Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Report Says that Baptist Minister in Memphis Sexually Abused Son; Church Leaders Less Than Accountable in Response

Originally published at Free Tennessee:

Last Sunday Bellevue Baptist Church--a Fundamentalist Memphis institution--issued a report specifying allegations of that one of the ministers, Paul Williams, had molested his son over the period of a year or a year-and-a-half 17 years ago.  Several years after the abuse stopped, Williams told an unidentified retired Bellevue staff member, who kept the information a secret. The report says that Williams told no one else for fear of losing his Bellevue job.  However, throughout 2006, several ministers and others at Bellevue became aware of the abuse after Williams's son and family sought counseling from a "non-Bellevue psychologist."
The report concludes that no one with knowledge of the molestation ever appeared to give any consideration to the "the effect of having a child molester on the ministerial staff" would have on the church.  In early 2006 "a trained psychologist" and a former church staffer learned of the abuse and could have contacted the Department of Child Services.  The psychologist chose to insist that Williams "follow through with the Biblical principle of being under authority and go to his pastor and confess."  Senior Pastor Steve Gaines found out about the abuse early in the fall of 2006, but did not focus on Williams's church responsibilities until December, when the abused son asked Gaines why Williams should be allowed to continue "in light of the scriptural qualifications for ministers."  Rev. Gaines has been roundly criticized for his actions.

Despite the fact that the reports claim that there are no excuses for the mistakes in these events, the language used by the church still indicates a lack of accountability on the part of church leaders.  The Memphis Commercial Appeal quotes report writers as referring to Williams's own abuse as a child in connection with the cycle of abuse he perpetrated on his son.  While it is widely acknowledged that abuse tends to get passed on in families, there is no necessary causal link between the abuse Williams suffered and the abuse he made his son suffer.  By linking these events, leaders minimize Williams's free choice in the matter.
Also, at no place in the report do investigators challenge the hierarchic "authority" structure--favored by Fundamentalist churches--that would perpetuate abuse and that probably led--especially in the case of the "trained psychologist"--to delay reform and to belay the prevention of future abuse.  The Fundamentalist authority structure was found lacking in these events precisely because the senior pastor denied his own responsibility by saying that he had never dealt with such an incident.  However, the highest authority ought to claim the most responsibility.  Further, he called the events "uncharted waters," a comment which critics rightly point out to be false, given that abuse has happened in churches for a long time.
In fact, it is precisely in those narrowly-defined, rigid structures (pastor/laity; husband/wife; master/slave) unapologetically unbeholden to the outside world where abuse is more likely to be hidden, unacknowledged, and denied.  The report does recommend that church staff, including the senior pastor receive DCS training on responding to molestation, but that further brings into question the idea that a pastor or any minister should claim hierarchic authority over laity.

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