A gay man filed a complaint Tuesday against Bethel Baptist School in Walls, Miss., saying he endured three years of sexual assault by a teacher attempting to change his sexual orientation.
Jeff White, now 32, came out to his parents in 1996, and the family turned to Bethel Baptist Church for guidance. The church's affiliated school claimed it could change White's sexuality through weekly counseling sessions, and during three years of such sessions, teacher Steven Barnes raped and sexually assaulted White, his complaint alleges.
White is now the executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Rainbow Center, the first LGBT center in Mississippi. Barnes is now the assistant pastor of Bethel Baptist Church.
The complaint was filed with the DeSoto County, Miss., Sheriff’s Department on White's behalf by the National Center for Lesbian Rights with Hawkins & Gibson, a law firm that has taken on other sexual abuse cases involving clergy.
White says he was inspired to come forward by NCLR's #BornPerfect campaign, which is aiming to end the practice of so-called conversion therapy in five years. In a statement issued Wednesday, he called such therapies "traumatic and damaging tactics" and said he felt a duty to stand up against those who have harmed him.
"By speaking out against the wrongdoings that were committed within the walls of Bethel Baptist School," he said, "I hope to shed light on the darkness that is so easily hidden within the church, and to help ensure that no one else suffers the pain that I had to endure."
White further told the Washington Blade that the church was cult-like and engaged in a multitude of nefarious activities.
A woman who answered the phone at the church told the Blade that White's allegations were "the biggest lie there ever was." There were no further comments from church officials.
Lawmakers in several states have set out to ban conversion therapy, while California and New Jersey have both passed such laws.
Samantha Ames, the NCLR attorney working with White, told the Blade that the organization was "proud to represent someone this courageous."
She added, "What’s so extraordinary about Jeff is how long and hard he fought to turn that pain into something meaningful, this LGBT center that benefits every person in his state. But today he’s not just helping out other people out of the darkness, he’s shining a light on it, and he knows it very well."