Lawsuit claims Benton church failed to protect boys from abuse

A cross and Bible sculpture stand outside the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., in this May 24, 2022 file photo. (AP/Holly Meyer)
A cross and Bible sculpture stand outside the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., in this May 24, 2022 file photo. (AP/Holly Meyer)

Two men are suing First Baptist Church in Benton as well as national Southern Baptist entities, saying the organizations failed to protect them from a sexual predator who was employed at the church for nearly three decades.

Both plaintiffs are residents of Benton and used to sing in the church’s youth choir. They suffered “childhood sexual abuse, sexual contact, sexually explicit conduct, and other crimes of a sexual nature” at the hands of David Kent Pierce, the congregation’s former music minister, the lawsuit states.

Neither plaintiff is identified by name.

The suit was filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court on Jan. 24.

The two plaintiffs are represented by the Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz law firm based in Pensacola, Fla., and by attorney David Slade of North Little Rock.

Besides First Baptist Church, the complaint names as defendants the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, a number of insurers and John Does 1-100 — described as “additional persons or legal entities” whose identities aren’t known but may be discovered “through the course of discovery.” Another defendant is the Central Baptist Association, an organization with a Benton address “made up of 55 churches located in Saline, Garland, Hot Spring and Grant counties,” according to its website.

[DOCUMENT: Read the lawsuit filed against First Baptist Church in Benton »]

Pierce was fired in April 2009 because of what Pastor Rick Grant described as “serious moral failures.” In August 2009, Pierce pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual indecency with a child. Under a plea agreement, 50 other counts were dropped. He was released from prison in March 2012, on the condition that he move out of Arkansas. Pierce, now 71, is listed on the Missouri sex offender registry and has a Branson address.

His name was on a list of hundreds of abusers released in May 2022 by the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee.

According to the civil suit, Pierce targeted the first plaintiff, identified as AWKO Doe 47, when he was entering eighth grade. (AWKO appears to be an abbreviation for the name of the Florida law firm.) The suit says Pierce began grooming the plaintiff within a few months of his joining the choir, telling him he was holding the boy accountable for “the four S’s,” which Pierce defined as “scholastic, social, spiritual and sexual.” Initially, Pierce questioned the plaintiff about his “masturbation habits, his romantic relationships, and the intimate details of his romantic encounters,” the suit says.

Eventually, Pierce’s abuse escalated, it says.

“On numerous, frequent, and longstanding occasions in Pierce’s office at First Benton or the bell tower at First Benton, Pierce would measure the size [of the plaintiff’s] penis and record his measurements in a notebook,” it said.

He would also instruct the boy to masturbate in front of him, sometimes on church property, sometimes along the Saline River.

“On several occasions, Pierce brought other boys on these fishing trips, and instructed all of the boys, including [the plaintiff], to masturbate together. Pierce, as the music minister and choir director for First Benton, tied these masturbation fishing trips to the church by calling the various areas by the river he used for masturbation ‘Goober Heaven,’” the suit states.

The abusive behavior continued for years, the suit alleges.

“In approximately 2000, Pierce escalated the abuse even further by having [the plaintiff] insert his penis into a silicone ‘vagina’ while Piece held the device in his hands. Pierce further instructed [the plaintiff] to have sexual intercourse and ejaculate into the silicone vagina while Pierce ogled and masturbated himself to ejaculation,” the suit says.

First Baptist Church Senior Pastor Rick Grant was informed of the abuse by the plaintiff in approximately November 2008 but initially kept Pierce on the job, the suit alleges.

“Instead of reporting Pierce’s crimes to law enforcement and firing Pierce, Grant suggested that Pierce apologize to each victim in order to maintain his employment with First Benton,” the suit states.

The second plaintiff, identified as AWKO Doe 48, was 14 when he first met Pierce “in approximately 1994,” and the abuse began soon afterward, the lawsuit says.

“During a voice coaching session, Pierce reached into [the second plaintiff’s] pants and touched his genitals. Pierce told [him] he was showing him how to ‘sing from his diaphragm,’” the suit states.

Pierce repeatedly measured the second plaintiff’s penis, asked him sexually explicit questions and had him masturbate as Pierce ogled him or masturbated, the suit states. Sometimes Pierce brought beer with him on the trips to the Saline River, the suit states.

Pierce showed the second plaintiff pornographic videos and once took him to a store “to purchase a synthetic vagina,” later taking him to his home and instructing him “to perform sexual intercourse on the synthetic vagina while Pierce watched,” the suit states.

Grant has announced his retirement, and his retirement party is scheduled for Feb. 25, according to the church’s website.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with 13.2 million members, including 391,092 Arkansas members in 2022, according to Lifeway Christian Resources’ annual church profile.

First Baptist Church in Benton is one of the state’s largest Southern Baptist congregations, with average attendance of 850 and total membership of 2,207, according to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention’s 2022 annual report.

Grant declined to comment on the lawsuit, but he forwarded the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette a statement from the church.

“Last Wednesday, January 24, we were made aware of a civil lawsuit that was filed earlier that day in Pulaski County regarding convicted abuser David Pierce with respect to his actions from over 15 years ago,” the church said in the statement.

“Mr. Pierce was terminated from his employment, had no further involvement with the Church, and was subsequently prosecuted and convicted of his crimes. Mr. Pierce served a sentence in the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Our membership was made aware in 2009 of the investigation concerning his actions. Opportunities were made to provide licensed counseling, free of charge, to any affected individual needing such services, and which counseling would be provided by counselors who were not employed by the Church.

“Last year, we were made aware of the potential for a civil lawsuit. In April 2023, our Senior Pastor, from the pulpit, made our membership aware of the potential civil litigation. The church family was made aware of the actual filing of the lawsuit this past Sunday, January 28th.

“The church will continue to cooperate with any investigation regarding the allegations made in this lawsuit, and will work with its legal counsel to respond appropriately to the lawsuit.

“It is our hope and prayer that those victimized by Mr. Pierce’s actions can be healed and comforted.” The Arkansas Baptist State Convention and the Central Baptist Association both declined to comment.

A spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee said officials there would be prepared to comment once a copy of the suit had been received.

First Baptist Church in Benton is the latest congregation to face litigation related to accusations of sexual abuse.

A suit was filed against Central Baptist Church in Magnolia and its former youth pastor, Kenneth Travis Jewell, on Jan. 10.

Each Southern Baptist church is an “autonomous local congregation of baptized believers,” according to the Baptist Faith and Message.

But there is a “clear financial relationship” between regional, state and national Southern Baptist bodies, the lawsuit states.

In addition, the larger organizations “exercise authority and control over their local member churches,” the suit alleges, pointing to the national convention’s ability to root out churches with female pastors or that have an “inclusive approach to membership” for congregants who are not heterosexuals.

“The actions and failures to act of SBC, State, Central, and First Benton all worked in unison to create a culture of sexual abuse and misconduct which directly resulted in the sexual abuse” of the plaintiffs.

Mary Liu, a partner with the Florida firm, said the plaintiffs in the case suffered “heinous harm.”

“The church was trusted to protect our clients, then minors under their care,” she said in an email. “The defendants violated this trust when they failed to properly supervise Pierce and allowed him access to vulnerable minors.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misquoted attorney Mary Liu. 

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