CASTLETON — In light of media attention, a local church is standing by its decision to hire its current pastor, who has a criminal record, without first conducting a background check.
John Longaker, 63, became the pastor of the Fellowship Bible Church in 2010.
According to a 1998 article published in The Morning Call, a daily newspaper based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in January of that year Longaker pleaded guilty in Bucks County (Pennsylvania) Court to corruption of a minor and endangering the welfare of a child. He was sentenced to serve 11½ to 23 months in county prison.
According to the Allentown paper, Longaker had been working as a teacher at Faith Baptist Christian School in Sellersville, Pennsylvania. He was accused of having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old student there. When he was first charged, he faced the two misdemeanors he ultimately pleaded guilty to, plus two felony sex charges — involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and aggravated indecent assault. The paper reported that because the alleged sexually activity did not occur until after the student turned 16, which at the time was age of consent in Pennsylvania, the two felonies were dropped.
In an interview on Wednesday at the church, Longaker denied ever having had sex with the girl, saying that in hindsight he should not have pleaded guilty to the two misdemeanors. He spent 11½ months in prison and the rest of the sentence on probation. He was never required to register as a sex offender.
Kelly Haines, the then-14-year-old in question, has been vocal about what happened between her and Longaker and says his refusal to take responsibility for his actions is a problem.
On Jan. 17, the Burlington Free Press posted to its website a piece on Longaker’s past and how he came to be pastor at the church. The article was published some months after a blogger spoke to Haines and published her story.
Choosing a pastor
“My wife and I moved up here in 2001 and started coming to the church shortly after that,” Longaker told the Herald. “I was just a regular attender. It got to the point where the pastor at the time needed somebody to teach adult Sunday school so he asked me to do it, and I started teaching adult Sunday School. That was probably late 2002.”
He said at that time, the church’s governing structure featured an advisory board consisting of three or four people who would advise the pastor, and when necessary conduct the hiring process for a new one. Longaker said he joined the advisory board sometime around 2005.
Don Wood, an elder of the Fellowship Bible Church, said Wednesday, while sitting for the interview with Longaker, that the church is non-denominational, meaning it operates independently of any outside governing structure and has to find its own pastors. It doesn’t get them assigned as with other denominations.
Wood said the search committee had whittled the list of candidates for pastor down to a handful of people before three or four members of the congregation suggested, independently of one another, that Longaker be chosen.
“We didn’t think it was necessary to do a background check on John,” Wood said. “Had we not known him, yes, most definitely.”
Wood said he’s not sure that knowing of Longaker’s court record would have changed their minds.
“As far as I’m concerned, had I known what John’s background was, as a committee we’d have gone and talked to him about it, and he would’ve explained the situation as he has on numerous occasions to the elders and to the church, and we then would have to make a decision as to whether his background was detrimental to the church,” Wood said. “And I can’t speak for anybody else, but I don’t believe it would have made a difference to me.”
Longaker said he refused the offer twice.
“The third time seemed different to me,” he said. “For the first time, I felt that God was nudging me to do this, and so I went home and talked to my wife about it. She begged me not to do it. She’s a pastor’s daughter and knew that aspect of it. We prayed about it and she started to come around to the possibility, but she pretty much insisted she didn’t want me to talk to the church about what happened 20 years ago … 20 years ago as of then.”
He said his wife didn’t want him disclosing his past because they feared it would cause problems for their son, who was attending a Christian school at the time.
“I became pastor in 2010. Shortly after that, two or three, they were all women, had found this out and they came to talk to me about it, and I explained the situation to them and they were fine with it,” Longaker said. “I’m ashamed of the fact that I have a criminal record and I will take that shame to my grave, so I didn’t want to talk about it, it didn’t matter what job I had.”
Longaker said after the blog post about him was published, he told the congregation about it.
“I think it was the first Sunday in October, I told them,” he said. “It was after my sermon. I told them I wanted to speak to them after the sermon, so I spoke to them and told them. I didn’t go into detail, I gave them the bare bones of it, told them what the charges were, and if they wanted to talk to me about it in detail they could. And several people did. And I went into detail with them about what happened and what didn’t happen.”
As far as he’s aware, only one family left the church because of his history.
“This particular family, the mother was the one who went on Facebook about me and started all the Facebook thing around here on me, so they naturally left the church, and I think there are two other people who stopped coming, but they haven’t officially left. I still have hope that they’ll both come back,” he said.
Wood said church attendance ebbs and flows with the seasons, but between 80 and 100 people usually come out for Sunday services.
Longaker said those who do work with children through the church have had background checks done on them.
“As far as background checks are concerned, the implication on social media is that our children are open to anybody,” he said. “The reality is, I think with the exception of maybe one, our Sunday school teachers all have had background checks. They’ve not had background checks from us. Most of them work in a public school so they’ve had their background checks then. So they’ve had background checks.”
Longaker said with few exceptions he’s been careful not to counsel teenagers or woman alone.
“With the exception of one, I talked to one teenager, she’s 13, but her grandmother was out in the hallway. That has always been my policy. I don’t counsel women alone, unless they happen to pop in with an emergency, then I’ll counsel women alone. I’m not going through that again, so I make it a point not to do it,” he said.
He and Wood said they plan to install cameras in the pastor’s office and in other places around the church.
Longaker said he’s offered to resign several times now to spare the church embarrassment, since he holds no hope for his own reputation.
“You have to understand, he has been forgiven by somebody, none of us can forgive him, he has to be forgiven by God only,” Wood said. “God has already forgiven him. God appointed him to be here, and I said this, and I’ll say it again, God is the only one who’s going to remove him. He’ll do it in a variety of ways if he so feels that’s the way to go.”
Haines said Wednesday in a phone interview that five or six years ago she searched Longaker’s name on Google and discovered he was now the pastor at the Fellowship Bible Church.
“I was extremely distraught, I knew what kind of person he was, what he was convicted of, and I just didn’t feel that being a pastor was an appropriate position for him,” she said. “So I reached out to the pastor before him and asked for some members I could send the Morning Call articles to, and he gave me 10 people within the church, and I sent them the articles with a very short message that said ‘FYI, wasn’t sure if you were aware of this,’ with my name, my email, and my contact information. That was it.”
She said with the exception of one email whose authorship she wasn’t able to verify, she didn’t hear back from anyone in the church. Haines said the email was “nasty,” and contained personal information about her she doesn’t think anyone but Longaker, or someone he’d spoken to about her, would’ve known.
Wood said Thursday he’s aware of the email, but doesn’t know anyone in the congregation who might’ve sent it.
“At this point, I just want the community to be aware,” Haines said. “I don’t care about him or his church or what happens to it, I’m worried these people are going to go into this church and are unaware there is a convicted pastor at the pulpit.”
Haines said she had seen Longaker at Faith Baptist Christian School in her seventh year there, but didn’t get to know him until she was in the ninth grade. She said she’d seen him act as a mentor and counselor to others and approached him about her eating disorder and self-harm issues. She said he would touch her on non-sexual places like her back, but after she turned 16 they began having sexual contact.
Their relationship essentially ended when she went to college and he left the state for another job. In the summer after her first year away, she and Longaker agreed to meet for a week.
“I went out for a week to visit him, and while I was out there I noticed his behavior was very similar with the girls he was teaching, as it was with me, and so I talked to him about it. He said I was overreacting, that there was nothing, and I just knew it wasn’t,” she said. “... so I basically just told him that if he doesn’t want to be with me anymore, I mean, he’s been with me for so long I kind of looked at him like a father figure, and if he didn’t want to be with me anymore, then I didn’t want to live.”
She then disclosed the relationship with Longaker to a friend, who reported it to their church, which is how it came to the attention of police.
According to an affidavit of probable cause filed by Detective Robert A. Tegge Jr., of the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office, investigators spoke to three pastors who said Longaker admitted to the three of them, after being confronted, that he’d had sexual contact with the girl.
Longaker said he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charges because he was told he’d likely only serve probation if he did. He feared getting a more severe sentence if he went to trial and lost.
“I lost a year with my son and my wife,” he said. “Nobody seems to talk about that.”
Haines said prosecutors had their own reasons for agreeing to the plea deal.
“The DA felt I was an unstable witness,” Haines said. “I was the only witness at the time, and putting me into a trial setting and having me get up on the stand because I was the only witness, to them was risky at best. We were approached with a plea deal and we accepted that plea deal as a way of eliminating any trial-type issues.”
Haines said in 2005 she’d just had her second child and was pregnant with her third. Between this and the post-traumatic stress disorder she says she suffers from being sexually abused, she’d been suffering paranoid delusions that Longaker was stalking her.
“I lived in this fear that I was being followed,” she said. “I will tell you it was an irrational fear. At the time it didn’t seem like that. It was a paranoid problem of the PTSD from the abuse and now I have my own little girls, and I was afraid I couldn’t protect them. I didn’t know what to do, I just wanted to be protected. So I went to the police and said, ‘Hey this guy’s following me around somehow.’”
She was charged with filing a false police report and pleaded guilty to it. Haines said she agreed to enter counseling, and any record of the case was expunged.
Longaker corroborated this, saying he proved to police through his EZ Pass records he’d never been near Haines. He said he’s had no contact with her since seeing her in court in 1998.
What happens now
“I believe his entire congregation has been given half truths and lies and are being fed his rhetoric, and Don Wood’s rhetoric,” Haines said. “If they really cared enough about this man to find out who he really is, somebody in that church would’ve reached out to me and said can we talk. And that has never happened. They don’t care about my side, they don’t care about listening to me or hearing it from me. They are taking his narrative.”
She said beside the blogs and the Free Press article, The Washington Post has also reached out to her for a story she says it’s doing on the larger issue of sexual abuse and church.
Longaker said the publicity has hurt him, his wife and their son psychologically. He said that for now he plans to remain at his post.
“I can’t tell you what I’m going to do in another year or two, but I’m going to stay,” he said. He said if he does leave, some arrangement will be made so the church won’t be without a pastor.