A sensational trial reveals the unbelievable secret life of a charistmatic pastor.
Recently, thousands of church-going and non-church-going folk alike watched the news day and night, as a real-life soap opera unfolded in the Tarrant County Criminal Courthouse.
The high-profile case looked like a made-for-TV movie, with cameos by the rich and famous, a cadre of supporters for the complainants and the perpetrator; illegal drugs, name-calling, illicit sex, more drugs, cel phone records, more sex, and, well, you get the picture.
But the defendant was not a multi-million-dollar pro basketball player or a wayward R&B crooner.
The man accused of drugging and raping at least 4 women was an Arlington church pastor – make that a Bishop, and for the handful of you who did not keep up with the trial, here’s the synopsis: Just more than two years ago, two young women from the Agape Christian Fellowship church came forward with allegations that their pastor, Bishop Terry Hornbuckle had drugged and raped them. They had not gone to the police, but rather filed civil lawsuits against Hornbuckle. Then the press got wind of it and the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office got wind of it, and determined there was enough evidence to file criminal charges. In the coming months, several other women would come forward with their own stories as well. Hornbuckle was eventually indicted on three counts of rape. He adamantly maintained he was completely innocent and the allegations were money-motivated attempts to extort millions of dollars from him.
Hornbuckle was jailed, bailed out and jailed again and again. We lost count of how many times he violated the terms of his pre-trial release, including failing drug tests on more than one occasion.
As the trial unfolded, it was said to be common knowledge at Agape that Hornbuckle had bedded ‘numerous’ women in his congregation; that he was certainly a bad husband and a poor excuse for a church leader. And those observations were made by his defense attorneys, Mike Heiskell and Leon Haley, Jr. But, they added, Hornbuckle was not a rapist. His defense attorneys suggested that one of the victims had in fact sought to have sex with Hornbuckle because she had heard all about his prowess and wanted to check him out for herself. All this played out in front of ‘God and everybody’, including Hornbuckle’s stunningly beautiful wife Renee’, who attended the trial in its entirety, the picture of composure, grace, and ultimately, the picture of forgiveness of the unforgivable.
The jury, 9 women and 3 men, deliberated for more than 33 hours before returning their verdict. Although they had many questions (they sent some 40 notes to the judge during several days of deliberation) the jury disagreed that Hornbuckle was simply an arrogant, self-important, very, very bad husband and man of God. They found him guilty of all three counts for which he was tried.
Notable in this trial was the fact that not one witness – not even Hornbuckle himself – testified for the defense. Did that mean that his defense knew he was ‘guilty as sin’? In fact, they maintained throughout the trial that Hornbuckle was indeed a sinner, but the sex he admittedly engaged in with the three complainants (a fourth later testified in the sentencing phase) was entirely consensual.
Former criminal defense attorney Glenn Lewis says the defense strategy to call no witnesses “could mean a couple of things. It could mean the defense feels confident that they have sufficiently attacked the state’s case against the defendant” he points out. “After all, the burden of proof is on the state. It could also mean they don’t want to put the defendant on the stand because he could possibly say something that will open him up to being even further discredited.” Lewis reveals that in cases where the defendant is unsympathetic and people are already rooting against him, it is not uncommon for the defense to forego witnesses. Incidentally, Lewis, a former state legislator, tried a number of cases with Leon Haley, Jr. with whom he shared an office suite back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
What made Terry Hornbuckle go off the deep end? An occasional indiscretion is one thing. Many a pastor’s wife has had to pray for strength as she watches her husband being bombarded with offers of ‘a little something-something’ from the sister in the tight skirt sitting on the front row. But some men of the cloth who seem to have it all – the thriving, growing congregation, the beautiful wife and equally beautiful children, the high office, influential friends – everything to lose and nothing to gain, take unbelievable chances with their lives, their families, their future and their freedom. Why?
Just a few years ago Rev. Jesse Jackson admitted he had a young daughter from an affair with a long-time aide from his PUSH-Rainbow Coalition staff. Former National Baptist Convention president Rev. Henry J. Lyons received more than 5 years in prison for embezzling about $4 million from the organization. The fiasco came to the attention of the authorities only after Lyons’ wife, Deborah, torched a lakefront mansion which Lyons and his mistress had built with the embezzled funds.
Noted psychologist and head of Grambling State University’s Sociology and Psychology department, Dr. Brenda Wall says that unwittingly, parishioners may be playing a part in these behaviors. “We as a people have demonstrated an inability to love people and require them to function at a healthy level” she explains.
Wall points out she does not personally know Hornbuckle, and did not closely follow the trial. She says “…it would be clinically unethical for me to talk about him.” However, Wall says she has “had the privilege to help… several other high-profile men, some of them preachers” who have found themselves in similar scenarios. In these types of situations, Wall says she is deeply concerned about the children involved. “The children will ultimately have to address the damage. At some point the children have to deal with the brokenness” that brought the dad to this point. They can totally recover and grow to be healthy and successful adults, she says. But it may not be easy.
Our Black men, declares Wall, are “strong, brilliant, beautiful, talented and successful. But we cannot really require accountability in them when often we do not require accountability in ourselves and our children.” Dr. Wall warns against “getting more caught up in the person than in the message” with regard to preachers who stray. She says in most every case the conduct that is unbecoming of a pastor, or any married man for that matter, usually stems from some type of spiritual ‘brokenness’ and those close to these men need to confront them, but lovingly so, in order to initiate healing. “I know you are having a problem with infidelity and I am going to stand with you to overcome it” is the better stance, she says, than denial, judging, attacking, or worse, covering up for him.
Whether you believe the victims who all maintained they were drugged and taken against their wills – or whether you believe the Bishop, who maintained that all of the alleged assaults were indeed consensual acts, we should not necessarily be shocked beyond fathoming that these things happen. Nor should we continue to accept and make excuses for these behaviors.
Although Hornbuckle has been tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison in the cases of assault against the three women who first came forward, there were several other un-tried charges of rape, retaliation and witness tampering.
If anything positive can come from such a trage-drama, it could be a new level of accountability in the church. Perhaps church leaders will be less inclined to become sexually involved with parishioners – if not through their own commitments to please God and honor their families, perhaps the fear of criminal charges and public humiliation on the nightly news will be a deterrent to these types of behaviors, whether the sexual encounters are forced, drug-induced, coerced by threats, or truly consensual.
Perhaps the women who find themselves the recipients of indecent proposals from the pulpit will immediately seek out support and legitimate counsel before the situation gets out of hand. And if and when it does cross the line from inappropriate conversation to inappropriate touching, perhaps in the future these women will go to the authorities immediately. Maybe fewer women will be susceptible to abuse at the hands of the men they trust, as people close to these women recognize their self-esteem issues and do everything possible to reinforce the woman’s value and self-worth. A woman who feels good about herself overall – even if she is tired of wondering when her ‘prince’ will come - is less likely to engage in a midnight ‘counseling session’ with her pastor, unless his wife is also in attendance and the three of them are at Denny’s, each with a bible and a cup of coffee. She is certainly not likely to involve herself in recurring ‘counseling’ sessions that end up with sex. Because she knows she is deserving and worthy of so much more. A woman who has healthy self-esteem will be put off by her pastor’s advances, not flattered. She will pray to be guided to a place of worship where the pastor or Bishop or overseer or whatever his title is, will be committed to the well-being of his flock, and to honoring his vows to his God and his family at all cost. There are, after all, still countless clergymen in our communities who fit that bill.
All of this is a lot to hope for, but isn’t that what faith is really about?