SOUTHINGTON — A pastor’s response to a sexual abuse case in his church and school two decades ago is under scrutiny as he runs for state office.
Republican and Southington resident Jim Townsley, pastor and founder of Central Baptist Church, is running against Berlin Republican and party-endorsed candidate Donna Veach in a primary for the 30th state House District. The winner of the August primary will face JoAnn Angelico-Stetson, a Berlin Town Council Democrat, in November for an open seat. Incumbent House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz is not seeking re-election in the 30th District.
In 2005, a former Central Baptist Church youth pastor, James “Joe” McCoy, was convicted on two counts of fourth-degree sexual assault involving a teen. The abuse began when the teen was 17 and attending Central Christian Academy, a school affiliated with the church and also founded by Townsley.
Townsley said when the woman told him about the abuse in 2001, he believed it hadn’t started until she had graduated high school. He immediately demanded a resignation from McCoy but didn’t contact police.
“All that we knew was she was an adult. We dealt with it as a church matter and left it to the privacy of the family,” Townsley said. “Had we known then she was under 18, we would have reported it.”
The abuse took place in the late 1990s. Southington police began investigating in late 2002 after receiving an anonymous letter about the incident.
When contacted last week, the woman said she did tell Townsley that McCoy’s abuse began when she was 17 and still in school. McCoy was also her basketball coach at Central Christian Academy where she was a senior.
“It was not consensual,” the woman said. “I was 17 and I did tell Pastor Townsley that.”
The woman requested anonymity for this article. The Record-Journal doesn’t name victims of sexual abuse without permission or reveal details that would identify victims.
Police investigators wrote in a 2002 report that Townsley was required to report any suspected abuse or neglect under state statute.
“At the time the oral report was made to Pastor Townsley, he was required by Connecticut law as a mandated reporter to notify a Social Agency of suspected abuse or neglect,” the police report states. “...Violation of this section under Connecticut law was a Misdemeanor charge. Due to the statute of limitations expiring Pastor Townsley can not be charged in violation of this section.”
In that same report, investigators wrote that Townsley told them both the victim and McCoy said the relationship didn’t begin until the girl had turned 18.
Church, school founder
Townsley moved from Indiana 45 years ago to start Central Baptist Church. His meetings started in a Knights of Columbus hall basement and the congregation moved several times before settling at its current location on West Street.
Townsley started Central Christian Academy in 1986 and New England Baptist College in 1993. The college’s departments include Bible, Christian ministry, music, education and missions.
The church, school and college take a conservative stance on social and religious issues, such as exclusively using the King James translation of the Bible. While Townsley hasn’t run for public office before this year, he’s supported conservative candidates and causes in previous elections.
To support Republican candidates, a political action committee started by Townsley called the Connecticut Defense of Marriage Victory Fund sent out postcards to voters in the 16th state Senate and 99th state House districts. The postcards highlighted Democratic candidates’ support for gay marriage, which Townsley opposes.
Because Townsley’s PAC wasn’t listed on the postcards, he and a Virginia man who prepared the postcards were fined $250 by the State Elections Enforcement Commission.
From locker notes to sexual assault
McCoy and his wife and child relocated from Tennessee to take a position at the church and school. The woman’s family and the McCoy’s became close, according to a police report, with the woman and her sister babysitting the McCoy’s child.
In the fall of 1998, the woman’s senior year of high school at Central Christian Academy, McCoy began leaving notes for the woman in her locker. According to the woman’s testimony to police, the attention escalated from flirtatious comments to sexual talk and groping and eventually sexual assault. All this took place before the woman’s 18th birthday in early 1999.
The woman left for The Crown College in Tennessee in 2000.
Townsley’s son attended the same college and in 2001, he visited the campus for his son’s graduation. It was then that the woman told Townsley about what McCoy had done.
Dismissal and arrest
After returning to Southington two days later, Townsley confronted McCoy who admitted to an inappropriate relationship with the woman. Townsley asked for his resignation and suggested he apologize to the congregation. McCoy did so and moved to Tennessee within a week.
Townsley said it was difficult to determine in 2001 exactly what happened and when based on what the woman said.
“She was not very forthcoming in the beginning,” he said. “She never said she was assaulted or anything like that. She basically said that Joe (McCoy) was fooling around with other girls and had done that with her. It ended up being just her.”
He said he believed the relationship was immoral and inappropriate but not criminal and didn’t call police. Townsley said he learned that McCoy had on several occasions been alone with the woman in a car or at his house, a violation of church policy.
“Had I known that, I would have dismissed him (for that alone),” Townsley said.
Southington police received an anonymous letter in 2002 informing them of sexual abuse at the school and church. The investigation led to a charge of second-degree sexual assault against McCoy. As part of a deal, he pleaded guilty to two counts of fourth-degree sexual assault.
‘Should have had the police involved’
The woman’s family left the church after learning about what McCoy had done, in part due to Townsley’s handling of the incident. The woman’s father, contacted in late June, said he was a church trustee at the time and attending New England Bible College.
“I told (Townsley) point blank when the whole situation came about, he should have had the police involved in the situation,” the woman’s father said. “I don’t think he handled it the right way.”
The woman’s family didn’t call police either. Her father said he was in an “uncomfortable” position being in leadership at the church. He now thinks he should have resigned immediately and called police.
“I should have, probably. They wanted to handle it through the church,” he said. “The philosophy of the church is, you don’t go to the world to solve your problems.”
A section of the church’s belief statement prohibits civil lawsuits between believers or between Christians and the church based on a passage in I Corinthians. Townsley said the church mediates in cases between believers but that criminal cases do belong in court.
“If it’s a legal matter, we believe in reporting,” he said.
While the criminal case against McCoy was pending, the woman brought a civil suit against McCoy, Central Christian Academy and Central Baptist Church. The lawsuit said the church and school leadership were negligent which allowed the sexual assaults to occur.
The church’s insurance company paid an undisclosed sum to the woman as part of a settlement.
Scott Matney, an attorney for the church and a member, said the church didn’t have a say in how the insurance company handled the suit and its decision to settle. Matney said the church fulfilled its legal and moral obligations.
“There was never any admission of wrongdoing,” Matney said.
The woman said she had hoped the lawsuit would prompt changes at the church and school to prevent sexual abuse in the future.
Townsley said after McCoy’s confession, the church and school increased parent chaperones for youth group and school events.
Townsley said he did everything morally and legally required of him based on what he knew in 2001. He said the case was being raised by his political opponents.
“It has nothing to do with what’s needed in Hartford,” Townsley said.
Bob Mayer, a Berlin resident and friend of Republican 30th district candidate Donna Veach, wrote a letter to the editor of the Record-Journal criticizing Townsley’s handling of the sex abuse case.
Veach said she’s read articles on the case and was also disappointed with Townsley’s response.
“I don’t think it was handled appropriately at all. I think the police needed to be notified,” she said.
Veach is the party’s endorsed candidate. Republican delegates of the Southington and Berlin house district were mostly split along town lines during a convention. The district includes more delegates from Berlin.
Republican town committee leaders in Southington and Berlin differed in their response to Townsley’s past actions. Steven Kalkowski, Southington town chairman, said Townsley laid the entire case out for him and held nothing back.
“He gave me the details of the situation and the way he dealt with it. He thought he dealt with it effectively,” Kalkowski said.
Sandra Coppola, Berlin Republican town chairwoman, said she questioned Townsley’s judgement in failing to involve police.
An earlier version of this story paraphrased a portion of the 2002 police report on McCoy’s arrest as it pertained to Townsley. The police report does not explicitly state that Townsley would have been charged under the mandated reporter statute in Connecticut.
“Due to the statute of limitations expiring,” the police report said, “Pastor Townsley can not be charged in violation of this section."
The story also stated that McCoy got a job at another church after moving to Tennessee. The Record-Journal could not confirm if McCoy took another ministry job after leaving Central Baptist and could not reach McCoy. An attorney representing Townsley has since stated that McCoy “never worked at another church after being fired from his position at Central Baptist Church by Jim Townsley.”