Columbia FBC settles suit, apologizes to teenage victim

Columbia First Baptist Church has settled a civil suit brought against it last October arising from inappropriate text messages sent from an adult volunteer to a teenager.

“First Baptist has accepted responsibility for this, even though we had strong policies in place and performed a background check on the volunteer, which revealed no issues,” said Bryan Barnes, an attorney and member of the church, in a press statement Feb. 1.

“What we did not have at the time was a policy specifically forbidding texting between an adult and a student without copying another adult. Such a policy, if followed, could have prevented these messages.”

Barnes said the conduct of the small group leader, Andrew McCraw, “is isolated and is repugnant to the values of this congregation, its leaders and its ministry.”

Barnes said law enforcement officials investigated and closed the case with no criminal charges filed. “Nevertheless, the church launched an inquiry and permanently removed the adult volunteer from further service,” he said in the press statement. McCraw no longer attends the church.

“The church condemns the volunteer’s conduct in the strongest terms possible,” Barnes said. “We want to send a strong and transparent message that we regret his actions and the harm he caused.”

Under the terms of the settlement, the church and senior pastor Wendell Estep admitted liability and agreed to pay (with funds from the church’s insurance company) $300,000 to the family of the teenager, whose name is to be kept confidential. The church also agreed to apologize and to have its policies updated by a third party.

Barnes told The Courier that Estep could not have been expected to be aware of the hidden text messages of a volunteer student worker, but “acted in a most unselfish way” in agreeing to accept a share of the responsibility “to the degree there was any fault other than that of the student volunteer.”

“Dr. Estep’s position can best be explained by hearkening back to a phrase Harry Truman made popular — that is, the buck stops here,” said Barnes, echoing language he shared in a business meeting following a Sunday morning service at the church Feb. 4.

“We are sorry that this young man was wronged and that our policies and procedures, as well as our enforcement of those policies and procedures, were insufficient to protect him,” Barnes told The Courier.

“This young man and his family deserved our best efforts, as does every family who entrusts their child to the programs and activities of our church. We are grateful this student alerted his parents to the wrong actions of this trusted volunteer. The young man did the right thing.

“The real bad actor here is a single, rogue volunteer who, without our staff or leadership’s knowledge, exchanged inappropriate text messages with a student. We find it so unacceptable that it happened. Even with policies, procedures and training, there is still room to improve.

“We have a very capable and committed group of staff and volunteers, and we renew our commitment to do as much as possible to prevent anything of this nature from happening again.”