Oklahoma City ( Associated Press) — Before becoming a leading voice for conservative causes on Capitol Hill, U.S. Senator James Lankford Spent more than a decade as director of youth programming at the Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center, a sprawling campground about 80 miles south of Oklahoma City that attracts more than 50,000 campers in grades six to 12 each year. Is.
The Republican lawmaker’s tenure in the camp is a prominent feature of his political profile, noted in the first paragraph of his official Senate biography., That experience is also coming under renewed scrutiny as the Southern Baptist Convention, which is affiliated with the group that owns the camp, faces a reckoning. About dealing with cases of sexual abuse.
In 2009, while Lankford worked at the camp, the family of a 13-year-old girl sued a 15-year-old boy who was accused of having sex with her at the camp. Lankford, who was not in Congress at the time, is accused of having no direct knowledge of the alleged assault, has not been charged with any wrongdoing and was not a defendant in the trial, which was previously settled for an undisclosed amount. it was done. Had to go for the test.
But in a 2010 statement on the case, a week after he was elected to his first term in the US House, Lankford testified that he believed a 13-year-old could consent to sex.
“Yeah, I think they can,” Lankford told Kenyatta Bethea, a lawyer for the girl’s family, according to a 155-page transcript of the statement obtained by The Associated Press.
The age of consent in Oklahoma is 16, and although there is an exception to the law for minors between the ages of 14 and 17 who have had sexual contact, there is no provision under which a 13-year-old can consent to sex. When Bethea insisted whether her answer was still the same “if I ask you that question in the context of your status as a father,” Lankford maintained her stance.
“Yes, they can,” he said.
Under additional inquiry about whether he would consent to sex with his two daughters at age 13, Lankford gave a more detailed answer.
“No, I wouldn’t encourage it at all,” he said. “Can she make that choice? I hope she doesn’t, but I wouldn’t encourage it in any way with my daughter.”
It is unclear whether Lankford, who has no formal legal training, was aware of the legal age of consent at the time of his statement. It is also uncertain whether any criminal charges were filed against the 15-year-old boy. Telephone messages left with Murray County District Attorney Craig Ladd were not returned.
Testimony is coming ahead of Tuesday’s primary for the GOP Senate nomination that will allow Lankford to seek another term. After initial concerns that he might be vulnerable to a challenge from the right, he enters the election in a strong position. The primary winner will go into the general election as the overwhelming favorite in this deeply Republican state.
Lankford’s re-election campaign spokeswoman Eli Belle declined to comment for this story.
The revelation of Lankford’s testimony comes at a difficult moment for the Southern Baptist Convention.
A scathing investigation report by an independent firm found that top SBC leaders stoned and defame survivors of the clergy’s sexual abuse while seeking to protect their reputations. In response, the SBC voted overwhelmingly earlier this month to create a way to track pastors and other church workers accused of sexual abuse and to launch a task force to oversee further reforms in the country’s largest Protestant denomination.
This is not the first case of alleged sexual assault at Falls Creek, a 400-acre campground in Arbuckle Mountain. The camp is owned by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, now called Oklahoma Baptists and is part of the SBC.
Benjamin Lawrence Petty pleaded guilty to raping a 13-year-old Texas girl in 2018 at the camp. According to investigators, Petti, the cook at the camp, tied a rope to the girl’s wrist, raped her and threatened to hurt her if she told anyone. Petty was eventually sentenced to probation in the case, and a civil case filed by the girl’s family. The agreement was made against the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
Lankford did not work in the camp when the attack happened.
Court records show that Rev. Lori Walke, an attorney and senior minister at the Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, acted as a guardian for the Texas girl during the civil case. Walke declined to talk about the details of the case, but said she attended Falls Creek as a young girl and has serious concerns about the operation of the camp.
“Even as a child, you recognize certain things that feel,” Walke said. “This real obsession with purity culture is overwhelming. Especially for girls, the clothing rules were just scrapped.”
“And then, in all other cases, generally speaking, there is a real lack of oversight,” she said. “It was entirely due to the fact that there aren’t enough adults around.”
Oklahoma Baptist did not answer questions about how many sexual misconduct cases have been settled in Falls Creek. In a statement, Executive Director-Treasurer Todd Fischer said the recent vote to approve the recommendations of the SBC’s task force would bring needed national reform.
“I am grateful that Oklahoma Baptists have already taken important steps to prevent abuse in Oklahoma, implementing many best practices in all areas of our ministries, including our camps,” Fisher said.
Brian Hobbs, spokesman for Oklahoma Baptists, said some of the best practices for Falls Creek include mandatory background checks for anyone age 18 and older, increased security, professionally developed protections for all camp staff and church leaders. Includes training, what brings the group to camp and protocols for reporting abuse or suspects. to abuse.
During his statement, Lankford said he had no problem sending his daughters to a camp they were not present in, although he acknowledged that the supervision was not perfect.
“I know our adults are watching for our kids, but the process of that, obviously I can’t predict for every adult how they’re going to handle it,” Lankford said.