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Church led by SBC candidate Clint Pressley reports volunteer to police for alleged abuse

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(RNS) — A volunteer at Hickory Grove Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch in Charlotte, North Carolina, was arrested last month after church leaders learned he had been accused of sexual abuse by a student at the church’s Christian school.

The student had told church officials in April that her father, Jeffrey Riesenberg, who had volunteered with the church’s student ministry for a decade and had coached in its recreation program, had assaulted her. She said had not told other family members about the alleged abuse.

 “Administration officials immediately reported this disclosure to Child Protective Services, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police were dispatched to begin an investigation,” Hickory Grove pastor Clint Pressley, currently a candidate for president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told church members in a letter dated early May.

Riesenberg was arrested and charged May 9 by the Union County Sheriff’s Office with two counts of alleged abuse, according to a daily bulletin published by the Sheriff’s Department.

The student and her family are well-loved in the congregation, according to Hickory Grove Executive Pastor Steve Adams, who said the church was trying to care for them in a horrible situation.

Church leaders felt it was important to tell the congregation what happened, said Adams.

“While these alleged criminal acts did not occur at Hickory Grove Baptist Church (HGBC), HGCS or in Mecklenburg County, we are notifying you because Riesenberg previously volunteered in our Harris Campus Student Ministry from 2011-2021 and Recreation Ministry from 2014-2017,” Pressley told church members. “We are further notifying families of children who may have interacted with Riesenberg in these ministries.”



In his letter, Pressley outlined the church’s policies about abuse, saying that all allegations of child abuse “are immediately reported to appropriate law enforcement and child protection authorities, regardless of the passage of time.” Pressley also said the church also sexual abuse prevention training and told church members how to sign up for it.

Pressey is one of six pastors running to be president of the SBC, whose annual meeting begins Tuesday (June 11) in Indianapolis. The meeting will focus in part on the SBC’s continuing attempts to address sexual abuse in its member churches.

 “We do not tolerate abusive behavior of any kind,” said Pressley in his letter. “Sexual abuse is especially heinous.  It is a despicable injustice that we condemn in the strongest terms. Any victim should feel they can talk about it, freely report, and be listened to and cared for.”  

A series of reforms passed at the SBC’s annual meetings in recent years have stalled. A national task force charged with implementing those reforms is set to disband next week, with several of its most important tasks left incomplete. Task force leaders said in a report last week that progress has been made on a local level, with churches becoming more aware of the need to take abuse prevention seriously and more likely to know what to do when abuse happens.

Pressley is not the first SBC presidential candidate to deal with the issue of abuse in his own congregation. In 2022, Florida pastor Willy Rice, then a leading candidate, dropped out of the race after news broke that a deacon at his church had a history of “sexual sin that could also be described as abusive.” Rice recently claimed that concern over abuse was overblown and that the abuse crisis had been “hijacked” by liberal activists.

An SBC pastor in Arkansas resigned earlier this year after months of controversy over alleged abuse at a prominent Little Rock church. In that case, a former staffer was arrested for alleged abuse but church leaders did not inform the congregation for years.





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