Members of panel investigating handling of abuse cases at Immanuel Baptist asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, deacons say

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette [Little Rock AR]

January 27, 2024

By Frank E. Lockwood

Immanuel Baptist pastor calls for independent inquiry into church’s handling of sex abuse allegations

Immanuel Baptist Church Lead Pastor Steven Smith on Friday called for an independent, third-party investigation into the congregation’s handling of sex abuse accusations.

Although an inquiry being conducted by the church’s insurance company is ongoing, Smith on Friday described that as merely a “necessary first step.”

“The past two months at Immanuel Baptist Church have been marked by swirling accusations, allegations, conflicting accounts, divisiveness, confusion, even anger,” the pastor wrote in a statement Friday addressed to the “Immanuel Family.”

“I have tried to provide helpful information and to answer questions as they were asked — but the wide range of emotions and confusion have persisted.

“This is why I have proposed that we hire a fully independent firm with expertise in sexual abuse to conduct a thorough investigation and assessment of these matters. A firm with this expertise will investigate abuse allegations and Immanuel’s response to reports of abuse. They will further conduct a review of policies relative to sexual abuse prevention, reporting, and response,” he wrote.

The statement was posted on the church’s website at

At a church meeting in mid-September, at least two members had urged Immanuel leaders to launch an independent inquiry into the handling of abuse accusations. The church opted not to do so.

With criticism increasing, Smith had promised the congregation, more than a month ago, that a “party outside the church” would conduct an inquiry into “these events.”

“They will communicate findings with the deacons and the deacons will communicate this with the church,” Smith told worshippers on Dec. 17.

But the “party outside the church” turned out to be an attorney dispatched by Immanuel’s insurer and — nearly six weeks later — his findings haven’t been shared with the church.

Earlier this week, a member of the board of deacons questioned whether the findings would ever be made public, noting that information was being withheld not only from rank-and-file members but also from many of the deacons.

In Friday’s statement, Smith asked members for “your patience and your prayers as the process unfolds.”

“As you know we have a current investigation ongoing by our insurance company. We are grateful for this investigative work and believe it was a necessary first step,” he wrote. “However, there are firms with specialized experience with Christian organizations, denominations, and churches. These firms are widely respected in the victim community and their work will be fully independent with full reign to interview anyone they wish, in strictest confidence, and to review any internal documents and communication.”

Smith didn’t offer a timeline for beginning the latest inquiry.

“Of course this step will be executed through our normal protocols and approval process as a church. As more information is available about this, we will make a further announcement,” he said.

The call for an independent, third party investigation was seconded by Immanuel Deacon David Choate, who, in a Dec. 18 letter, called Smith “untruthful and untrustworthy…[and] unfit to serve.”

“A truly independent investigation would be fantastic,” Choate said in a telephone interview Friday.

It won’t be possible to have a credible, independent review if Smith is involved in the selection process, said Katie Kirkpatrick Choate, an attorney, third-generation Immanuel member and David Choate’s wife.

“Steven needs to be completely removed from the process. … Heretofore, Steven Smith has been running all the investigations and that’s how we’ve gotten six months down the road with no information to the church,” she said.

With average Sunday attendance of 925, Immanuel is one of Arkansas’ largest Southern Baptist congregations, according to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention’s 2022 annual report.

Smith, who has led the congregation since January 2017, apologized to the congregation on Dec. 10 for not telling them about accusations that a former children’s ministry worker had sexually abused two children on church property in 2015, saying, “I wish we would have told you about these crimes sooner.”

The ex-employee, Patrick Stephen Miller, now 37, was arrested in connection with one of the children’s claims in 2018 and charged with second-degree sexual assault, a felony, but later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment and is attempting to have the case sealed.

The apology came about three months after the church’s discipleship content coordinator resigned over Smith’s handling of a different case involving an adult music volunteer and a 15-year-old high school boy, saying the “lack of transparency, accountability, and handling” of the situation made her position “untenable.”

The abuse, which occurred in 2020, came to light after the adult, in August, confessed.

On Dec. 17, Smith said he would step aside if he no longer had the support of the congregation. That evening, the board of deacons gathered to discuss concerns about the handling of abuse at Immanuel and formed an Investigation and Communication Committee “to share legal investigation, evaluation of results as well as communication thereof,” according to the committee charter.

Three deacons with family members who have been abused at the church were barred from entering the meeting. Along with the father-in-law of one of those accused of abuse, they were forced to remain outside until the closing prayer, Choate has said.

The following day, Choate sent a nine-page letter to members of the committee accusing Smith of dishonesty and calling on him to resign.

Sunday, Smith had said he would “release some type of response” to the church “as soon as possible.”

Friday, Smith told members he had addressed Choate’s accusations and had sent his answer (“some 20 pages”) to an attorney but that he also wanted to respond to four of Choate’s accusations “impugning my character and integrity.”

“I wrote an email to our church family in May of 2022, that said ‘[W]e have had, for many years, protocols in place that by God’s grace, have proven effective in the prevention of abuse.’

“This is a badly worded statement, and I regret making it. This could easily have been read to mean that we had never had abuse in this church, which is of course not true.”

Smith also insisted that the church had had policies in place for years to protect children.

“While one can debate whether our policies were robust enough, or the perfect policies for a church, or adequately enforceable, it’s not debatable that we had policies. We have dated copies of the policies that were enacted in 2018,” he wrote.

“We could have improved our policies. We should have had a team, like we now have in our Caring Well Team, and a clear-cut system that would dictate what should happen when a policy violation occurs — in other words, how to report, enforce, and carry out punishment for violations. All of that is part of our standard procedure now. If we can further improve our procedures, we will,” he wrote.

Immanuel should not have allowed the adult music volunteer to work in the church with young people again after discovering in 2020 that she was behaving inappropriately with a 15-year-old high school boy, Smith acknowledged. The woman, a publicly licensed middle school teacher, subsequently acknowledged that there had been “physical contact” with the minor, Smith has said.

“Now, much of what has been reported or said or written about this specific case has been untrue, inaccurate, misleading, or lacking important context. However, what is true is we allowed this volunteer to serve again,” Smith wrote. “It was wrong, and I apologize to those we hurt by allowing it to happen.”

Smith also denied misleading people about the measures in place to protect children.

“On Sept 7, 2023, I sent an email to the church to clarify our next steps with the music volunteer. In that email I said that ‘Our congregation has adopted the Ministry Safe protocols…’ Mr. Choate calls this an ‘outright lie.'”

Smith acknowledged his choice of words were not ideal, but said the congregation had paid a fee to Ministry Safe on Sept. 1, 2022, and had begun to train staff using the program the following month.

“I should more precisely have said ‘Our congregation has begun to implement the Ministry Safe protocols…’ since we had, at that point, trained a pilot group and trained our staff, but were just beginning to implement it with all our teachers and workers. I take responsibility for the choice of words here, though don’t think it fair to characterize them as a lie,” he wrote.

Asked to respond, Choate said: “I stand by my letter [and] its truth. I’ve got witnesses. I’ve got written evidence, and I would just pray that as people pray and think through this that they’re guided by the Holy Spirit to the right decision.”

In closing, Smith promised to improve.

“My response in handling both situations in question undoubtedly should have been better,” he wrote. “Thanks to wise counsel, a season of learning about best practices, hearing victim stories, and the new investigation and assessment, my response will be better in the future.”