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First Baptist Church addresses allegations in formal answer to lawsuit

First Baptist Church of Columbia (Source: Sharonne Hayes, WACH Fox)

Defendants in the recent lawsuit against First Baptist Church of Columbia filed their response on Thursday.

According to court records, First Baptist Church, Pastor Wendell Estep, and student minister Philip Turner filed their answer and responded to multiple allegations made in the original lawsuit.

The complaint, filed by minor "Joel Doe" and his guardians, alleged that former small group leader Andrew McCraw sexually abused him; the October 10 lawsuit includes graphic text messages from McCraw, as well as allegations of inappropriate touching on church grounds and unsupervised sleepovers at McCraw's home.

The answer discusses various elements of the lawsuit, including:

  • "Defendants admit Defendant First Baptist Church was in the past sued in connection with actions in the late 1990s of one individual, but denies any further lawsuits alleged in this paragraph," referencing paragraph 13 of the original lawsuit, which discusses the sexual crimes of former church Deacon John Hubner;
  • In regards to allegations of sleepovers between Doe and McCraw, "Defendants deny any knowledge of this alleged incident, which was never reported, but would believe that any such event would have to be after June 2016 if Plaintiff claims Defendant McCraw's wife, whom he married in June 2016, was not home;"
  • "Defendants deny knowledge of any alleged inappropriate or illegal activity, as nothing has been reported or alleged by Plaintiff other than the alleged conduct Plaintiff claims took place in 2016, but believes Plaintiff's parents would have been aware of any time their son was spending with Defendant McCraw outside of the church environment;"
  • "Defendants admit multiple text messages went back on forth between Plaintiff and Defendant McCraw in July and August 2016," and soon after, "law enforcement became involved after Plaintiff's parents reported the text messages to law enforcement but had not reported them to Defendants at that time, although excerpts were later provided to Defendants by counsel for Plaintiff after law enforcement was involved and investigating the matter;"
  • "Defendants admit learning on August 28, 2016 that Defendant McCraw has accessed Plaintiff's Snapchat account with a password provided by Plaintiff, upon information and belief;" and
  • "Defendant First Baptist Church did follow its policies upon learning of the allegations, in addition to the law enforcement investigation that proceeded."

The Plaintiffs recently motioned to unseal files related to the lawsuit against Hubner. The church and Estep are named as co-defendants to Hubner on that lawsuit.

On October 14, the church released this statement regarding the lawsuit filed by Doe and his guardians:

Last fall First Baptist Church became aware of allegations of inappropriate conduct by an unpaid volunteer in the student ministries department.
As church policy dictates, the appropriate committee investigated. The committee concluded the volunteer violated church policies.
Disciplinary action was taken. The volunteer no longer attends First Baptist Church and was prohibited from further contact with our students.
The student making the allegations filed a lawsuit Tuesday.
Additionally, First Baptist Church respects the privacy of the parties involved in the cases arising from the John Hubner incident in 2002. Even so, First Baptist Church does not oppose unsealing those cases.
Our attorneys have advised us to make no further comment at this time.

John Simmons of Simmons Law Firm issued a statement about the lawsuit and unsealing motion on October 17:

A key complaint in this case centers on the church officials’ failure, for over a year, to notify parents of children who had contact with the youth minister who sent these outrageous messages and the church officials’ continuing failure to report the conduct to law enforcement. We hope the motions to unseal records that have been kept secret for over 10 years, together with the lawsuit, will bring transparency to the cloak of secrecy imposed by the defendants.

The answer to the lawsuit can be read in its entirety below.

Neither McCraw nor his counsel have responded to the allegations.

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