An Advocate for the Sexually Abused Demands Answers from Prestonwood Baptist Church

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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.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn

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