A Florida church has caused outrage by turning away children from its popular Sunday services to cater to a pastor who is a registered sex offender. The decision to allow convicted child molester Darrell Gilyard into the pulpit has angered neighbouring pastors and members of the congregation of the Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist church in Jacksonville. Gilyard, 49, is allowed no contact with minors under the terms of his release from a three-year jail sentence for abusing a 15-year-old girl at another church in 2009. As a result church leaders have made his services "adults only".
Parishioners claim security guards hired by the church have begun refusing admission to families with children, including a woman who tried to attend on Sunday with a two-year-old boy. Instead, they say, children are directed to remain "off site" while Gilyard is preaching, and they accuse the church of dismantling its playground to keep them away. Since Gilyard was hired last month, soon after his December release from jail, the church in Northside, one of Jacksonville's poorest, mostly black neighbourhoods, has become the scene of angry exchanges between protesters and his supporters.
A group of demonstrators calling itself the New Black Panther party clashed with churchgoers and promised to protest each time Gilyard led a service. "We came because the children who we should be teaching and preaching cannot come out today," said Mikhail Muhammad, the group's leader. "The black ministers in the city of Jacksonville ought to be ashamed of themselves. How can you say you're a follower of Christ but you won't stand up and speak out against this injustice?" Despite the protests, the church appears to have benefited from Gilyard's notoriety. His first service in January drew an estimated 150 people, up from a regular attendance of only five to 10, with dozens attending the most recent service on Sunday.
Deacon Paul S Newman, chairman of the church ministry, said: "He was down on the ground, and the church was down on the ground, and we both needed to get up." But fellow Baptist leaders have denounced Gilyard's appointment, saying he needs to apologise to his victims and the community before being allowed to preach to others. Before his conviction on two counts of molesting minors, Gilyard was a shining star in the Baptist community, having spent 14 years preaching to thousands at Jacksonville's Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. One mentor hailed him as one of the "most brilliant men in the pulpit".