Lawsuit: First Baptist Canton 'Enabled' Sexual Abuse
The parents of one of the victims, who was 14 years old at the time he was abused, have filed a civil lawsuit in Cherokee County Superior Court.
First Baptist Canton allowed a fired employee with a history of suspected sexual misconduct against children to return to the church as a volunteer, a misstep that led to the sexual battery of a teenage boy, the parents of the alleged victim claim in a civil suit.
The boy's parents are suing the church, senior pastor George Anderson and former church employee Shawn Finch, alleging that they not only failed to properly supervise the volunteer and the children in their care, but tried to "downplay" the abuse in a meeting at the church.
A Cherokee County grand jury in April 2011 indicted the volunteer, 29-year-old Matthew Brent Sheffield of Canton, in the alleged June 2010 sexual battery of the boy, who was 14 years old at the time. Sheffield, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, faces two felony counts of child molestation.
Patch does not name victims of sex crimes. To protect the alleged victim's identity, Patch is not naming his parents, who are represented by Woodstock attorney Channing Ruskell. Ruskell and the church's senior pastor could not be reached for comment.
According to the suit, which was filed Aug. 1 in Cherokee County Superior Court, Sheffield supervised children as a First Baptist employee, and was a Cherokee County School District substitute teacher.
Though court documents don't specify a precise time, at some point, the parents of "male students who attended Cherokee High School" met with church officials and reported that their children had received "sexually explicit text messages from Defendant Sheffield." They also said Sheffield made "sexually suggestive remarks to male students."
While the church's pastor and Finch urged Sheffield to discontinue the texts, they never notified the Cherokee County School District of the allegations. Sheffield was only relieved of his subsitute duties after parents notified school officials of the texts.
He was later fired from First Baptist Church for "insubordination" after officials learned that Cherokee High students continued to receive texts from Sheffield. Despite his termination, he returned months later as a volunteer to run First Baptist's sound system.
In 2010, he was operating the sound system for First Baptist's Bible School, a program that brought Sheffield in contact with children.
"It was at that time that Defendant Sheffield initiated actions that led to his sexually abusing the Plaintiffs' minor child by sending him text messages and making inappropriate remarks to the minor child," according to the civil suit.
During the program's June 14, 2010, session, Sheffield allegedly sexually abused the couple's child and the boy refused to return to Bible School.
According to the April 2011 indictment, Sheffield placed "his hand on the thigh and leg of the said child and did rub the said child's leg, with the intent to arouse and satisfy the sexual desires of the said accused and child." He also "touched the buttocks of the said child."
Unaware of the abuse at the time, the boy's parents paid for him to accompany First Baptist on an out-of-state trip to the beach one week later.
Sheffield was allowed on the trip to Florida.
"It was during this time that Defendant Sheffield again committed sexual battery upon Plaintiffs' minor child who reported the matter to his sister and his mother," according to the civil suit. "The incident was reported to law enforcement by the child's father."
When contacted by authorities, the parents said Finch, now an associate pastor and minister to students at Woodridge Baptist Church in Kingwood, Texas, "failed to report ... Sheffield's past sexual abuse of children."
Instead, he "attempted to cover for Sheffield by portraying to officers that Plaintiffs' child was an unruly youth ... not worthy of belief."
The suit spells out other attempts to cover up the alleged abuse.
In one instance, First Baptist rented Sheffield a car "so he could get away before Plaintiffs were able to get to Florida to pick up their child."
And during a meeting at First Baptist, Anderson allegedly "attempted to downplay the abuse that occurred on the trip to the beach, indicating that the matter was closed."
The matter wasn't closed.
In August 2010, Sheffield was arrested. He was indicted eight months later. The criminal case is pending.
And, according to the suit, the family of another boy who attended youth programs at First Baptist came forward and accused Sheffield of offering "to pay the grandson $50 to give Sheffield a 'blow job.' "
It's not clear if the family reported that accusation to local law enforcement.
The parents of the 14-year-old boy, who has had to seek medical and psychological treatment, are seeking damages and attorney's fees.
"Had Defendant First Baptist, Defendant Dr. George Anderson and Defendant Shawn Finch not been negligent in managing the risk posed to children by persons, such as Sheffield, who have a sexual interest in children," according to the civil suit, "(they) would have prevented other children, including the Plaintiffs' minor child from being sexually battered by Sheffield."
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