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Children Barred From Florida Church Where Sex Offender Preaches
By Richard Luscombe
A Florida church has caused outrage by turning away children from its popular Sunday services to cater to a pastor who is a registered sex offender.
The decision to allow convicted child molester Darrell Gilyard into the pulpit has angered neighbouring pastors and members of the congregation of the Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist church in Jacksonville.
Gilyard, 49, is allowed no contact with minors under the terms of his release from a three-year jail sentence for abusing a 15-year-old girl at another church in 2009. As a result church leaders have made his services "adults only".
Parishioners claim security guards hired by the church have begun refusing admission to families with children, including a woman who tried to attend on Sunday with a two-year-old boy.
Instead, they say, children are directed to remain "off site" while Gilyard is preaching, and they accuse the church of dismantling its playground to keep them away.
Since Gilyard was hired last month, soon after his December release from jail, the church in Northside, one of Jacksonville's poorest, mostly black neighbourhoods, has become the scene of angry exchanges between protesters and his supporters.
A group of demonstrators calling itself the New Black Panther party clashed with churchgoers and promised to protest each time Gilyard led a service.
"We came because the children who we should be teaching and preaching cannot come out today," said Mikhail Muhammad, the group's leader.
"The black ministers in the city of Jacksonville ought to be ashamed of themselves. How can you say you're a follower of Christ but you won't stand up and speak out against this injustice?"
Despite the protests, the church appears to have benefited from Gilyard's notoriety. His first service in January drew an estimated 150 people, up from a regular attendance of only five to 10, with dozens attending the most recent service on Sunday.
Deacon Paul S Newman, chairman of the church ministry, said: "He was down on the ground, and the church was down on the ground, and we both needed to get up."
But fellow Baptist leaders have denounced Gilyard's appointment, saying he needs to apologise to his victims and the community before being allowed to preach to others.
"We love Mr Gilyard as a human being and have no personal animosity, but he is a very wicked sinner who has committed hideous crimes against women and children," said Pastor George Harvey of the nearby Mount Charity Baptist Church.
"Any minister who has done such evil should not be restored to the pulpit until his repentance is as notorious as his sin."
Before his conviction on two counts of molesting minors, Gilyard was a shining star in the Baptist community, having spent 14 years preaching to thousands at Jacksonville's Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.
One mentor hailed him as one of the "most brilliant men in the pulpit" and he was also once praised by the noted evangelical Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority movement, in his video The Darrell Gilyard Story, which chronicled his rise from a teenage orphan living on the streets.
But Gilyard, once a protege of Pastor Jerry Vines, a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was no stranger to controversy. He was formerly pastor of a church in Texas, but left in 1991 following allegations of sexual misconduct.
When charged with sex crimes in Florida in 2008, Rev Vines issued a statement saying that he had previously forgiven Gilyard for his problems in Texas but could no longer stand by him.
"I extended forgiveness and mercy to him and evidently he trampled upon them," Rev Vines wrote at the time.
"No minister, if guilty of sexual improprieties, especially with underage children, should ever be allowed to stand behind the sacred desk again. Let the truth be found and let justice be done."
In 2004, Gilyard admitted that he had fathered a child with a woman who had accused him of raping her during a counselling session, according to court records. Gilyard has not been charged with rape.
Gilyard's public comments have been few and he has refused to speak directly with journalists, slamming a door on a television crew that confronted him at the hotel where he resides near Jacksonville International Airport.
But in a statement sent by text message to the Florida Times Union newspaper this month he remained defiant.
"Somehow I will prove that life isn't over when one has committed a crime for which he receives this heinous label," he wrote. "You don't have to languish on the fringes of society."
In earlier comments he described his church comeback as "refreshing and invigorating" but revealed that he had initially declined the offer of work because he knew that it might create controversy.
"I was scared to death," he admitted, adding that his probation officer had cleared him to work there and that he was a man reformed. "I'm happy to have that dark part of my life over," he told the paper last month.
Nobody from the church was available for comment Tuesday and a call to Gilyard's lawyer was not immediately returned.
Roger Oldham, spokesman for the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has more than 16 million members in the US, said it was not empowered to step into the dispute.
"We have taken a strong position on the protection of children and believe it to be of paramount importance in a local church setting but have no authority over the actions of any individual church," he said.
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