Baptist Falls Creek church camp rape case ends with settlement
A lawsuit over the brutal rape of a girl at a Baptist church camp has been settled after operators agreed to take additional steps to improve the safety of youthful campers.
Terms of the settlement this summer were filed under seal and most remain confidential — including any payment to the victim. The safety changes to be made were not specified in public records.
Coming to light because of the lawsuit were repeated instances where churches ignored a directive to do criminal background checks on adults coming to the camp.
Also revealed were instances where churches brought along adults despite having performed background checks that showed felony convictions.
The rape occurred at Falls Creek, a picturesque Baptist church youth camp located in the Arbuckle Mountains in south-central Oklahoma. More than 50,000 individuals attend the church camp during a typical summer, with about 5,000 youth present at any given time, court records indicate.
Adults — including the middle-aged cook who tied up, raped and sodomized the victim — often were brought to the camp by churches without first obtaining a background check, the victim's attorneys stated in one court filing.
The girl was 13 at the time.
The lack of background checks by some churches occurred even though the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma had a policy of requiring churches to perform background checks on sponsors before attending.
Had church officials checked court records, they could have seen that the rapist — Benjamin Petty — had been put on probation in 2014 for drunken driving. Petty also was put on probation in 2000 for a municipal drug paraphernalia offense in Midwest City, according to an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation criminal history check.
It is unknown whether that information would have prompted church officials to exclude him from attending the camp.
Attorneys gathered the information they cited by sending subpoenas to 67 Oklahoma churches that had people in attendance at Falls Creek the week of the June 2016 rape.
The attorneys said about 15 churches provided "enlightening documents," seven churches ignored the subpoenas and 45 filed objections.
Country Estates Baptist Church of Midwest City, which brought the rapist, was among the churches that brought sponsors to camp without first performing background checks.
Some other churches brought adults to camp "despite background checks revealing immoral and dangerous criminal histories," attorneys wrote in the court filing.
One church brought a felon who had convictions for methamphetamine manufacturing and child endangerment. Another church brought a felon who had served time for two counts of first-degree manslaughter, the attorneys stated.
Only a fifth of the responding churches had any form of a child protection policy, attorneys told the court.
The Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma maintained a policy of leaving it up to churches to perform the background checks on people they brought and to determine what backgrounds should result in exclusion, the attorneys said.
The Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma was a defendant in the lawsuit, along with Country Estates Baptist Church of Midwest City and The First Baptist Church of Terrell, Texas.
The Texas church brought the victim to camp. That church did perform background checks and does not permit an adult with a criminal background to attend camp with youth, attorneys noted.
"While the BGCO purports to require that the individual churches run background checks on the adult sponsors, it makes clear that it does not want to see or know anything about the background checks performed," the victim's attorneys said in one court document.
They called that a "head-in-the-sand" approach to screening adults who would be working with children.
"We have changed a tremendous amount of things in the way we go about training and preparing our volunteers who work with children and youth," said Steve Holland, who joined Country Estates Baptist Church of Midwest City as its senior pastor after the rape incident. "I haven't even been here a year yet, but we've already started to make changes and adjustments in those areas.
"My heart breaks over this situation," Holland said. "I'm glad that we can come to a settlement and the victim and her family can hopefully move forward."
Holland said the confidential settlement agreement prevents him from discussing its terms, even with members of his own church.
The senior pastor of the Terrell, Texas, church was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Only one sentence in the settlement agreement is not confidential, according to the Ryan Whaley Coldiron Jantzen Peters & Webber PLLC law firm that represented the victim.
That sentence states: "Following this incident, the BGCO conducted a review of its policies and procedures and has recognized additional efforts to provide as safe environment as possible for campers visiting Falls Creek," The Okahoman was told.
The rape victim is glad to see the civil case resolved, her attorney, Bruce A. Robertson, said.
“We are glad the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of our client and her family, as they have suffered greatly from this event," Robertson said. "We are glad the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma conducted a review of its policies and has recognized additional efforts are needed to provide Falls Creek campers as safe an environment as possible. We hope they follow through and implement the needed changes.”
Brian Hobbs, communications director for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, provided a brief prepared statement about the settlement.
“We have prayed for a respectful resolution of this very serious matter," Hobbs said. "Looking to the future, we are continually working with churches to take every measure we can, to provide a safe environment where our campers can experience life with Jesus Christ. We are thankful that the ministry of Falls Creek continues forward to bless thousands of people in Oklahoma and across the region, for the glory of God.”
Hobbs said he is limited in what he can say because it is a legal matter.
The brutality of the rape and the way the case was resolved by a former Murray County prosecutor created a public outcry.
The rapist, now 37, of Oklahoma City, pleaded guilty in January to first-degree rape, forcible sodomy and rape by instrumentation.
Under the controversial negotiated plea agreement, Petty was sentenced to 15 years probation — but no prison time.
Public outrage ensued and David Pyle resigned abruptly as assistant district attorney.