A McCracken County, Kentucky, mother thought allowing her home-schooled twin teenage daughters to become involved in their local church was a safe social activity in 2012. Sadly, Laura Lambert of Heath, a house cleaner and adult caregiver, found the Milburn Chapel Cumberland Presbyterian Church was not a safe harbor, but a quiet haven for adult sexual predators.
Lambert only learned of the facts in the case after her granddaughter was born in the spring of 2015, a child fathered by the church’s youth minister. She also learned the church pastor had engineered a cover-up. After she went to police, Youth Minister Michael Parsons and Elder Fred Daack were arrested and indicted and eventually pleaded guilty to felonies. But all Lambert got from the church was a wall of silence. In fact, the church had tried to pressure her daughter to publicly disavow that the church was responsible.
Out of growing frustration, Lambert consulted our firm, the Bryant Law Center, in Paducah, Kentucky. I, Mark Bryant, Emily Roark and my son, David Bryant, a lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky, listened to her incredulous and sordid story during a lengthy interview. Not precisely sure just what had gone on, our small Paducah law firm nevertheless agreed to take the case and launched an investigation. We downloaded hundreds of church documents we found on line. We ordered copies of church governance manuals. We obtained thousands of pages of social media messaging from the police investigations.
What Emily, David and I uncovered during our inquiry turned out to be a story stranger than fiction. The youth minister who fathered the child was the church pastor’s son in law. We learned concerned congregants had printed out dozens of pornographic messages a church elder sent to one of the young girls, which the pastor not only ignored but ordered them taken off line and destroyed. We learned also that neither the church nor its parent denomination had adopted safe sanctuary policies required by the general assembly; that adults were freely allowed to privately message children on social media; that adults freely consorted after hours with children alone in the church or in church vehicles or at their homes; that there were no security cameras anywhere in the church; that a church camp administrator ignored one of the victims reporting she had received inappropriate text messages from her youth pastor, and that the church governing board failed to discuss sensitive personnel issues, even when members knew or had heard of such behavior. Even with all of this knowledge, the church failed to act.
Emily, David and I also made multiple visits to the girls’ home and got to know them and their family.
After a detailed review of the church’s governance structure and reading dozens of court cases involving church lawsuits, we were able to establish a theory of liability leading to the very top of the denomination, which has approximately 74,000 members in 709 churches in 23 states and is headquartered outside of Memphis, Tennessee. On behalf of the girls, we filed a civil suit in McCracken Circuit Court in the fall of 2015 against multiple parties including the local church and pastor, the regional presbytery, the larger multi-state governing synod, and the national denomination’s headquarters.
Dozens of depositions were taken, sometimes a dozen attorneys, insurance adjusters and church officials crammed into a room. We deposed ministers, church elders, administrators, and executives in upper church management. We deposed our clients, who never faltered during grueling day-long depositions. We hired nationally known experts, including the grandson of Billy Graham – a law school professor and former child sex abuse prosecutor – and a renowned child psychologist from Arizona. We retained private counsel with specific expertise in the structure of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and also retained advisory council to interpret the tapestry of multiple insurance policies, riders and different carriers.
We hired forensic economists. We amassed scores of discovery binders. The youth pastor and elder had sent thousands of pages of Facebook messages to our clients.
Through it all, we never lost sight of the fact that this church – even after it became aware of the conduct and behavior – not once ever apologized, nor offered to help to defray the cost of rearing the child the youth minister had fathered or assist with day care or food or supplies. Moreover, the church had attempted to publicly shame Rebekah, the girl who bore the child, by humiliating her in a public meeting in an attempt to make her deny that the youth pastor had not fathered her daughter.
The months that followed were busy. Dozens of additional pleadings were filed, depositions continued and additional defendants and causes of action were added.
The case moved slowly because of the reluctance of the multiple defendants and insurance carriers to acknowledge liability. Emily, David and I sent numerous demand letters to the insurance carriers seeking to initiate a settlement dialog but were left with no response. At this point in mid-2016, the only option was a looming trial.
Finally, in November 2016, multiple insurance company representatives, defendants and attorneys came to our firm to commence a court-ordered mediation. At the time, there were about fifteen attorneys and insurance executives in our office building crammed into their separate rooms. Emily, David, and I along with our support staff spent weeks preparing for the mediation of this complex case.
At the end of a marathon mediation session, which nearly fell apart, a settlement was negotiated and agreed upon.
Outraged by what we learned transpired in the local church, dissident members of the congregation sought and won election to the church governing board. Those members quickly informed the church hierarchy of what had occurred at the McCracken County Church and the regional and national denomination initiated an investigation and held hearings. Ultimately, the pastor, Doug Hughes, announced an early resignation and the local church adopted comprehensive policies to protect the children under its care.
Taking on a national church organization and its legal counsel and insurance carriers is not for the timid. Many similar suits are dismissed because of the difficulty in negotiating the legal nuances of religious doctrine and freedoms and the overlay of secular law.
During the case preparation, both girls matured and gained confidence, self-worth, and an ambition to further their lives. We had them continue counseling to cope with their experience. Our goal was to help them as much as possible in order to get their mind off of what had been done to them. We helped them learn valuable life skills such as opening a checking account and getting an apartment. Although simple, these were things they never knew how to do. We were able to take two very sheltered girls and expose them to a life they had never known.
Our lawyers had taken this case to heart and ended it with a great sense of accomplishment. Both girls left our office with two-year-old Sophia, knowing that out of something terrible, something good had come. And the three of us, Emily, David and I were happy knowing that the system had worked.
From humble beginnings in Paducah, Mark Bryant has risen to become one of the best known trial attorneys in Western Kentucky. He is described in a front page article in the Los Angeles Times as “a former prosecutor with a swashbuckling style that charms juries.” Under his leadership, the Bryant Law Center has won national class action cases, derailment actions against major railroads, and courtroom victories and major settlements for clients who suffered brain damage or catastrophic injury and wrongful death. Gradually, the focus of Mr. Bryant’s practice evolved and he now focuses upon civil personal injury, class action litigation and wrongful death litigation on behalf of victims, and criminal defense. Mark Bryant has practiced in his hometown of Paducah, Kentucky, since graduating from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1973. Mark and his wife, Sue, have three children and live in in Paducah, Kentucky. Jennifer is a district judge in Louisville, Kentucky, Jeff is a long time employee of Walt Disney Company in Orlando, Florida, and David is a plaintiff attorney in Louisville, Kentucky. Mark and Sue are proud grandparents of four gorgeous grandchildren. Mr. Bryant is a Fellow of the Litigation Counsel of America.
David Bryant, who comes from a family of attorneys, began his legal career in Lexington, Kentucky, with nationally recognized Plaintiff’s attorney, Gary C. Johnson. He relocated to Louisville in August 2008 and joined a prominent plaintiffs’ firm where his practice focused primarily on protecting the interests of injured individuals, their loved ones, and small businesses. Included in his diverse group of clients were victims of asbestos exposure, toxic chemical exposure, corporate fraud, nursing home abuse, trucking industry negligence and medical malpractice. Since then, David has expanded his practice to representing victims of defective medical and pharmaceutical products, including transvaginal mesh, Actos, and SSRI antidepressants. David resides in the Highlands with his wife, Kelly, and is an avid UK football and basketball fan. He also enjoys golf, snow skiing and traveling to near and far places.
Emily Ward Roark began her legal career at the Bryant Law Center in 2000. She is a graduate of Centre College and University of Kentucky College of Law. She began her law career with a primary focus in criminal defense work, and has since focused on civil work, class actions, and mass torts cases. She is highly praised for her knowledge and honesty in the court room. “That Emily takes a place in passing my test… If I were in the trenches, bullets flying, artillery shells landing nearby, and the Huns were coming across the fields to kill me by rifle and bayonet, she would be my pick for the one I would want standing beside me. Others are known to run,” said Albert Jones, former U.S. Attorney, Mayor of Paducah, Commonwealth's Attorney and special agent of the FBI and presently of counsel to the Bryant Law Center. Emily says what makes her job worth while is helping someone who is has been through a horrible injustice, and helping to change that person’s fate. Emily is from Benton, Kentucky and enjoys spending time working out, volunteering with the Starfish Orphan Ministries, and spending time with her husband Joe and 6 year old son.