LAWSUIT: Program assistant at Midlands church accused of sexual abuse of minor

Published: Oct. 14, 2017 at 2:48 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 16, 2017 at 8:12 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A civil suit filed this week in Richland County 5th Judicial Circuit alleges that a 17-year-old was sexually abused over several years by a First Baptist Church of Columbia volunteer.

In the litigation filed on Oct. 10, a minor referred to as Joel Doe, and his parents, Jane and John Doe, are suing First Baptist Church, the pastor, Wendell Estep, youth assistant mentor and assistant small group leader Andrew McCraw, and church student minister Phillip Turner in a sexual abuse accusation.

The suit claims that McCraw had inappropriate contact and communications with Joel Doe, which included sexually-explicit text messages and social media communications, dinners alone, and sleepovers where no other children or adults were present.

Furthermore, the suit alleges that Estep and Turner knew about the abuse but did nothing about it, failing in their duty to report the abuse.

The alleged abuse began when Joel Doe was 11 years old and first placed into a small group led by McCraw that met each Sunday night. Since then, the suit alleges that McCraw began and continued to sexually pursue Joel Doe by sending explicit text messages and Snapchats asking for nude images of the minor.

First Baptist Church of Columbia released the following statement through a spokesperson on October 14 in response to the news of the suit.

"Last fall First Baptist Church became aware of allegations of inappropriate conduct by an unpaid volunteer in the student ministries department.

As church policy dictates, the appropriate committee investigated. The committee concluded the volunteer violated church policies.

Disciplinary action was taken. The volunteer no longer attends First Baptist Church and was prohibited from further contact with our students.

The student making the allegations filed a lawsuit Tuesday.

Church lawyers advise against further public comment at this time."

McCraw is accused of inappropriate contact with Joel Doe that took place on and off church premises, including private dinners and going to movies.

During the period of abuse, the suit says that Joel Doe was the only invitee of a sleepover at McCraw's home, wherein they slept in the same bed together. The suit also says that Turner had previously reprimanded McCraw against having sleepovers with kids and no other adults present.

"Defendants First Baptist, Estep, and Turner knew or reasonably should have known that Defendant McCraw was spending inordinate amounts of unsupervised time with Joes Doe outside of the structured and supervised church environment," the lawsuit proclaims.

Some of the many text messages from McCraw to Joel Doe were graphic, but some of them read:

  • Aug. 1, 2016: "I wish we were the same age."
  • Aug. 1, 2016: "We can't be friends. Goodbye...There is only one remedy to this dilemma...Mirror nude."
  • Aug. 12, 2016: "Wanna have a slumber party?"

In 2016, McCraw began accessing Joel Doe's Snapchat account. It was around this time that McCraw began allegedly professing his love for the teen.

The lawsuit claims McCraw admitted this to Joel Doe by saying, "Yes, I've been logging into your snapchat. I'm sorry for the lies. And I'm sorry for whatever you're feeling right now."

After Joel Doe confronted McCraw about accessing his Snapchat account, McCraw admitted to Estep and Turner that he done so. Both men were then told about McCraw's sexually explicit messages to the teen. It is then claimed that the church did nothing about the inappropriate conduct and it was not reported to law enforcement.

"In fact, the church defendants (Estep and Turner) failed to fulfill this statutory duty despite their knowledge and/or awareness that Defendant McCraw was invoking his constitutional right to remain silent," the suit alleges.

You can read the full lawsuit here (WARNING: Graphic language is in the lawsuit): 

Joel Doe and his parents are also requesting the unsealing of previous sex abuse cases involving First Baptist Church of Columbia and Estep, documented in the court system, to be used as evidence in their claim. The Richland Co. 5th Judicial Public Index lists three other such claims.

The lawsuit states that Estep has resigned from his role as pastor at the church, but it is unclear if he retired due to the litigation. He is still listed as the pastor on the church's website.

The family is seeking damages for the emotional distress of Joel Doe, presumed to be a statutory minimum of $150,000.

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