A sex trafficking felony charge against a children’s minister has left a 4,000-member church reeling.
Jason Kennedy, 46, who joined Grace Baptist Church’s staff two and a half years ago, was arrested May 19 in Knoxville – one of 30-plus individuals charged in a four-day undercover sting operation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and local police.
The church posted a statement on its website May 20 that Kennedy had been terminated; that his background check had not shown any issues; that the church will be praying for Kennedy’s family; and that care and information will be provided “as we walk through this painful time together.”
Senior pastor Ron Stewart told a local TV station, “It’s sickening. There’s something in his past, evidently, and I’m not a psychologist, but I know from my experience as a pastor that the pain and hurt you had as a child sometimes comes out in strange ways as an adult.”
Kennedy, who is married and the father of three children, remained in a Knox County jail Monday, May 23, under $50,500 bail. An initial hearing is slated for May 31. Another minister, from nearby Oak Ridge, also was charged with felony sex trafficking in incidents that occurred within 1,000 feet of an unnamed church.
Photo from Knox County Sherriff’s Office
The Knoxville News Sentinel daily newspaper, citing Kennedy’s arrest warrant, reported that he replied by text to an online ad offering sex with two females, one of whom was described as being 15 years of age. Kennedy went to a local motel, placed a $100 fee on a counter, removed his pants and was then arrested.
Kennedy’s arrest comes at a time when the church is marking the 100th anniversary of its founding, according to the News Sentinel. Stewart had planned to retire next month but told the church May 22 he now will postpone those plans, according to a reporter with local TV station WLVT.
The reporter, who attended Sunday morning worship at Grace Baptist, recounted, “Pastor Stewart discussed the importance of relying on God in the midst of a storm. In his sermon Stewart said the church is hurting and that it feels betrayed. Stewart said he spoke with Kennedy’s wife, Sabrina. He said she just wants to ask Kennedy why he solicited minors for sex.” Stewart drew his message from the Matthew 8:23-26 passage about Jesus calming a storm that had terrified His disciples on the Sea of Galilee.
The reporter also recounted, “During the church service one of the church leaders announced that Grace Baptist will begin providing counseling to children and adults who are suffering from Kennedy’s actions.”
The full statement by the church follows:
“We are deeply saddened by the recent events affecting our church family. The children’s pastor of Grace Baptist Church has been terminated as a result of his arrest which is in violation of the statement of ethics that he signed and church standards of moral conduct.
“The actions of the children’s pastor for which he has been arrested were part of his life outside the church, and we have received no questions or concerns related to his conduct within the church or its ministries.
“The children’s pastor was hired two-and-a-half years ago. The church’s background check turned up no issues that indicate any previous problem. In fact, the children’s pastor in his application affirmed that he had no issues in his background of a criminal or other nature.
“We want to reassure our church family that we are committed to the safety and security of our members, and especially our children. Our security system includes 78 security cameras, electronic check-in, background checks of employees and volunteers, and security officers during gatherings at the church.
“We are praying for the children’s pastor’s family and will continue to provide the services of our ministry to them.
“We want to assure everyone that we will work to keep the church family together and continue to follow the vision God has given to our church.
“Please know that we will be available to care and provide information as we walk through this painful time together. We thank everyone for their faithfulness and extend our love to all of our church family.”
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation states on its website:
“– In the United States, on average, every two minutes, a child is bought or sold for sex.
“– The average age of a child sold for sex is 13 years old.
“– Human Trafficking is the second-fastest growing criminal industry, just behind Drug Trafficking.”
The Southern Baptist Convention has long advocated for the protection of children, adopting resolutions and offering a library of resources to assist churches in ministering to children in a safe environment.
Among resources are links to the LifeWay Christian Resources’ background checking service; the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website; tools from GuideStone Financial Resources; and a pastor’s search committee handbook. The SBC website also links to resources offered by the Alabama State Board of Missions, the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
SBC LIFE, the journal of the SBC Executive Committee, published the special report “Protecting Our Children: Accepting the Responsibility, Embracing the Privilege”, which offers testimonies from the abused and professionals working to protect them, biblical exhortation, statistics and legal help.
The SBC, set to hold its annual meeting June 14-15 in St. Louis, has adopted four resolutions pledging to protect children from abuse, most recently the 2013 resolution On Sexual Abuse of Children.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Art Toalston is senior editor of Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)