Dispute lands church in court Restraining order sought against longtime parishioner

January 27, 1998|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

A dispute between one of Baltimore's most prominent churches and a well-known city real estate agent and church benefactor who alleges that the church's pastor might have misappropriated money landed in Circuit Court yesterday.

Officials of Douglas Memorial Community Church were seeking a restraining order against 35-year parishioner James Crockett, whom they say became disruptive during a churchwide business meeting Jan. 17 and appeared to threaten their pastor.

Crockett, 73, says he was seeking answers to questions about the church's finances, including $6,000 in legal fees for an unspecified matter that were paid on behalf of Douglas Memorial's pastor, the Rev. Brad R. Braxton.

Douglas Memorial, in the 1300 block of Madison Ave. in West Baltimore, is the place of worship for prominent city officials such as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Circuit Judge Bonita J. Dancy.

The dispute upset the Rev. Marion Bascom, the church's pastor of 46 years, who retired in 1995.

"I am very saddened that this matter has come to be adjudicated in the courts," Bascom said. "My hope would be that a family could come together and iron out its differences."

Bascom said Crockett, who filed an unsuccessful suit against the church last year in an unrelated business matter, has been one of the church's strongest supporters as well as a person who regularly questions such issues as spending practices.

"James Crockett has been a very liberal supporter of our church and its causes," Bascom said. "I have never had any problems with Mr. Crockett."

But at a hearing yesterday before Master Susan M. Marzetta, who has the power to recommend action to a Circuit Court judge, a different picture was painted of Crockett.

A lawyer for the church said Crockett became unruly during a churchwide meeting Jan. 17, when he repeatedly questioned officials about financial issues that were not on the agenda. When Crockett didn't get answers, church officials allege that members had to physically restrain him during a prayer to prevent him from attacking Braxton.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Braxton declined to comment under advice of the church's attorneys.

"It is our concern that Mr. Crockett intended to inflict bodily harm on the pastor," Paul D. Shelton, the church's lawyer, said during the hearing. He did not comment on the allegation of misappropriation.

Shelton said Crockett was given two minutes to speak on each topic on the agenda, just as other church members were. But Crockett, Shelton said, exceeded his time limit on three occasions, talking four minutes or more.

In addition, Crockett continued to interfere with the business meeting by questioning the pastor's spending practices.

"He said the pastor ought to be removed, the pastor ought to resign," Shelton said. "Business couldn't be conducted."

Crockett and his lawyer, Benford B. Alston, denied the allegation that he made any attempt to attack the pastor. Alston said that Crockett wanted the pastor and other church leaders to answer questions about church finances, which the attorney argued was a standard procedure for such business meetings.

"When he started to raise certain issues on the floor, it began to get confrontational," Alston said. "At no time at all was Reverend Braxton in fear of Mr. Crockett. Mr. Crockett is 73 years old and weighs 142 pounds."

Crockett's relationship with Douglas Memorial has been going sour for months. He said in an interview that he stopped attending services at the church Easter Sunday. He sued the church and its officials last year for allegedly reneging on a verbal agreement to compensate him for managing properties that are run by the church.

"And I've been one of the church's strongest supporters," Crockett said.

The properties, however, are owned by a separate corporation.

Crockett's case, filed in Baltimore District Court, was dismissed because the judge determined that Crockett should have sued the separate corporation instead of the church and its leadership.

Hoping to reach a settlement in yesterday's case, Marzetta cleared the courtroom after about 45 minutes to talk with the lawyers. The lawyers said they are discussing ways to resolve the dispute.

"We're trying to get it resolved," Shelton said.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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