McGowan, Hood, Felder & Phillips, LLC, has filed two lawsuits against the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the South Carolina Baptist Convention, the Northside Baptist Church, and former youth pastor Michael D’Attoma on behalf of our clients, “Jane Doe One” and “Jane Doe Two.” The lawsuits seek damages from all parties for the abuse our client suffered, as well as the organizations’ complicity in covering up both the abuse and the reports.
These are the first lawsuits of their kind filed in South Carolina, but we believe there will be many, many more. At this time, the list of known sexual predators – SBC members who were charged and/or convicted of abuse – runs for 205 pages, and spans three countries. Many abusers on the list were from South Carolina – and these are just the people we know about.
If you were sexually abused, groomed, assaults, or physically and emotionally harmed by a member of the SBC or member church, McGowan, Hood, Felder & Phillips wants to hear your story.
About the original lawsuit we filed against the Southern Baptist Convention
Jane Doe was a minor – only 15 years old – when she attended Northside Baptist Church, where D’Attoma was a youth pastor between 2009 and 2012. During this time, the lawsuit alleges, D’Attoma “came to have access to, and to know, parishioners’ personal and confidential information.” Our client trusted D’Attoma, and believed she had his confidence. D’Attoma used this confidence and trust against our clients to groom her – a “gradual, calculated process that ensnares victims into a world in which they ultimately become a participant of the sexual abuse or reluctant to report sexual misconduct.”
But our client did report suspicious behavior that she witnessed between D’Attoma and another member of her youth group, in 2010. The leadership of the group ignored this report and advised our client to “stop talking about things that could hurt D’Attoma or his marriage.” Only one member of the leadership appeared to take her seriously, but that member did not appear to speak to anyone about our client’s concerns.
Meanwhile, D’Attoma and our client’s relationship began to change. Per the complaint, “there was a gradual shift in their communication that become more controlling, more demanding, and invasive.” D’Attoma demanded that our client text him first thing in the morning, and that she respond to any texts he sent throughout the day or night. By the time our client was 17 years old (in 2011), he started requesting video chats through the program Skype, and would ask our client to:
take off her shirt, bra, and other pieces of clothing so that he could see what he then described to be “a beautiful body turning into a woman.” [Our client] received messages from D’Attoma about her body and how much her liked her transitioning into a woman.
During this time, D’Attoma also started sending photos of himself in private with his shirt and pants off.
At this time in her life, [our client] had never received an explicit photo from anyone or been in any sexual situation. She was very inexperienced, naïve, and unaware of what these types of attention photos meant to an adult.
D’Attoma specifically asked [our client to] get nude on these Skype calls and in pictures sent from her phone. He was often angry when a photo [Doe] sent did not show her stomach or bra.
The texts got more sexually explicit over time. Eventually, D’Attoma started touching our client inappropriately. She was eventually able to get away from him, and she disclosed what happened with D’Attoma to her then-boyfriend – a young man who had also attended the youth group. Her boyfriend confronted D’Attoma, who denied doing anything more than sending one photo.
D’Attoma’s wife, from whom he separated in 2020, confirmed that he admitted to grooming, harassing, and abusing our client, but that he said it was only “one time,” and only involved a few photos.
SBC, South Carolina Baptist Convention, and Northside Baptist Church did nothing to protect our client nor any other victim of D’Attoma’s, and it resulted in even more victims. A recent anonymous report of sexual misconduct is what led to D’Attoma’s most recent dismissal from another church in Ohio. There are almost certainly others, including members of the youth group to which Doe belonged.
The SBC controls churches through “friendly co-operation”
The SBC is in full control over which local churches are “in friendly cooperation” with the main Convention. What this means is that a church must:
- have a faith and practice which closely identifies with the SBC’s adopted statement of faith,
- formally approve its intention to cooperate with the SBC,
- make financial contributions through the Cooperative Program, the SBC’s Executive Committee for Convention causes, or any other Convention entity during the fiscal year preceding,
- not act in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse; and
- not act to affirm, approve, or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity.
This “friendly cooperation among local churches (Northside), state conventions (SC Baptist) and the SBC is used by the SBC to maintain control of and ensure compliance with church policy in ecclesiastic and non-ecclesiastic affairs by local conventions and local churches.”
Sexual abuse is NOT an ecclesiastical matter; it is a crime. Yet the SBC hold such sway over local churches in “friendly cooperation” that it had and has the power to hide claims of abuse, and to cover up the crimes.
Why? Because the SBC and its partners have gone to great lengths to retain power and control over sexual misconduct claims in the Southern Baptist Church. The time has come for them to face up to their decades-long policy of sticking their heads in the sand. It is time to come to grips with the facts that this problem is an epidemic in the church and changes need to be made. The SBC’s actions have caused untold damage to countless victims of abuse here in South Carolina as well as throughout the country, and even throughout the world. To date, the SBC has refused to take accountability for this issue, and it is time for them to recognize their duty and obligation to victims of abuse in the church.
Why McGowan, Hood, Felder & Phillips fights for sexual assault survivors
Sexual abuse and assault are traumatic on every level. Whether you are a child or an adult, the effects of the abuse are more than just physical; many survivors deal with the emotional and psychological trauma for years, if not the rest of their lives. High-profile, high-powered organizations like the SBC have done whatever they can to protect themselves, no matter the cost to the victims.
At McGowan, Hood, Felder & Phillips, we will not let that stand. We have represented survivors of sexual assault in lawsuits against religious organizations, as well as in suits against youth homes, schools, medical professionals and facilities, and more.
We have the resources to take on this complex litigation, and the passion to see it through. SBC and its affiliates will come prepared with aggressive litigators of their own. We believe in fighting fire with fire, and our team of litigators will not back down in our fight for justice for you. Under South Carolina law, if you were a minor (a child) at the time of the abuse, you must file your civil lawsuit by the time you turn 27 OR up until three (3) years after the discovery of the abuse.
If you or your loved one was a victim of sexual assault or abuse – whether you belonged to the Southern Baptist Church or were a member of any religious organization – we want to help. If you reported abuse and that report was ignored, allowing the predator to go free, we want to help.
To learn more about our services, we invite you to call 803-327-7800 or fill out our contact form. Your initial consultation is always free, and we have both male and female trial attorneys who can help, based on what you need to feel safe and secure. All consultations are confidential, and you will be treated with the dignity and compassion you deserve.
Randy is the former President of the South Carolina Association for Justice. He has been certified by the American Board of Professional Liability as a specialist in Medical Malpractice Law which is recognized by the South Carolina Bar. Randy has also been awarded the distinction of being a “Super Lawyer” 10 times in the last decade. He has over 25 years of experience helping injured people fight back against corporations, hospitals and wrong-doers.
Read more about S. Randall Hood