Justice Quest Begins with Phone Call, Ends with Conviction
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. / Rick Guy/The Clarion-Ledger|
Amy Smith wanted to know who knew what and when in Clinton about decades-old molestation accusations in Texas against John Langworthy, a music minister at Morrison Heights Baptist Church and choir teacher in the Clinton school district.
Langworthy had been a seminary student and youth music minister at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, where Smith, then 20, worked as a college intern. Although ministers at Prestonwood fired Langworthy in 1989 when at least one teen told church leaders Langworthy molested him, they never reported the allegation to police.
When Langworthy returned to Mississippi, he worked briefly in non-church positions. In 1990, he was working as a music minister at Morrison Heights. He later became a choir teacher, first at Clinton Junior High and then Clinton High.
The father of an alleged victim in Texas said he discovered not long after Langworthy left Prestonwood that he was teaching in Clinton. The father said he called the district and the Mississippi Baptist Convention to talk of Langworthy’s past.
The father, whose son was 14 when the alleged abuse occurred, said he doesn’t remember the name or position at the district of the person with whom he spoke. “He didn’t know about it, and I don’t know if he ended up contacting Prestonwood. He thanked me for calling, but I could tell he was very conflicted about it.”
Smith, a registered nurse and mother of four living in Houston, Texas, and Sherry LeFils, a former Dallas County probation officer assigned to sex offenders, didn’t know about those reported calls some 20 years earlier when they decided in August 2010 to alert the Clinton school community and Morrison Heights of the alleged abuse more than 25 years earlier at the Dallas church.
Smith and LeFils launched a 2 1/2 year effort to get those in Mississippi to listen — and to believe. Ultimately a Hinds County grand jury would indict Langworthy in September 2011 on charges of sexually abusing five boys ages 6-13 in Jackson and Clinton between 1980 and 1984. He was living in Texas by 1985.
It began with Smith’s August 2010 phone call to Clinton district Superintendent Phil Burchfield.
“Dr. Burchfield’s assistant asked who I was and why I was calling. I told her that I knew he (Langworthy) had abused boys and that he was on staff. She put me through right away, and we talked for 45 minutes,” Smith recalled. “I told him, ‘You don’t know me, but I hope you will listen to me because you need to know what I have to say.’ He didn’t ask many questions, but he certainly listened to me.”
Langworthy had not been charged with a crime. He had not been investigated by a police agency. No alleged victims had come forward.
“I told Dr. Burchfield that if he had questions about the risk of leaving John Langworthy in the classroom, to call Sherry. He said he would call her.”
Said LeFils: “We talked about why John was a risk. I asked him, ‘What do you know about John Langworthy? About Prestonwood?’ He said he had never contacted Prestonwood. I said, ‘That’s the first thing you need to do.’ ”
Burchfield talked to Neal Jeffrey, a current Prestonwood pastor on staff when Langworthy was there. Smith said she emailed Jeffrey in October 2010. Jeffrey responded on Nov. 18, 2010, saying he and Burchfield had a “frank discussion of John and his time here.”
“He said that he was going to call John in. ... I also called our attorneys, who were involved in all of this back then, and they were going to discuss what we need to do, and probably call Dr. Burchfield, etc.,” Jeffrey wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Clarion-Ledger.
Said Smith: “We thought that something would come of it.”
Weeks went by. Smith said she began reaching out to men she suspected were child victims at Prestonwood.
In January 2011, she emailed Morrison Heights Pastor Greg Belser, detailing the same concerns. She got no reply. Not long after, Smith said, both Belser and Burchfield received a call from a man who told them he had been molested by Langworthy at Prestonwood. The man, Smith said, was one of those she’d reached out to weeks before after finding him on Facebook. His father was the one who said he tried to alert Clinton school and Baptist officials about Langworthy.
The man, now in his early 40s, told The Clarion-Ledger he spoke to Belser and Burchfield on Feb. 9. The newspaper does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse.
“I told Dr. Burchfield what happened with me, with John,” the man said. “I said, ‘He should not be working with kids.’ At that point, Dr. Burchfield told me that he was only around kids one hour a day and that he was being supervised.”
Clinton School Board attorney Jim Keith said there was no way for Burchfield to verify the call or the allegation. “The district already had procedures in place to ensure no student would be in harm’s way if the allegations proved to be true,” he said. Langworthy never admitted wrongdoing to the district, Keith said.
Belser emailed Smith on Feb. 14, 2011, asking her to call him. Smith said she, Belser and LeFils talked via a conference call. Belser “had already talked to John,” Smith said. “He said his options were to fire him and publicly expose him or to fire him quietly. We thought that basically is what Prestonwood did.
“And he said, ‘We can keep him and put up high fences.’ He talked about John having cancer.”
Said LeFils: “I told him to fire him and go to the police, and it’s not your function to find victims.”
Smith said Belser again emailed her Feb. 17 after she asked if he’d met with church elders. “We have met, and will meet again. We expect that our due diligence will take several weeks,” he said to her in that email.
As the school year continued, Keith told The Clarion-Ledger, the district had no legal reasons to terminate Langworthy’s employment. To do so, Keith said, the district would have to have evidence of wrongdoing during the time he was under contract.
He said Langworthy “fully cooperated” with the district following Smith’s call to Burchfield. “You have two interests that you have to weigh: the interests of an employee not to be falsely accused and the interests of the school district to ensure students are not in harm’s way,” Keith said.
That April, the Clinton School Board approved Langworthy taking the Arrow Singers on an overnight trip to New Orleans. Precautions were taken, Keith said, but he would not discuss specifics.
Also in April, Smith said, Belser and elders told her they had “done our due diligence” and had decided to keep Langworthy on staff. That, Smith said, prompted the alleged victim in Texas to contact a Jackson-area victim. The two, friends in college, realized during that time they’d had the same perpetrator.
That second victim called Belser soon after. “When a local boy calls and said, ‘It happened to me,’ things change,” LeFils said.
Smith said Belser emailed the alleged Texas victim April 15. “We had a long and frank discussion with John and he was as transparent as any man I have ever talked to. … He insists that you and (the second victim) were the only two involved,” Belser said to the victim in an email obtained by The Clarion-Ledger. “All others were just crude play and vulgar behavior, and we are evaluating it all. As for John, I want to assure you that he has no contact here with children. He continues to lead our youth choirs, but there are so many eyes on him right now, he is no risk to anyone.”
LeFils said she emailed elders Philip Gunn, an attorney and Mississippi House Speaker, and Dan Modisett, general manager of WLBT-Channel 3. Gunn “called me and told me he was representing John. He wanted to know what our desired outcome would be,” LeFils said. “I told him to fire John and to go to the police.”
Smith said Gunn also called her in May 2011. She emailed him back. “What is the purpose of your call?” she wrote. “To discuss a resolution. Are you willing to speak with me for a few minutes?” Gunn wrote back that same day.
“No.” Smith replied via email. Smith said she felt uncomfortable talking about a “resolution” with an attorney so involved with the church. “I would not take an offer in exchange for being quiet.”
After requests for an interview from The Clarion-Ledger, Gunn said he would not comment. Gunn did not act as the church’s attorney but only in his capacity as an elder, Belser said. Langworthy’s attorney, Jeffrey Rimes, said his client would not comment.
In May 2011, Clinton district officials said Langworthy had chosen not to return for the coming school year.
What happened in August, though, opened the door for prosecution. Langworthy stood before the Morrison Heights congregation during services Aug. 7 and admitted “sexual indiscretions” with younger males more than two decades before while serving at churches in Mississippi and in Texas and that his actions were “ungodly.” He told members he moved to Mississippi in 1989 because of his actions at Prestonwood. He resigned from the Morrison Heights staff.
The church confession was crushing, said former 28-year member Ginger Davis of Clinton. “Totally surprised. Shocked. That’s the one consistent thing I could tell,” said Davis. “Most people did not know until he got up and talked to them.”
School district officials within days released a statement saying they took protective action once they knew a man accused of being a child molester was leading a classroom. Langworthy had been teaching only with an administrator present, district public relations officer Sandi Beason said then.
Morrison Heights “was in contact with law enforcement from the inception of these circumstances,” Belser said. “Immediate steps were taken to restrict Mr. Langworthy’s contact with children while we investigated this charge against him.”
Gunn and prosecutors sharply disagreed about what elders would tell investigators. Their discussions with Langworthy are privileged and can’t be legally divulged because of priest-penitent privilege, Gunn insisted.
On Aug. 12, 2011, the Jackson victim reported his abuse to Clinton police. That day, LeFils emailed Belser, thanking him for his part in the grueling process. One by one, four other metro-area victims came forward. Their stories were the same: Langworthy befriended them in the early 1980s while a volunteer at Jackson-area churches and molested them after gaining their trust.
On Sept. 7, 2011, Langworthy was charged by Clinton and Jackson police with eight counts of felony gratification of lust. The defense focused on the statute of limitations.
On Jan. 22, Langworthy pleaded guilty to five of the eight counts. In a plea bargain, Circuit Judge Bill Gowan ordered a 10-year suspended sentence on each count.
Smith and LeFils continue to work with alleged victims in Texas and urge any other victims there or here to come forward.
“Some pay with their life in prison. For others, the stigma of what they do follows them their whole life,” said Clinton Alderman at Large Jehu Brabham, administrator of Parkway Baptist Church. “In this situation, and any others, I hope healing would take place on the victims’ and the perpetrator’s heart.”