OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Before becoming a leading voice for conservative causes on Capitol Hill, US 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 through 12 each year.
The Republican legislature’s tenure in the camp is a prominent feature of its political profile, stated in the first paragraph of its official Senate biography† That experience is also being re-examined as the Southern Baptist Convention, which is affiliated with the group that owns the camp, faced with a bill on the handling of cases of sexual abuse.
In 2009, while Lankford was working in the camp, the family of a 13-year-old girl sued a 15-year-old boy for allegedly having sex with her in the camp. Lankford, who was not in Congress at the time, is said to have had no direct knowledge of the alleged attack, has not been charged with any wrongdoing and was not a defendant in the lawsuit, which was settled for an undisclosed amount before it was scheduled. to go to court.
But in a 2010 statement in the case, given a week after he was elected to his first term in the U.S. House, Lankford testified that he believed a 13-year-old could consent to sex.
“Yes, 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 while there is an exception in the law for minors between the ages of 14 and 17 having sexual contact, there is no provision allowing a 13-year-old to consent to sex. When Bethea insisted that his answer was still the same “if I ask you that question in terms of your position as a father,” Lankford stuck to his stance.
“Yes, they can,” he said.
Among additional questions about whether he would allow his two daughters to consent to sex at age 13, Lankford gave a more comprehensive answer.
“No, I wouldn’t encourage that at all,” he said. ‘Could she make that choice? I hope she wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t encourage that in my own daughter in any way.”
It is unclear whether Lankford, who has had no formal legal training, was aware of the legal minimum age at the time of his deposition. It is also uncertain whether criminal charges have been brought against the 15-year-old boy. Phone messages left with Murray County District Attorney Craig Ladd went unanswered.
The testimony is surfacing ahead of Tuesday’s primary for the GOP Senate nomination, which could allow Lankford to seek a new term. After early concerns that he could be? vulnerable to a challenge from the right, he is going into the election with a strong position. The primary winner will enter the fall general election as the overwhelming favorite in this deeply Republican state.
Aly Beley, a spokeswoman for Lankford’s reelection campaign, declined to comment on this story.
The revelation of Lankford’s testimony comes at a difficult time for the Southern Baptist Convention.
A damning investigative report, conducted by an independent company, found top SBC leaders antagonized and denigrated survivors of clergy sexual abuse while trying to protect their own reputation. In response to this, the SBC voted overwhelmingly earlier this month to create a way to track down pastors and other church employees credibly accused of sexual abuse and to create a task force to oversee further reforms in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. country.
This isn’t the first case of alleged assault at Falls Creek, a 400-acre campground in the Arbuckle Mountains. The camp is owned by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, which is 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. Petty, who was a cook at the camp, tied a rope around the girl’s wrists, raped her and threatened to hurt her if she told anyone, investigators said. Petty was eventually sentenced to probation in the case, and a civil case filed by the girl’s family against the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. The terms of the settlement have not been disclosed.
Lankford was no longer working at the camp when the attack took place.
Court records show that Rev. Lori Walke, a lawyer and senior minister of the Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, served as guardian ad litem for the Texas girl during the civil case. Walke declined to discuss details of the case, but said she went to Falls Creek as a young girl and was deeply concerned about the operation of the camp.
“Even as a kid, you recognize some things that don’t feel right,” Walke said. “This real obsession with purity culture is overwhelming. The rules around clothing, especially for girls, were just obsessed with it.”
“And then, the real lack of oversight, in general, in all other matters,” she added. “It was definitely due to the fact that there just aren’t enough adults around.”
Oklahoma Baptists have not responded to questions about how many sexual misconduct cases have been settled in Falls Creek. In a statement, Executive Director-Treasurer Todd Fisher said the recent vote to approve the recommendations of the SBC task force will bring about necessary national reforms.
“I am grateful that the Oklahoma Baptists have already taken important steps to prevent abuse in Oklahoma by implementing some best practices in all areas of our ministries, including our camps,” Fisher said.
Oklahoma Baptists spokesman Brian Hobbs said some of those Falls Creek best practices required background checks for everyone 18 and older, increased security, professionally developed safety training for all camp personnel and church leaders bringing groups to camp, and protocols for reporting incidents. abuse or suspected abuse.
During his statement, Lankford said he had no problem sending his daughters to the camp, even when he was not present, although he acknowledged that supervision was not perfect.
“I know our adults look after our children, but of course I can’t guess for every adult how they will handle it,” Lankford said.