GREENWOOD, S.C. (ABP) — A Southern Baptist pastor in South Carolina urged his congregation not to rush to judgment following the Oct. 26 arrest of its associate pastor/minister of music on charges of committing a lewd act upon a 13-year-old girl.
Police in Greenwood, S.C., arrested Norman Henley Keesee, 57, after the mother of a girl who attends Emerald Baptist Church alerted authorities to allegations by her daughter that the minister touched her inappropriately during private keyboard lessons at both her home and on church property.
"As the pastor of the church, I am not here tonight to defend anyone's innocence nor to declare anyone's guilt," Pastor Curtis Eidson told church members and media attending the Wednesday night service Oct. 27. "It's not my place. I am here to say tonight, though, that with all that is going on Norman is still my brother in the Lord and the victim is still my sister in the Lord. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will change that."
Eidson said church leaders immediately placed Keesee on paid administrative leave pending outcome of the criminal proceedings against him.
"This is not an admission of our belief in his guilt or his innocence," Eidson said in a 15-minute audio statement archived on the church website. "This is a matter of the leadership of this church protecting Emerald Baptist Church."
Eidson said that "it burdens my heart" that the alleged crime occurred on his watch, but he discouraged church members from trying to decide what happened until all the facts are known or from being swayed one way or another by what is reported in the media.
"The church is not going to be the place for this hearing to be played out," he admonished church members. "We're not going to hold a court of public opinion in the sanctuary or on the church property. You are welcome to have your opinion. That is a right given to you as an American citizen — to your opinion. I simply ask that you refrain from expressing your opinion on the church property."
Eidson said he had met with both families and that neither desires for the scandal to harm the church. "Our church is at risk to be destroyed," he said. It's at that point, and I know that neither family wants that to happen to their church."
Eidson described the charges not only as criminal but also "a spiritual attack upon the house of God." He noted the irony that the news broke just a week after the South Carolina Baptist Convention recognized the congregation as a per-capita baptism leader in Lakelands Baptist Association.
"We can make a choice tonight and stay unified or we can allow all of this to divide us," he said. "As your pastor, I choose to take the road that is going to unify and make us even a stronger church on the other side."
Eidson said church leaders were committed to standing by both families. "If either family needs any kind of moral, financial or spiritual support, we stand here unified as leadership of this church to do whatever we can do for all parties involved," he pledged.
He said Keesee is not allowed on church property or to attend any church-related activities until the charges against him are settled in a court of law.
The pastor said the church is not looking for an outcome of either guilt or innocence but "simply looking for the truth."
"We will not enter into and be part of a he-said, she-said conversation around the church," he said. "There's absolutely no good whatsoever going to come out of that."
Eidson said if the congregation believed church leaders handled the situation poorly or that he didn't do enough as pastor to ensure the safety of children, they could request his resignation and he would comply.
"We wish the best for every person in this situation," he said. "Don't beat them down, pray them up."
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.