Bellevue Baptist Church has terminated a minister whose admission of sexual misconduct put the suburban Memphis mega-church in the center of a scandal that has received national attention.
Bellevue’s personnel committee voted Sunday to dismiss Paul Williams, minister of prayer and special projects, after 34 years on the church staff, effective Monday, Jan. 22, according to a statement on the church Web site.
The committee made the decision after reviewing a report by an investigative committee appointed in December, after Bellevue Pastor Steve Gaines told the church that Williams had confessed a moral failure to him six months earlier that occurred 17 years ago. Gaines did not disclose the nature of the transgression, but a Web site critical of his leadership said it involved sexual abuse of Williams’ own son.
In addition to determining Williams’ employment status, the investigating committee investigation also planned to determine if there are other victims and to review policies and processes to ensure the health and safety of kids.
The personnel committee said it would present its full report and recommendations following the 6:30 p.m. worship service on Sunday, Jan. 28.
With 30,000 members, Bellevue Baptist Church is one of the largest and most influential churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Its former longtime pastor, the late Adrian Rogers, was three-time president of the SBC and a pivotal figure in the “conservative resurgence” of the 1980s and 1990s.
The Williams scandal brought media attention to the church, already divided over Gaines’ leadership. Already under fire for his leadership and worship styles, news that he kept Williams’ confession secret for six months brought calls for his resignation from Michael Spradlin, president of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, conservative talk-show host Michael Reagan and columnist Don Boys. Bott Radio targeted listeners in Memphis with a discussion of pastoral leadership not heard in other cities, without mentioning Gaines or Bellevue by name. The founder of a conservative “biblical discernment” ministry said both Williams and Gaines should be sued for endangering Bellevue’s children.
The head of Bellevue’s personnel committee told church members Williams had been placed on administrative leave pending investigation into “a past but highly concerning moral failure.”
Gaines described it as a “church matter,” and said he agreed to honor the confidentiality of the confession for six months because Williams told him it was a one-time occurrence and the family had resolved the problem.
Gaines said he pulled out of the confidentiality pact after he learned not all family members agreed the matter is resolved. Critics said Gaines decided to come clean only after details of the incident were reported in a blog Dec. 14.
An assistant district attorney in charge of prosecuting sex crimes against children said the law requires all adults to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the authorities. He said the law does not make exceptions for confidentiality between clergy and church members.
The prosecutor, Kevin Rardin, isn’t commenting about the DA office’s investigation into the church’s handling of the matter.
An interim report by Bellevue’s personnel committee Jan. 12 said it was “cooperating fully” with the Department of Child Services through counsel.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.