Does it get any sicker than this?
At a flagship megachurch of the Southern Baptist Convention, church staffer James A. Hook sexually abused a 15-year-old church girl.
Hook sent the girl sexually explicit photos of her own mother – photos he had taken when he had an affair with the mother seven years earlier.
That’s just one of the details set forth in the complaint of a recently filed civil lawsuit in Memphis, Tennessee.
In a separate criminal case, Hook pled guilty to sexual battery by an authority figure. Police had found Hook together with the girl in a car.
The girl’s mother, identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe, had first begun attending the church after the affair with Hook ended and after Hook himself suggested that Doe and her husband get counseling from one of the church’s staff pastors, Eric Brand.
As alleged in the lawsuit, Pastor Brand shared sexually explicit photos of his own wife during the counseling sessions and he encouraged Jane Doe to do what his wife did so that Doe would keep her husband interested.
When Doe’s husband asked Brand to stop sharing the sexually explicit photos, Brand explained the photos were “for ministry.”
As if all of this wasn’t awful enough already, the surrounding circumstances of this story make it still worse.
According to the lawsuit’s allegations, Hook groomed the 15-year-old girl and “fomented his incredibly inappropriate relationship with her at Bellevue Baptist Church and some of the sexual abuse took place on the grounds of the church.”
Bellevue is a big church with a troubling history.
In 2006, its senior pastor Steve Gaines admitted to having knowledge that staff minister, Paul Williams, had sexually abused a child.
Gaines had “agreed to keep it quiet,” and for six months, Gaines did in fact keep Williams’ secret, not reporting the child molestation to police and not informing the congregation.
Gaines disclosed it only after a blogger had already made public the news that the church was harboring a child-molesting minister.
The church then conducted an investigation, which reported that minister Williams had engaged in “egregious, perverse sexual activity” with a child over a period of 12 to 18 months.
It also said that not only had Gaines known about Williams’ abuse of a child, but also that other church staffers had known, and yet congregants were kept in the dark.
The investigation concluded, “There appears to have been no serious consideration given by anyone to the health and safety of the Bellevue family.”
Ordinary decent people might imagine that, with such a report from the church’s own investigation, Gaines would have faced serious consequences. But that’s not necessarily how things work in Baptist churches.
Not only did Gaines remain at Bellevue, but in 2016, the Southern Baptist Convention elected him as president of the denomination.
For many Baptist abuse survivors, it felt as though Gaines was essentially rewarded for having successfully navigated the media exposure of a clergy sex abuse cover-up.
And now, sadly, with still another abuse case inside its doors, it appears that Bellevue didn’t learn much from its prior experience. Such is the consequence of a lack of consequences.
In the currently pending lawsuit, the complaint says, “Members of Bellevue Baptist Church came to Hook’s sentencing hearing to show support and ask the judge for leniency.”
So again, we see that many in the church apparently view sexual abuse as a matter meriting little consequence.
And with the teen girl seeking some measure of accountability through the civil justice system, the church denies liability and seeks to get her case tossed out by filing a motion to dismiss.
Oh, and that prior child-molesting minister Paul Williams? He didn’t face much in the way of consequences either. He moved just down the road to another Southern Baptist church, where he was asked to be a trustee.
The church newsletter reported that Williams went on at least seven church mission trips to Albania, where he helped renovate a kindergarten classroom.
Brown is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang and serves on the Board of Advisors for the Child-Friendly Faith Project.
Clohessy is the former longtime director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, and currently serves as SNAP’s volunteer director for St. Louis.