Lawsuit alleges Magnolia church covered up abuse

Camden News [Camden, AR]

January 17, 2024

By Joshua Turner

A lawsuit was filed on Jan. 10 against Central Baptist Church Magnolia for allegedly allowing the grooming, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of a minor by former youth pastor Kenneth Travis Jewell.

According to the lawsuit, Jewell was hired in 2008 as the youth pastor for the church and allegedly began abusing the plaintiff when she was 16.

The lawsuit alleges that abuse occurred often on church property and that other pastors, including current pastor Mike Seabaugh, and staff knew about the abuse but did not take action to stop it.

“Travis used his position, and the authority and power vested in him by Central Baptist, to groom and sexually abuse Plaintiff, who was heavily involved in the church’s youth ministry program. Plaintiff ‘s background made her particularly vulnerable to Travis. At the time the sexual abuse began, Plaintiff was a l6-year-old minor who lived with her mother. Plaintiff was estranged from her biological father who she first met when she was five-years-old. As a result, Plaintiff lacked a male role model in her life and Pastor Travis took advantage of that,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that Jewell made inappropriate comments about the defendant, would brush up against her breasts and buttocks, and eventually convinced her to babysit for him and his wife.

“The verbal and physical abuse progressed as Pastor Travis grew bolder and the grooming process escalated. Pastor Travis would discuss sexual matters with Plaintiff, including discussions on sexual anatomy, sexual acts that occurred between Travis and his wife, how Travis would masturbate, and how he would get sexually aroused around his young children. Physically, Pastor Travis would often fondle the minor Plaintiff’s breasts and buttocks over the clothes at the church, despite clear instructions from Plaintiff not to do so. Pastor Travis became increasingly aggressive with these sexual actions. During one of the times when Plaintiff babysat for the family, she fell asleep on the couch and was awoken to Pastor Travis in the room in his underwear. She pretended to sleep as Travis walked up to her and kissed her, which was the first time she was kissed by a male. She was seventeen-years-old at the time,” states the lawsuit.

The lawsuit states that the plaintiff spoke to Rebecca McPherson, husband of a deacon and Sunday school teacher, a mission leader, and a religious mentor at Central Baptist Church who allegedly told the Plaintiff she was overthinking Jewell’s comments.

After the plaintiff turned 18, Jewell allegedly pinned her down and assaulted her with his fingers according to the suit.

“Soon after, Plaintiff told Pastor Seabaugh about the incident. Pastor Seabaugh told Plaintiff that Pastor Travis’ actions were not a crime since Plaintiff was eighteen. Pastor Seabaugh also requested that Plaintiff not tell anyone in the church and specifically instructed Plaintiff not to tell her mother. Plaintiff also told McPherson about the incident. McPherson told Plaintiff not to go to the police because it would ruin the church. Specifically, McPherson said that Plaintiff telling anyone would, “victimize the church the same way he did you.” the lawsuit claims.

Shortly after the alleged incidents, Jewell moved to Kentucky and the church was informed that he had left to take another job.

Following his time at Central Baptist Church Jewell also served as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy and now runs J1010 Creations in Detroit Michigan.

“Central Baptist chose to turn a blind eye to the danger. Central Baptist did nothing to control Pastor Travis, did nothing to limit his access to Plaintiff, chose not to report him to law enforcement, and did nothing to prevent further harm to Plaintiff, who suffered future sexual assaults, including many more sexual assaults that took place on Central Baptist grounds and at Pastor Travis’ home, after McPherson and other agents of Central Baptist were specifically aware or should have been aware of the threat to Plaintiff. Pastor Travis knew that Plaintiff was dependent on him as a father figure and spiritual mentor in her life and that he had great power over her, authority he had been empowered with by Central Baptist. Central Baptist, through McPherson, discouraged Plaintiff from speaking out and standing up for herself. Thus, Plaintiff remained quiet for a couple of years. For all of these reasons, and likely many others, Plaintiff suffered her ordeal in silence rather than speak out. She was trapped, and nobody at Central Baptist lifted a finger to save her. Central Baptist failed not only to protect Plaintiff but to supervise and control its agents. Rather, Central Baptist tolerated a culture of sexual abuse towards children,” states the lawsuit.

The lawsuit seeks punitive damages to be brought against Central Baptist Church and staff in a jury trial for the crimes and physical and psychological harm done to the plaintiff.

John Harden Chairman of Deacons at Central Baptist Church Magnolia released a statement Friday responding to the allegations of sexual misconduct by church staff.

The statement reads, “Central Baptist Church is aware of the lawsuit containing the allegations regarding the personal actions of a former employee from the 2011 timeframe. We dispute the allegations directed at the church and its leadership and are confident that the church has always acted to respond appropriately. We take these allegations very seriously and pray for the well-being of the claimant. We trust that the process going forward will allow the truth to be known.”