In 2009, David Chatham was convicted of possession of child pornography and sentenced to six years in federal prison. His Southern Baptist pastor reportedly argued for leniency at the time, citing Chatham’s “dedication to Christ.”
Now Chatham is pursuing ministry training at Southern Baptist schools. He was a student for several years at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in a ministry leadership program. Chatham currently says he’s been admitted as a ministry student at Liberty University, a school with informal ties to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Chatham claimed on his LinkedIn profile earlier this summer, which we’ve archived, that he was enrolled at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, in an online Master’s in Applied Ministry program.
After The Roys Report (TRR) asked Chatham about his enrollment, the reference to Liberty disappeared from his LinkedIn profile. Chatham told TRR that he had been accepted to Liberty but was not enrolled.
Liberty’s description of its Applied Ministry program notes it will help students “meet the spiritual needs of your community in impactful ways.”
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Liberty University did not reply to multiple requests for comment regarding Chatham’s acceptance at the institution or whether the school conducts criminal background checks. Liberty has been the subject of multiple lawsuits claiming it did not provide adequate protections for women who were sexual victims on campus.
Before applying to Liberty, Chatham was enrolled for several years at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) in Wake Forest, North Carolina, in its online Master’s in Ministry Leadership program. SEBTS claims its program will help students “develop strategies to maximize leadership impact.”
However, a source contacted SEBTS in April of this year, asking how a convicted sex offender was allowed into its master’s program. TRR has obtained correspondence showing that Chatham ceased to be a student at SEBTS as of July 6.
TRR reached out to SEBTS for comment about Chatham’s prior enrollment, but the school did not respond.
Chatham, a public relations consultant from Raleigh, N.C., possessed at least 3,400 pornographic images, according to a 2009 article in the Charlotte News Observer. The article adds that some of the images were “particularly violent” and others “depicted very young children.”
The 55-year-old now works for Angel Oak Creative, a Christian marketing agency that specializes in serving non-profits.
News of Chatham’s prior enrollment at SEBTS and apparent acceptance at Liberty comes as the SBC is reeling from an independent investigation into alleged cover-up of abuse within the denomination. The investigation found that the SBC “often mishandled” abuse allegations and mistreated survivors.
Chatham enrolled at SEBTS
In a video posted to YouTube this past February, Chatham introduced himself to SEBTS classmates and stated he has been enrolled at SEBTS in the Master’s in Ministry Leadership for the last few years. He added he is taking one class per semester while working full-time. Chatham does not disclose his criminal history but mentions that his pastor had helped him through a “significant crisis” in 2009.
Last spring, a source who wished to remain anonymous noticed Chatham’s enrollment and began emailing SEBTS administrators with concerns. That source has since shared his email correspondence with TRR, and TRR has confirmed the source’s identity.
The source first reached out to SEBTS on April 27, asking the school whether a student with a criminal background involving child pornography could be admitted to the Master’s in Ministry Leadership program.
Mark Silverthorn, SEBTS interim director of admissions, responded that SEBTS has an “extensive vetting process,” including “a criminal background check.”
Silverthorn said that when “concerns are discovered,” the school implements “tailored procedures to provide the highest level of protections.” These potentially could include limiting the student to taking online classes and prohibiting the student from living on campus or interacting with certain populations.
According to our source, SEBTS later confirmed that Chatham was studying online only. TRR reached out to SEBTS for confirmation, but SEBTS did not respond.
Silverthorn then connected the source with Jonathan Six, SEBTS vice president of institutional advancement. In an email May 6, the source thanks Six for their conversation the same day and also provides multiple links with information on Chatham’s criminal history.
On May 22—the day the report on the SBC’s handling of sex offenders was released—the source again emailed Six, asking what decision the school has made about “the situation regarding David Chatham.”
Six replied the same day, “Today is truly a sad day for the SBC and especially the survivors of abuse who have been so horrifically treated. . . . As when we last spoke, I can assure you that Southeastern will handle all cases of abuse and the discovery of abusers with the utmost care and attention.”
The following day, the source replied: “My concerns were how a federally prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced sexual predator landed at SEBTS as a student in the Master’s of Ministry Leadership program in the first place. I cannot help but wonder how the two—the story of David Chatham—are intertwined.”
On June 5, the source sent an email, asking for an update and stating, “Praying you all have made the correct decision in removing David as a student immediately.”
On July 6, Six replied, “I can confirm that David (Chatham) is not a student at Southeastern.”
SEBTS did not respond to multiple requests by TRR about its policy related to criminal background checks; how it handles the possibility that it is equipping registered sex offenders for the ministry by allowing them to be enrolled in its ministry degree programs; and the reasons that Chatham is no longer enrolled at SEBTS.
The SEBTS website admissions page states, “Each applicant must authorize Southeastern to obtain a background check in order to satisfy the admission requirement. The only exclusion to the background check are special exemptions made for distance learning students who are admitted through a short application for one course off-campus.”
It continues, “If the background check indicates criminal behavior the applicant may not be awarded admission. Students may appeal the decision, and will have the opportunity to present information disputing the background check.”
Repentance and ministry?
According to an article in the Charlotte Observer on September 20, 2009, Chatham was an experienced public relations specialist who knew “the power of a compelling story and the need to get ahead of a negative one.”
Chatham says he accepted Christ on February 12, 2009—two months after being caught in a sting operation and pleading guilting to child pornography, but before he was sentenced. Chatham then reportedly began counseling and recovery programs. He also launched a blog about his experience, partnered with groups who fight child sex abuse material, and let psychiatrists film an interview with him.
The sentencing guidelines called for Chatham to receive eight to 10 years. But his Southern Baptist pastor, Ricky Mill, reportedly spoke on Chatham’s behalf, asking for leniency in sentencing.
Chatham declined to speak with TRR on the record either by Zoom or email and answer our questions about his enrollment at SEBTS and his purpose for seeking a ministry degree.
Chatham’s interest in a ministry degree raises questions about whether child sex offenders should ever be allowed in ministry positions. In a podcast with TRR in 2020, world-renowned trauma expert, Dr. Diane Langberg, argued that they should not be allowed in church settings, nor should they want to.
“(W)hen somebody really begins to understand who they have been, how they have deceived themselves and others, and the impact that they have had on vulnerable human beings, the person most afraid of them being around (a vulnerable) population is them,” Langberg said.
Dee Parsons, a victim advocate who runs The Wartburg Watch, wrote a post about Chatham in 2009. She told TRR, “If Chatham is truly a man of God, he would not want to put himself in a situation where he could be in touch with kids.”
Chatham was released from prison on December 5, 2014. According to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, a registered sex offender will remain on the registry for 30 years but may petition to be removed after 10 years.
Kim Roberts is a freelance writer who holds a Juris Doctor from Baylor University. She has homeschooled her three children and is happily married to her husband of 25 years.