Embattled Baptist Leader Quits

The Rev. Henry Lyons resigned Tuesday as president of the National Baptist Convention USA, two weeks after being convicted of racketeering.

"He stepped down with tremendous dignity. He said the time has come," defense lawyer Grady Irvin said outside an emergency meeting of the black church group's board at Lyons' church.

"He was very remorseful with respect to any difficulty he has caused the convention," Irvin said.

The Rev. S.C. Cureton of Greenville, S.C., will take over as the convention's president until Lyons' term expires in September, Irvin said.

The mood inside was somber, said Irvin, who is a member of Lyons' Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church and a friend of the minister.

There was a tremendous level of support for Lyons, and even before he announced his resignation a motion came to the floor for a show of support for the minister, Irvin said.

"He would not allow them to take that vote," he said. "A majority of the people did not want him to resign."

Lyons, 57, was convicted on Feb. 27 of racketeering for swindling more than $4 million from corporations that wanted to sell cemetery products, life insurance policies and credit cards to convention members.

He also was convicted of grand theft for stealing almost $250,000 from the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'rith -- money intended to rebuild black churches.

His sentencing is scheduled for March 31. He faces three to seven years in prison under state sentencing guidelines.

Lyons is expected to plead guilty to similar federal charges. His federal trial on 54 counts is scheduled to begin April 7, but he was expected to reach a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. A court hearing was scheduled for Wednesday.

Lyons' troubles began in July 1997 when his wife set fire to a $700,000 waterfront home he owned with another woman, Bernice Edwards of Milwaukee. She was a co-defendant at Lyons' trial and was acquitted of similar racketeering charges.

Prosecutors began investigating the minister's finances, eventually accusing him of selling a nonexistent convention mailing list to corporations and then using the money to finance a lavish lifestyle with several mistresses.

It was a long fall from grace for Lyons, once best known as a rousing preacher whose pleas helped greatly reduce the $5.4 million debt the convention accrued while building new headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.

He was elected president in 1994 after running a campaign as a reformist candidate who would bring financial accountability to the group and help it become a strong social and political force.

Outside of the church, he wielded political clout as a leader whose influence reached members of Congress and President Clinton, who spoke at convention meetings and called Lyons for advice when 1996 riots erupted in St. Petersburg.

"I am deeply sorry for bringing the shame, bringing the egative image to the great National Baptist Convention," Lyons said in a television interview Monday.

"It hurts me. It's a pain. And I don't know that I will ever rid myself of this thing."

Written by Pat Leisner