Bellevue Baptist mired in sex abuse scandal

CommercialAppeal.com

Moral failures thrive in silence

 


Thomas Wendi C.

January 14, 2007

When Bellevue Baptist minister Paul Williams asked Beth to describe the sexual abuse she endured as a girl, she wondered why he needed to know.

After all, Beth (not her real name) was simply there for the one-on-one counseling that abuse survivors undergo before they can volunteer in the church's nursery.

"I've always heard that people who abuse were abused," Beth said, so she shrugged off the icky feelings, assuming the questions were part of the church's measures to protect kids from predators.

Williams wanted to know if the molestation happened one time or if the abuse was ongoing. Was it a relative or a stranger? And what, he wanted to know, happened?

That session was more than two years ago. Beth, in her 30s, and her husband filed it away as an odd but insignificant incident -- until now.

Last month, Bellevue's senior pastor Steve Gaines told the church that Williams had confessed to a "moral indiscretion" that occurred 17 years ago. It allegedly involves the sexual abuse of a child.

Suddenly, Beth realized, Williams' line of questioning made sense. (She's using a pseudonym because The Commercial Appeal does not reveal the names of sex abuse victims.)

"There's no telling what [was] going through his mind as I'm telling him these things," Beth said. That a suspected pedophile might have been titillated by the story of her abuse at the hands of a since-deceased relative -- the thought turns her stomach.

Twice, Beth has been abused by men who violated her trust and misused their authority.

She was betrayed again by the legions of Bellevue members who say whatever Williams did in the past should be left there. If the victim hasn't complained, these people say, why should anyone else?

Beth has an answer for that one. Though she won't say what God can't do, "You'll never get me to believe there's a reformed pedophile."

A recovering alcoholic wouldn't take a job in a bar, and no repentant child abuser would think it wise to counsel sex abuse survivors.

"I was angry at [Williams] for putting himself in the position to ask that kind of question," said Beth, who seemed more resigned than angry. "The nerve of him."

Gaines has said he learned about what church leaders called Williams' "moral failure" in June, but didn't report Williams' confession to the police and didn't tell the congregation until December. He said he thought the matter was "settled."

As if sexual abuse, which claws through a survivor's psyche until she dies, is ever settled, ever a closed book, to be slid with finality to the back of a shelf.

Gaines has since admitted his silence was a lapse in judgment; whether that requires his resignation, as a vocal minority of Bellevue members are calling for, is a matter for the congregation to debate.

What's not debatable, says Kevin Rardin, chief prosecutor of child abuse for the DA's office, is that the law requires all adults to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the authorities.

Failure to do so is a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail.

Rardin did confirm that the Department of Children's Services is investigating, but he won't talk specifically about Gaines or Williams, a longtime staffer at the church and minister of prayer and special projects. But the law, Rardin noted, doesn't make exceptions for pastor-penitent privilege.

State law is silent about the duration of the duty to report, although an attorney general's opinion issued sometime in the 1980s suggests the duty ends when the victim turns 18.

But the AG's opinion isn't law, Rardin said, and over the years, the legislature has amended the relevant state statute to allow for the years, if not decades, it often takes adults to muster the courage to report childhood abuse.

So even though 17, 20 or even 25 years may pass, prosecution isn't impossible. Of the hundreds of child abuse cases Rardin has handled in the last five years, he's had to tell a victim only two or three times that too much time had elapsed to try the case.

Contrary to the amateur legal advice Rardin has read on some of the Bellevue-related Web sites, the statute of limitations doesn't apply, even if this offense occurred 17 years ago.

"In the late 1980s, if an adult raped a child under the age of 13, the applicable offense was called aggravated rape, and aggravated rape has no statute of limitations."

That's just one more reason for adults to report suspected child abuse, and here's another.

"Even though the victim in a particular incident might be an adult, experts say there's rarely one incident and rarely one victim," Rardin said.

Instead of asking when is too late to report suspected child abuse, Rardin wants to know why anyone would choose not make a report. "I don't really think we need the law to tell us what our duty is."

The law, after all, is man's rule, and this involves men of God, or so we presume.

Some Christians, Beth said, perhaps those who adhere to the "swallow and follow" rule of compliant churchgoers, think that because God called a man to serve, he's perfect. "But the Bible is full of people who were called of God and disobeyed."

Williams, by his own admission, is one -- and he's on paid leave and has been been banned from church property pending an internal investigation.

Bellevue released its interim report Friday on its Web site (bellevue.org), and will follow up with a final report within a few weeks, said Jeff Weintraub, Bellevue's legal counsel.

"The church has instructed me to uncover everything and we intend to fulfill that agenda," he said. "There will be no whitewashes or coverups."

Williams could not be reached for comment.

Beth hasn't shared her story with any of her friends or fellow church members, but she did pour out her heart in an anonymous letter on savingbellevue.com, one of the Web sites started by those frustrated by Gaines' leadership.

"Some of you have screamed 'touch not mine anointed,' " Beth wrote, referring to the psalm often misused to rebuke anyone who dares to criticize a minister.

"What are we to do," Beth wants to know, "when 'mine anointed' have touched us?"

If you suspect a child has been abused or neglected anywhere in Tennessee, call the statewide hotline, 1-877-237-0004. In Mississippi, call 1-800-222-8000 inside the state, or 601-359-4991. In Arkansas, call 1-800-482-5964.

Contact Wendi C. Thomas at (901) 529-5896 or send an e-mail.

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