Family Claims First Baptist Church of Bemis Was Negligent, Seeks More Than $2m in Lawsuit over Sexual Abuse
By Nichole Manna
May 22, 2014
The family of a girl who was molested by a member of First Baptist Church of Bemis in 2009 is suing the church for negligence because the church allowed the man to volunteer at the Vacation Bible School during which the incident occurred, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The suit, filed in Madison County Circuit Court, seeks $2 million in compensatory damages plus punitive damages, medical expenses and any other costs the court deems proper. The family is asking for a jury trial.
The law firm of Farmer, Jaffe, Weissing, Edwards, Fistos & Lehrman in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla, filed the suit on behalf of the family. The lawsuit does not identify the girl but instead uses the name Jane Doe because of the allegations of sexual abuse.
The church’s current pastor, Brother John Norvell, said the church did not have a comment to make at this time.
The suit claims that Mark McSwain, who was then pastor at First Baptist Church of Bemis, let Chad Lutrell volunteer to work with children at the church’s Vacation Bible School in June 2009 and that McSwain knew Lutrell had been accused of previous sexual misconduct. The suit says Lutrell had been seen in the church kissing girls ages 6 to 10 on the mouth. Additionally, in 2006, three adult women from the church “feared for their safety after being stalked, physically threatened and sexually harassed on separate occasions by Chad Lutrell in Jackson. These sexual advances, stalking, sexual harassment and physical threats were reported to Pastor Mark McSwain, who felt Lutrell’s misconduct was serious enough to report to the Jackson Police Department,” the law firm said in a news release.
Despite that history, the church and McSwain allowed Lutrell to volunteer at the Bible school that included girls between ages 6 and 10, the suit says.
The lawsuit says Jane Doe’s mother did not know of Lutrell’s history of sexual misconduct when she enrolled the then 10-year-old girl in the Bible school. While alone with the girl, Lutrell molested her including getting on top of her and touching her breast area, the suit says.
In May 2010, Lutrell was convicted of sexual battery in the incident after he entered a best-interest plea.
Attorney Adam Horowitz is handling the case for the family. Horowitz said the mother and daughter still live in Jackson but he has a national practice and specializes in child sex-abuse cases, so it’s not unusual for a family outside of Florida to contact him.
Horowitz said the lawsuit was filed four years after Lutrell pleaded guilty for multiple reasons.
“There was a criminal process that had to run its course first,” he said. “There was also a lot of counseling the client had to receive. The mother knows that if the lawsuit were filed she’d have to give sworn statements and talk to lawyers. When it happened she was 10 years old. She didn’t want to expose her child to that.”
Horowitz said the girl, who is now 15, has received counseling and therapy and is more comfortable and ready to talk about the abuse.
According to Jackson Sun archives, the girl testified in July 2009 that Lutrell put one hand on her back and the other hand on her chest after chasing her during a game of tag. The girl said she told him to stop but he did not. She said she again told him to stop and he did, after seeing one of the adults from the bleachers walking toward them.
McSwain testified in court the same day that Lutrell was volunteering in the kitchen during the Vacation Bible School and that he was closely supervised. McSwain said Lutrell had not been allowed to work with children at the church since 2006, when McSwain called Jackson police about concerns that had been raised about Lutrell kissing the young girls.
Police filed a report following their conversation with McSwain in December 2006. But the case was closed without charges being filed, according to the report.
Several weeks later, McSwain told police none of the people involved wanted to press charges, the report said.
In 2010, Lutrell was sentenced to one year of probation and 100 hours of community service. He was also be placed on the state sex-offender registry.
In May 2013, police charged Lutrell, then 34, with stalking three women and assaulting one of the women over a span of about a year. He was charged with three counts of stalking and one count of simple assault after the three women, who were employees at Wal-Mart South, came to the police department to report Lutrell's behavior, police have said.
The women reported similar incidents of Lutrell harassing them while they were working at Wal-Mart. Lutrell reportedly approached the women and made sexual comments, which caused them to feel nervous and fearful, police have said. One of the women told police that Lutrell approached her from behind, pulled her back and then kissed her on the cheek without her consent, the report said.
“Churches must make safe choices when selecting who can be around children during youth activities,” Horowitz said. “In this case, First Baptist Church of Bemis made a terrible decision in allowing Chad Lutrell to volunteer at a vacation bible school for kids. This tragedy could have been avoided if the church made a safer choice.”