SANTA ROSA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — Pensacola attorney Joe Zarzaur has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a minor in Santa Rosa against Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church, the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church and three of its pastors in connection with sexual abuse by its former youth pastor.
The youth pastor named in the suit, Ryan Walsh, was arrested in 2020 for transmitting obscene material to a minor, lewd and lascivious battery, and the use of a computer to solicit/seduce child. According to the arrest report, Walsh was inappropriately touching and messaging a 13-year-old girl, who attended youth groups at Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church.
On Oct. 10, 2022, Walsh reached a plea deal with prosecutors and was sentenced to 10 years in state prison and five years of probation.
According to the lawsuit, the minor’s parents and the minor joined Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church in efforts to seek counseling for a previous sexual abuse which took place while the minor was in fourth grade. The lawsuit said the defendants were aware of the minor’s previous abuse at all times.
The lawsuit alleges that Church and Conference officials negligently hired, trained and supervised Walsh and violated its own policies and procedures. The suit alleges these actions allowed Walsh to have access to youth in the church community and it permitted him to use all forms of social media, many times on church devices, to communicate with minor children.
According to the lawsuit, Walsh sent a text message to the minor through a church laptop, which read, “I think I like younger girls because I feel like more of a man.” The lawsuit said texts like the ones mentioned took place between the minor and Walsh over the course of months.
The pastors the suit was filed against were Pastor Dan Morris, Executive Pastor Kenneth York and Walsh, as well as the entire Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church and the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.
“Instead of exercising due care and diligence to protect minors under these circumstances, Defendants Morris, York, Church and Defendant Conference give its staff, including Defendant Walsh, complete discretion and freedom to have personal and private encounters with minors,” The suit said.
As a direct result of the defendant’s negligence, the lawsuit said, the minor has suffered severe and permanent, psychological, emotional and physical injuries, shame, humiliation and the inability to lead a normal life.
According to the suit, damages to the plaintiff amount to $30,000.