A southwest suburban Southern Baptist congregation allowed a convicted child sex offender to preach for the last few years -- despite his past, and a warning from his previous church that he might still be dangerous, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.
In 1996, Jeff Hannah was sentenced to nine years in prison for having sexual relations with four underage girls -- ages 15 to 17 -- while a married youth minister at Crossroads Church in Libertyville.
Hannah was paroled in 2001 and joined the First Baptist Church of Romeoville, where his new wife was a member. Soon after, the pastor moved on, and church members -- aware of Hannah's crimes -- asked him to step into the pulpit until a replacement was hired, according to church members, Hannah and others.
Hannah served in that role for three years and ever since has been a fill-in preacher, teacher and music minister at the church.
'We believe in forgiveness'
Authorities say there's no evidence that Hannah has re-offended -- and Hannah insists he has not -- but he abruptly resigned his membership in the congregation when a reporter started inquiring about him last week.
"In our church, we believe in forgiveness," said Del Kirkpatrick, one of the deacons who hired Hannah.
In talking to the Sun-Times last week, Hannah, 42, was unapologetic about his crimes, saying his first marriage had been troubled and he'd had "urges."
"I honestly believe that had I been a college pastor, I'd slept with college girls," he said. "But I was a youth pastor. It was less about age and more about who I spent all my time with."
The Rev. Steve Farish, pastor of Crossroads Church, which has relocated to Grayslake, said he considered Hannah so dangerous that he warned the Romeoville church and a regional Southern Baptist official.
'The husband of one wife'
"We thought he could still potentially be a danger to women and children," Farish said. "He was never repentant and never told the truth."
Randie Bruno, the prosecutor in Hannah's case said, "He has the charisma to fool everybody."
But Hannah led the Romeoville church until February 2006, when the Rev. Charles Hamby, a 54-year-old divorced pastor with financial troubles, was hired. When Hamby remarried a few months later, several church members left, including Kirkpatrick.
"A pastor should be the husband of one wife," Kirkpatrick said.
Hamby, who also knew of Hannah's past, allowed him to continue as a preacher and gave him even greater leadership roles. "The man ... paid his debt to society," Hamby said.
Some in the congregation were upset by Hannah's role, but Hamby's remarriage was a bigger controversy, according to church officials. The feud bubbled over last week, when Hamby and Hannah abruptly resigned.
"I just want to live my life," Hannah said.
The future of the congregation remains uncertain. Sunday worship was canceled.
With more than 16 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Each congregation is autonomous. Under pressure from victims' groups, the SBC in June pledged to examine the possibility of creating a national database of clergy predators.
Christa Brown, founder of StopBaptistPredators.org, was outraged that Hannah went from prison to the pulpit.
"When Southern Baptists put perpetrators into positions of spiritual trust again, it sends the message that this denomination doesn't care about victims," Brown said.