A prominent Southern Baptist mega-church has placed a long-time staff member on administrative leave and launched an internal investigation into allegations he molested a member of his family 17 years ago.
Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., said Sunday that Paul Williams, a minister of prayer and special projects, confessed the inappropriate behavior to him six months ago, but Gaines agreed to keep it quiet until two weeks ago, when he learned some family members did not agree the matter was resolved.
But a Web site critical of Gaines’ leadership accused the successor to the late three-time Southern Baptist Convention president Adrian Rogers of harboring a pedophile and coming clean only after details of the incident appeared in a blog Dec. 14.
Bryan Miller of the church’s personnel committee read a statement at the close of Sunday’s morning worship service about what Gaines termed a “church matter.”
“A past but highly concerning moral failure by a staff member has come to the attention of the leadership of the church,” Miller said. “Accordingly, in conjunction with the advice of legal counsel, we have asked Paul Williams to take a leave of absence to allow for a confidential but complete investigation into this situation.”
Miller said Williams is undergoing Christian counseling but will have no church responsibilities and will not be on campus during the review.
Gaines said he had a “confidential meeting” with Williams in June where the staff member shared what happened in his family 17 years ago. Gaines said Williams told him the activity had not reoccurred and he had been to counseling both when it happened and in recent months. Because of those factors, Gaines said, “I made the decision of honoring the confidentiality of that meeting I had with Paul.”
But after meeting with a family member of Williams about two weeks ago, Gaines said, “it became obvious to me that some of the members of the Williams family, with some certain aspects of the situation, were not completely resolved. And I realized in that meeting that my continued confidentiality was no longer an option.”
Christa Brown, an advocate for victims of clergy sex abuse, said the fact there was reportedly “no reoccurrence” is irrelevant.
“Whatever the reasons for why Gaines chose to protect Williams instead of protecting kids, they aren’t good enough,” she said.
Brown said “a dog may get one bite, but a minister doesn’t get one kid,” adding that Williams “should have been removed from ministry and reported to the police immediately.”
“When it comes to child sex abuse, once is more than enough,” Brown said. “You don’t wait to see if it’s going to happen again.”
Brown, an attorney and mother who says she was sexually abused decades ago as a teenager in a Southern Baptist church in Texas, has asked leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and Baptist General Convention of Texas to adopt safeguards against pedophiles in Baptist churches.
“Clergy child molesters persist precisely because ministers like Steve Gaines turn a blind eye,” Brown said. “Until Baptists institute accountability procedures, not only for accused perpetrators, but also for the many Baptist leaders who turn a blind eye, church kids won’t be safe.”
Bellevue isn’t the only Southern Baptist church in the news over allegations of clergy sex abuse with minors.
On Sunday the Denton Record-Chronicle published a story about two lawsuits naming ministers of Southmont Baptist Church in Denton, Texas, and Bolivar Baptist Church near Sanger, Texas, both alleging the pastors abused girls who came to them for counseling when the girls were 14.
The pastor of Southmont, Larry Reynolds, settled his lawsuit, as reported Nov. 20 by EthicsDaily.com. Part of the settlement required him to issue an apology at a church Thanksgiving banquet Nov. 19. Last Sunday the church held a meeting to discuss whether to fire Reynolds as pastor, and dozens of church members spoke up in his defense.
A separate lawsuit filed in June accuses Bolivar Pastor Dale “Dickie” Amyx, 61, of inappropriately touching a now 46-year-old woman when she was 14 and having sex with her beginning when she was 15. EthicsDaily.com quoted the woman who filed the suit, Debbie Vasquez, anonymously in a story Oct. 11.
The suit alleges Amyx is the father of her child born when she was 18, and that she was forced to go before the church, a now-defunct congregation in Lewisville, Texas, to confess being an unwed mother but told not to disclose her pastor was the father.
According to Sunday’s newspaper report, Amyx said in a sworn deposition the girl was 17, the age of legal consent, when they began having an affair. He said he is sorry and never meant to hurt her. He said he paid child support for nine years after being ordered by a judge when the child was 9.
Brown and other members of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in September called on the Southern Baptist Convention to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for sex offenders and establish of an independent review board to investigate and educate churches about sexual abuse.
SBC leaders haven’t officially responded, but a convention spokesman in October said leaders were sympathetic and open to dialogue but needed more time to “vet the specific requests” made by the group.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas has one of the most thorough processes for dealing with reports of clergy sexual misconduct among state Baptist groups, but Brown says it doesn’t go far enough.
SNAP has asked that a confidential file listing names of ministers involved in sexual misconduct–including but not limited to pedophiles–be made public, so parents and people in the pews can have information they need to protect their kids. The convention currently releases the information, which is reported voluntarily by churches, only to congregations that request it in the context of interviewing a prospective minister.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.