KNOXVILLE (WATE) – The senior pastor of the Grace Baptist church said he was shocked by the charges of children’s pastor Jason Kennedy in human trafficking sting.
Kennedy was fired following his arrest for responding to ads indicating a desire to have sex with underage girls.
“I was devastated. I was totally shocked,” Ron Stewart said. “It’s something you can’t anticipate. I have nine other pastors and I’m constantly telling them, ‘we are held to a higher standard.’”
He said the church community is left heartbroken over the revelations. Kennedy currently faces charges for soliciting an underage prostitute after being busted in a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation human trafficking sting.
“I’m very hurt. Everybody’s very hurt. We’re just almost in shock,” Stewart said. It’s almost like someone has died.”
Church members said they are equally shaken by the news.
“I was sick. I just doubled over it and I said, ‘no, Lord, no,’ Jennie Talley said. “My initial reaction was just anger, scare, weeping, sadness, just sadness.”
Kennedy is married with three children, who Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch said will ultimately suffer the consequences of Kennedy’s actions. He will appear in court on May 31.
“These individuals make these choices themselves,” Rausch said. “Their families, as we typically find out, the families have no idea. They’re oblivious to what these individuals are doing. And unfortunately, that’s who gets impacted the most by this is the families.”
Stewart said the church heavily screens its employees, with a thorough background check, but nothing in Kennedy’s past presented a red flag. He also said the church has 78 surveillance cameras as well as a number of security officers during events, and children are never left alone with a pastor.
Still, Stewart said some changes will be made in the hiring process as the church begins the search for another children’s pastor.
“We’re going to have to do things better,” he said. “We’re going to be very detailed about this.”
While church leaders anticipate some backlash from Kennedy’s arrest, members are optimistic that Grace Baptist Church will, in the end, come out stronger.
“Grace will come above this. It’s going to be tough, sure. We may lose members, sure,” Talley said. “There’s going to be all kinds of bad things talked about. You can’t worry about what people think and what people say. You just have to stay on your knees and let God be head of this church.”
Stewart maintained that Kennedy’s conduct took place outside the church, and there have been no reported concerns of inappropriate behavior within the church.