Amy Smith's Persistence Brings Justice in John Langworthy Abuse Case
By Ruth Ingram
February 8, 2013
|Amy Smith, left, and Sherry LeFils were pleased with the guilty plea to five counts of gratification of lust by former Morrison Heights Baptist Church Music Director John Langworthy. Smith spent more than two years pushing for charges to be brought against Langworthy. / Rick Guy/The Clarion-Ledger|
Reading a news report about a church camp counselor in Missouri convicted of molesting children, Amy Smith’s thoughts shot back more than 20 years.
To a time when she was a college intern at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas.
To the day she learned John Langworthy, a seminary student and youth music minister who had befriended her family, and even stayed for a time in her home, was accused of molesting young boys at the church.
Although ministers at Prestonwood forced Langworthy to leave that church in 1989, they never reported the alleged molestation to police.
Langworthy would not be charged with a crime until 2011, a quarter century after returning home to Mississippi, when young boys he’d molested here in the early 1980s had grown into men and came forward at Smith’s urging with their stories.
Langworthy’s attorney, Jeff Rimes, said Langworthy did not want to comment for this story.
On that day in August 2010, Smith said, she knew what she had to do.
She knew Langworthy was working at Morrison Heights Baptist Church as a music minister. A resident of Houston, Texas, Smith said she Googled his name and was alarmed to find he also was a choir teacher in the Clinton school district.
Smith said she immediately called Clinton schools Superintendent Phil Burchfield.
It was the beginning of Smith’s journey for justice, a journey that would come at great personal cost to her and her family. It would turn on its ear a community that revered Langworthy, a charismatic and well-loved choir director who during class called his Arrow Singers at Clinton High “family.”
The call was the first of dozens she would make, and even more emails she would send, over the next two and a half years. At one point, she would be told to “cease and desist,” a message conveyed by one of the victims from a church member.
She never abandoned her goal: To ensure Langworthy was unable to molest children, groom kids and their families as a gateway to abuse, and single them out at church, or through a school classroom, or on overnight church or school choir trips.
She wanted to see him arrested, charged, convicted and jailed.
“I was nervous,” Smith said of that first call. “John was my minister in high school. What happened at Prestonwood was something that had bothered me for a long time.”
The lifelong Baptist and mother of four resolved in that moment to face clergy abuse head on.
“I realized I couldn’t wait for someone else to do something. I was the someone else,” said Smith, a registered nurse with degrees in nursing and psychology from Baylor University. “I had to get someone to listen.”
Smith, 43, a stay-at-home mom married almost 18 years to husband Matt, is soft-spoken but determined.
Her passion to expose clergy abuse led her in June 2011 to become the Houston-area director of Space City SNAP, or Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests.
As she began placing calls and asking questions of Burchfield and Morrison Heights Pastor Greg Belser, she also in spring 2011 began researching online who she could reach out to via emails in the education and Clinton communities.
“I sent them to the high school counselors. I sent them to the high school principal. I sent them to members of the school board. I sent them to the PTA leaders, to the Department of Education, The Parents Campaign, to people in the community in those weeks between February and April,” Smith said.
She said she got no response from School Board members, Principal Eddie Peasant or counselors. She did get a response from the school district’s public information officer, Sandi Beason. “Mrs. Smith, How many people are you sending (rather, have you sent) this information to? “ Beason asked Smith in a March 14, 2011, email obtained by The Clarion-Ledger.
Another responding was Nancy Loome of Clinton, leader of The Parents Campaign, an advocacy group for children in the public schools. Loome’s children attend the Clinton district, one of Mississippi’s four top-ranked systems and a perennial leader on test scores.
“The Mississippi Department of Education has just adopted a Code of Ethics dealing with sexual misconduct,” Loome wrote in part to Smith in a March 9 email obtained by The Clarion-Ledger. ”You appear to have followed the correct course of action in discussing your concern with the local superintendent. If you do not feel that your concern has been adequately addressed, your next step would be to go to the local school board, then on to the MS Dept. of Education.
“Again, thank you for your concern and for taking action to protect children.”
Wendy Polk, then a public relations staff member at the state Department of Education, also responded in a March 11 email: “Ms. Smith, Thanks for your input on this matter. Wendy Polk.”
Smith reached out to former members of Prestonwood she thought might have been abused, telling them she would be their advocate, and that she would believe them. One of them called her in February 2011.
A second man, one of those abused by Langworthy in the Jackson area, would reach out to her in April 2011. That victim went to Clinton police in August 2011, after Langworthy had been charged by Clinton and Jackson police with molesting five boys in that area between 1980 and 1984, when he volunteered at Jackson churches while a student at Mississippi College.
But that spring, Smith’s parents decided to do the opposite. They distanced themselves from her and her family.
The previous fall, they had objected to her speaking out. Longtime and fervent Prestonwood members, they had moved to Houston some years ago, Smith said. She said they were loyal to Langworthy, who with wife Kathy had even named one of their girls Jordan, Amy Smith’s maiden name.
“From the very beginning, I let them know,” Smith said of her parents and siblings. “I asked them if they would help. I told them I was concerned about my brothers.
“At first they ignored me, and then they expressed extreme disapproval. They said after so many years, I didn’t need to speak out.”
After a nine-month period in which both school and church administrators say they instituted procedures to ensure no children were in harm’s way, Langworthy in August 2011 confessed before the Morrison Heights congregation to “indiscretions” with boys in Mississippi and Texas during his time as a church volunteer, and that his actions were “ungodly.”
Smith said someone anonymously sent her a videotape of the Sunday services confession. She gave it to a Dallas television station, which immediately aired a story.
She said that report put an end, at least for now, to her relationship with her parents, who live minutes from Smith’s Houston home.
“They told me they were going to go on with their lives without me,” Smith said through tears. “They said if there was going to be contact, that I would have to write letters of apology to the pastors at Prestonwood.”
She didn’t know what to do earlier this month when her 4-year-old asked: When are we going to go to Nana’s house?
“It’s a year and a half since they’ve seen them,” Smith said of her four children. “I struggle with why my parents choose to defend a child molester over their own daughter. But, I look at the trail of devastation that he’s wrought, and what he did to his victims is not even close to what has happened to me.”
Langworthy on Jan. 22 pleaded guilty to five felony child molestation charges in connection with the sexual abuse of the five Jackson-area victims decades ago. Smith, Sherry Lefils, a former Dallas County probation officer assigned to work with sex offenders, and three of Langworthy’s victims sat in the courtroom as he responded “guilty” five times to Hinds County Circuit Judge Bill Gowan.
Two of those victims spoke before Gowan — and Langworthy — before Gowan sentenced Langworthy. As part of a plea agreement, Langworthy received suspended sentences and won’t go to prison unless he violates conditions of his five years of supervised probation.
Among her emotions that day, Smith said, was relief.
“What I was trying to tell people for so long … it was proof that it wasn’t made up, or me just trying to destroy a man’s life and that of his family,” Smith said.
Smith’s journey is far from over. She and LeFils want justice for Langworthy’s alleged victims at Prestonwood, and any others who might have suffered abuse in Clinton and the metro area.
“I hope this has protected more kids, and that the light of truth, and the knowledge of truth, has brought awareness to child sexual abuse,” Smith said. “They have an advocate.”
On Jan. 26, the women held a news conference outside Prestonwood before the night’s services began. Smith read a statement to media from the mother of the Prestonwood alleged victim who called Belser and Burchfield in February 2011.
“We ask that Prestonwood take responsibility for their coverup, and to say they are sorry,” the man’s mother said in the statement read by Smith.
Smith and LeFils want to help victims to find their voices and begin to find healing and peace.
“This guy is a liar. He is an evil person,” said one of the victims molested in the Jackson area who spoke out at Langworthy’s sentencing. “I don’t say that with vengeance. I know what he did to me.”
Smith’s advocacy helped him reveal his abuse to police, said the first Jackson-area victim to come forward.
That victim told Langworthy at sentencing: “Today was not of your choosing, but due to the diligence and hard work of two ladies in Texas and a victim from Texas to bring to light what had occurred, and what we believe has still been occurring.”