An assistant prosecutor said Bellevue Baptist Church Pastor Steve Gaines may have committed a crime if he knew the “moral failure” a church staff member confessed to him six months ago involved child molestation.
All 50 states have laws requiring mandatory reporting of suspected child sexual abuse. Tennessee requires any person, including ministers, with reasonable suspicion that abuse of a child has occurred to report it immediately.
Gaines has admitted that Paul Williams, a minister on staff at the Memphis, Tenn., mega-church for 34 years, told him in confidence about inappropriate behavior that occurred 17 years ago.
While Gaines did not disclose details of the confession, a Web site critical of his leadership alleged Williams molested his own son. Church leaders have suspended Williams and launched their own investigation, due to last a month.
“Everyone has a duty to report,” Kevin Rardin, chief prosecutor of child sexual abuse cases in the district attorney’s office in Shelby County, Tenn., told Memphis station WMC-TV. “There are not exceptions for clergy or anyone else.”
Tennessee code Section 37-1-403 requires that: “Any person who has knowledge of or is called upon to render aid to any child who is suffering from or has sustained any wound, injury, disability, or physical or mental condition shall report such harm immediately if the harm is of such a nature as to reasonably indicate that it has been caused by brutality, abuse or neglect or that, on the basis of available information, reasonably appears to have been caused by brutality, abuse or neglect.”
Any person who knowingly fails to make a report when required to do so is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, one step below a felony and punishable by up to a year in prison and fines of $2,500.
Rardin told the MemphisTV station he couldn’t talk specifically about possible legal action against Gaines, but it doesn’t matter how long ago the abuse occurred.
“Even though the child you mention may now be an adult, there may be other children at risk from the same person, the suspect, and that’s why it’s incumbent upon you to report it to the appropriate authorities,” he said.
Advocates say many survivors of clergy sex abuse don’t speak up until years later. That’s why they want to eliminate statutes of limitation on child abuse. “People need to report abuse, no matter how old the incident is,” said Peter Isely, Midwest Regional Director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “Because by not reporting it, that’s how the church gets away with it.”
In 2005 Roman Catholic officials in Memphis turned over a list of about 10 church employees, including priests, accused of sexual abuse of children to Rardin following a 90-minute meeting behind closed doors about why the diocese didn’t report abuse allegations it knew about for years. Earlier diocesan officials said they didn’t believe they had to report the cases because of the way they interpreted the law.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.