seek to cover up the actions of Mr. Langworthy or silence his accuser. The elected officers and personnel committee dealt with the matter firmly and forthrightly."
The statement ignores the allegations that the male student was only 15 when the abuse started. Smith sees the church's stance as a classic "blame the victim" mentality.
Hoping to shed more light on how much Prestonwood knew before it fired Langworthy, several years ago Smith had her husband get on the phone with her estranged father, who was too angry to speak with her directly. Her husband then recorded the call.
"The attorneys for Prestonwood handled it," Allen Jordan said on the phone. (Smith posted a transcription of the call on her blog and provided the Observer with the original recording)."It was handled with discretion, and with full cooperation of everybody including the primary one, [Victim name], that John supposedly had inappropriate activities with," Jordan said, insisting the men were old enough to consent.
"He didn't molest any kids. They were teenage boys. They were 16, 17, 18, one even 20," Jordan claimed. "I can't say he had even molested anybody, but the environment was where there may have been inappropriate sexual activity among that group...
"Yes, they tried to handle it discreetly, as any church tries to do. But to say they just let a wolf go out to start molesting kids and all of that, that's just absolutely wrong." Pastor Graham had only been on the staff for four weeks when Langworthy left, Jordan added, and shouldn't be accused of covering the relationship up. Graham has remained influential among Southern Baptists and was elected to be the Southern Baptist Convention president in 2002. He served two terms.
Instead, Jordan identified one of the church staffers who handled the firing as Bill Taylor, an administrative staffer at Prestonwood who has since left. ("That's been 26 years, and I don't have any of that information," Taylor says when reached for comment. He says he doesn't remember the particulars of what happened and refers questions to Prestonwood.)
In the recording, Jordan ends by giving his son-in-law a warning. "I think you're dealing in some very serious territory here, Matt. And I say that with all due respect for Amy as my daughter. But there could be some very serious repercussions."
Amy tried to salvage the relationship and even arranged for the family to attend counseling together, emails show. Her father wasn't interested. "You have hurt us too much and now you have turned it into a public personal vendetta," Jordan responded to his daughter. "Matt is even blaming us for making the last two years of his life utterly miserable. There is no amount of discussion with a counselor that can ever make you realize that our issue has always been that we disagreed with your attacks on Prestonwood, Jack & Neal, starting with the WFAA interview and continuing to the present," Jordan wrote, referencing the interview in which Smith exposed Langworthy as a child molester. "While we miss our granddaughters very much, you and Matt need to live your lives without us being a part of it."
Smith, now a volunteer for SNAP, no longer focuses on Prestonwood exclusively. Today she does advocacy on behalf of victims from numerous local churches and calls for reform at the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole, though the Southern Baptist Convention leadership has continued to rebuff the efforts of Smith and the other SNAP activists. When a church in North Texas gets sued or there's press coverage of alleged sexual abuse, she blogs about it, looks for victims and organizes news conferences. On her blog, Watch Keep, she meticulously posts any and all documentation she has about churches, Prestonwood in particular; there are emails from church staff, court documents from Langworthy's case and, lately, there's anonymous hate mail.
One recent anonymous email focuses on a former music minister from a Houston church who became a focus of SNAP's attention a few years ago. SNAP publicized a police report concerning allegations the man was stalking a boy, but the minister was not charged with a crime.
"Although it may please you to hear this, [the man] cannot get a job almost anywhere now," the angry author emailed Smith.
Then last July, an anonymous note was sent to the home of Mary DeMuth, a Christian author from Rockwall and another critic of sex assault in churches. The letter was once again a defense of Prestonwood, and the author claimed to know the victim who came forward and his family personally. "It was apparent that they had moved on with their lives and did not seek publicity over this personal matter that happened many years ago," the author said, though the boy's mother had agreed to be interviewed by the Observer. The mailer made a thinly veiled threat. "It is possible that continued pursuit of this matter today by third-parties could potentially expose this family's identity."
Six months later, this January, the next anonymous letter came in the mail. Like the others, Smith attacked it head-on, posting it on her blog with a long rebuttal.
Smith isn't the first activist to find her character and relationship with the church coming under attack. Several years ago, a regular churchgoer named Chris Tynes read about the Langworthy case in the news and on Christian blogs like Smith's own Watch Keep. He was unsatisfied with the public response the church had provided, how it acknowledged that there was an "inappropriate" relationship with a teen but glossed over details. And there was no response to the allegations that church staff — specifically Neal Jeffrey — seemed to know about Langworthy's abuse before firing him and letting him work somewhere else.
Tynes started his rabble-rousing the easy way, on Facebook. He posted in a forum about the case for church members, but his posts were deleted and he quickly got blocked from posting anything else. In March 2013, he decided to request a meeting with Prestonwood's Executive Pastor Mike Buster. The pastor agreed to the meeting initially, Tynes says, but soon backed out.
"Mike Buster has decided he doesn't need to meet with you," Tynes remembers the secretary telling him. (Buster has a similar story in a complaint that Prestonwood eventually filed against Tynes with the Plano Police Department: "According to Buster, Tynes wanted to speak about past discretions [sic] by a former pastor," says a report by the Plano Police Department officer who investigated Tynes. "Buster decided that the conversation did not need to happen and declined the meeting").
Tynes asked where Buster was at that very moment. At lunch, he says the secretary told him.
Tynes knew where Buster's assigned parking spot was, so he showed up and waited. Newly armed with a Twitter account devoted to getting the church to talk, Tynes took a photograph of the parking spot with the captions "my ambush spot" and "my target." That was a poor choice of words.
"That's what got translated into the terrorist thing," Tynes says, referring to a statement church leaders eventually made to local news about the ordeal, accusing him of making "terroristic" threats.
Back at the car, a security officer showed up and escorted Tynes away as he captured the moment on his cell phone camera. The church called the police.
"Buster wanted to know what his options are regarding Tynes and harassment and criminal trespass" said the Plano police report against Tynes. There was nothing the police could do but make a note of it and warn Tynes that if he came back he could be arrested for trespass. Tynes got a call explaining that he was no longer welcome. Soon after, news of a crazy man making terroristic threats was leaked to WFAA, with a Prestonwood official appearing on camera to criticize Tynes' use of social media. "There is an appropriate time and place to address concerns and a Facebook page is probably not the time or place for that," he said.
After the story died down, Tynes continued writing about Prestonwood's "silence" on sex abuse on social media, starting a Facebook page that he's kept at, now with over 500 fans. Still, most other churchgoers remain unmoved by his efforts. One year ago, teenagers in the church's youth group took to Twitter to make fun of him and Amy Smith.
"hey buddy why don't you quit talking crap about Prestonwood and find something better to do with your life. You're a joke," one said. Another said he looked like Stinky Sturky, a nerdy character from the Disney Channel's That's So Raven. Another teen described Smith and Tynes as "salty old people."
One fake user named NotChrisTynes surfaced online and trolled the real Chris Tynes with messages in support of Prestonwood: "if I was completely disgusted with everything Prestonwood, then i would move on with my life and maybe grow up a little," was among the advice the Twitter troll had.
"Guys stop tweeting them," warned another teen. Contacted through Twitter, that teenager says church officials had nothing to do with the Twitter trolling. "We did not know who they [Tynes and Smith] were, and then we learned of the situation and others defended our Church in a respectful manor [sic]."
Prestonwood's Pastor Jack Graham gave a sermon after the cops were called that sounded as if it was directed at Tynes and Smith. "When you are accused unjustly or falsely or slandered or lied about," Graham said in the sermon, "like a lamb so should we in the spirit of Jesus, never respond to slanders and lies and accusations." Silence, Graham said, is the only appropriate way to respond to false allegations.
Smith says she has been in touch with at least three men who say Langworthy assaulted them at Prestonwood, though only the mother of the one agreed to speak to the Observer. Her son spoke to Hinds County prosecutors, but didn't have to testify.
Another Langworthy victim, abused in Mississippi and part of the criminal case, agreed to speak to the Observer on the condition he wasn't identified. He was 8 years old when it started, he said. He didn't understand what had happened to him until he was in his late teens. In the '80s, people didn't deal with sex abuse the head-on way they do now, he says, and people trusted their church. He remembers Langworthy was extremely charming. "He's the kind of person who uses people and just the kind of person people flock to, so much so, [that] here's somebody who abuses people, and he still has people come to their defense," the victim says.
He doesn't speak to Langworthy but is otherwise still part of the Baptist Church and quotes from the Bible in the interview. He believes other victims still haven't come forward and won't unless more church officials discuss Langworthy's abuse publicly and encourage victims to speak out."When it is owned up to and revealed it is the truth, and it is not denied ... and shoved away as something that was just 'inappropriate behavior,' or 'There were accusations made,' but actually own up to the truth..." he says, trailing off. "Nobody's ever said, 'Hey we messed up,' and I don't see what's wrong with that. Everybody makes mistakes." For many victims, he says, hearing a simple statement admitting those mistakes is the only way they'll heal.