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#ChurchToo Culture Investigations

Youth Speaker Acton Bowen to Serve 1,000+ Years for Sex with Young People

Youth speaker Acton Bowen claimed he was New York Times best-selling author, a Fox News contributor, and a personal friend and spiritual mentor to pop star Justin Bieber. 

These claims were false or wildly inflated, but they were spread far and wide by leaders, churches, teen ministries, and youth camps that hired Bowen to speak. 

Some speakers talk at students, others can talk to students, and then there are a few who can connect with students,” said Mark Hall, lead singer for Casting Crowns. 

Bowen has “an approach that sets him apart. It has to do with his real love and concern for young people – a connection his youthful audiences respond to in amazing ways,” said promotional material for a 2014 Bowen talk at Union City United Methodist Church in Union City, Tennessee. 

Bowen’s promo materials were right about his passion to connect with youth, but that passion often crossed over into sex. 

In January, local newspapers reported that Bowen was sentenced to 1,008 years in prison — the maximum sentence possible — after pleading guilty to 28 charges of raping and sexually assaulting young boys he reached through his ministry. He was also ordered to pay $840,000 in fines. 

Claimed Innocence Before Guilty Plea 

Bowen was arrested in April 2018, and charged with second-degree sodomy, enticing a child to enter a vehicle or house for immoral purposes, and second-degree sex abuse. 

Hinitially claimed innocence, and asked supporters to pray, but his wife Ashley quickly divorced Bowen and sought a restraining order for her protection. The two had been married in Hawaii in 2015 by Jay Haizlip, a star of the former Oxygen network series, “Preachers of LA.” Bowen often spoke at Haizlip’s Sanctuary Church in California. 

“I have not done what I am accused of and have not acted inappropriately in any way,” Bowen said in a statement. 

“When this accusation was made known to me I was hurt, confused, and heartbroken,” he said. “Prior to the arrest only one side of the story was heard.” 

Soon, additional victims came forward and Bowen’s problems mounted.  

Bowen was connected to local political figures, including Judge Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice and failed Alabama Senate candidate. Bowen listed Moore’s attorney, Trent Garmon, as one of three members of the board of Acton Bowen Outreach, Bowen’s nonprofit ministry. 

A local ABC News affiliate expressed surprise at Bowen’s fall: “The news of Bowen’s arrest in 2018 shocked many in east Alabama’s Christian community where he was considered a hometown hero.” 

But if churches, youth ministries and camps carefully vetted their speakers, they would be less vulnerable to such surprises. 

Who Vets Speakers? 

Bowen had a nice website, references from respected pastors and leaders, two self-published books, and a regular TV show. He served as a chaplain at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and had a busy speaking schedule. In 2017, Acton Bowen Outreach had income of $190,526, with $100,000 of that being paid to Bowen in salary. 

But did no one know about his problems? There was at least one clear warning sign. 

Bowen had served on the staff of CrossPoint Community Church in Gadsden, Alabama, and at Christ City Church in Birmingham. Apparently, at one of these churches Bowen was caught viewing pornography on his church computer. 

As a result of this problem, board members at Acton Bowen Outreach required him to install Covenant Eyes software on his computer. If he watched porn on his ministry computer, board members would be notified. But no one monitored his online behavior once he left the office. Board member Trent Garmon resigned from the board after Bowen’s guilty plea. 

Bowen has shut down his social media, but evidence of his speaking career can still be found online, where numerous churches maintain references to his speaking on their websites, including Harvest Ministry Teams in Troy, Illinois, Courageous Church in Huntsville, Iron City Worship services at Southeastern Bible College in Birmingham, and Inspiration Cruises and Tours.

There’s no indication that Acton Bowen Outreach has taken any steps to notify former supporters of his guilt.

Few organizations carefully vet speakers like Bowen, but if camps where Bowen spoke exercised as much control over speakers as they do over adult volunteers, he might have been caught earlier. 

Before his arrest, Bowen had been scheduled to speak at a May 2018 SUMMIT Student Camp, a Baptist youth event held at Ponderosa Retreat & Conference Center north of Colorado Springs, where he had spoken for earlier youth events. 

The Leader’s Planning Guide for the SUMMIT required that participating adult sponsors provide background checks and references: 

BACKGROUND CHECK: Mandatory for all sponsors and completed within the last 2 years. Each sponsor will be subject to the results of the background information received. Those who fail to pass a background check will not be permitted on Ponderosa premises.

REFERNCES. Sponsors have to get 3 references and have them turned into GROUP LEADER.

Unfortunately, Acton Bowen wasn’t held to the same standard. 

Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.