Church, school leader charged; allegedly groomed child for years

Published: Apr. 25, 2023 at 10:34 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A former Mid-South church leader and Christian school administrator is accused of persuading a high school student to engage in sexual activity online, and then recorded that activity without the victim’s knowledge.

John “Jay” Brownlow, 32, allegedly groomed the teen, a Westminster Academy student, at the peak of the pandemic, and installed cameras in the boy’s bedroom without him knowing.

The Action News 5 Investigators have been watching Brownlow’s case move through a Shelby County courtroom since September when he pleaded not guilty to seven felonies and one misdemeanor.

The Investigators were tipped off about the arrest, and have since been corresponding with the teen’s family.

According to a nine-page indictment, Brownlow also stalked and spied on the victim.

A now-deleted online post states that Brownlow was a bookkeeper at Westminster Academy and was promoted to Chief Financial Officer in September 2021. According to the post, Brownlow enjoyed “playing board games and tackling tech projects.”

Westminster Academy
Westminster Academy(Action News 5)

At the same time, Brownlow was allegedly using technology to “expose a minor to material containing sexual activity” and to “directly induce” that minor to engage in sexual activity that Brownlow recorded.

The defendant’s attorney, Leslie Ballin, wouldn’t let us speak with Brownlow, but did sit down with the Action News 5 Investigators to talk about the case.

“You pleaded not guilty on his behalf in court. Is your client innocent?” The Investigators asked Ballin.

“The allegations are indeed shocking,” he said. “Does it mean it’s accurate and true? Not for me to decide.”

It will be for a jury of Brownlow’s peers to decide, if the case goes to trial, or a judge to decide, if there is a bench trial. Prosecutors could also possibly reach a plea deal with the defendant before either.

Ballin says he has seen the prosecution’s evidence, and while he wouldn’t go into details, said the “not guilty” plea stands. He does say the evidence he saw lines up with the contents of the criminal indictment.

According to the indictment, the alleged crimes occurred between June 2020 and January 2022. That’s when Brownlow was an employee at the Christian K-12 school Westminster Academy on Ridgeway Road.

Westminster’s Headmaster wrote in an email that they learned about the allegations when the crimes were reported in January 2022, and that they contacted police, fired Brownlow and banned him from their campus.

The Action News 5 Investigators corresponded with the alleged victim’s parents, and with other parents aware of the allegations against Brownlow. They said they trusted Brownlow around their children and are concerned there may be more alleged victims who were groomed by Brownlow who have not yet come forward.

Grooming has been a hot button issue in Tennessee recently, and was at the cornerstone of a law that was put in place earlier in 2023 banning drag shows from being held in public.

However, statistics show that most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are acquaintances of the child, and more than a third are family members.

“Someone who usually has access to children; that could be teachers, coaches, it could be family friends,” said Alicia Bunch Vargas, the Clinical Director at the Sexual Assault Center in Nashville.

Bunch Vargas describes grooming as any behavior by an adult done with the intention to gain a child’s trust to do something sexual in nature with the child.

According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, most sex abuse victims are between 12 and 17 years old.

“The way that adolescent brains are working, their development, they’re trying to establish relationships and so any age child can be groomed,” she said.

Meanwhile, Brownlow was also once the youth leader for St. Patrick Presbyterian Church in Collierville. Their senior minister said Brownlow left the church in 2019, and that when the church learned about the allegations against him at Westminster Academy it immediately advised any victims to contact the police.

St. Patrick Presbyterian Church
St. Patrick Presbyterian Church(Action News 5)

In Tennessee, everyone is a mandatory reporter. That means if someone is aware that a minor is in danger, they must report it to law enforcement or the Department of Children’s Services. If they don’t, that person could be held liable for the child’s safety.

But Bunch Vargas believes some places, like churches and schools, have a greater responsibility to report.

“There is a certain level of responsibility whenever kids are in those environments and the adults in those environments to care for the kids,” she said. “Part of that means if I see something, hear something, I’m aware of something, doing something about it.”

Meanwhile, Brownlow is out on a $200,000 bond and is not allowed to contact the teen involved in this case.

Ballin says Brownlow is working, but not with children and he wouldn’t say where.

While the case continues to move in court, the alleged victim’s family tells the Investigators they are currently focused on trying to heal.

If you suspect a child is in a situation that warrants further investigation, please do not hesitate to call the Department of Children’s Services at 877-237-0004, or local law enforcement.

You can also use DCS’s online reporting page where you can submit information anonymously.

Additionally, the Sexual Assault Center in Nashville offers free training across the state.

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