Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Officials at Jefferson Street church accused of sexual exploitation and abuse

Sex abuse scandals in religion tend to be assumed to be a Catholic and not a Protestant problem, which some diligent observers insist is an exaggeration. We should not be surprised to hear allegations of sex abuse emerge from various congregations from time-to-time, especially in personal counseling situations, where parishioners are in vulnerable situations and ministers exercise increased influence.

The latest allegations involve Mount Zion Baptist Church, a historic and prominent church on Jefferson Street (which also has congregations in Antioch and far North Nashville):

The claims were made on behalf of four former female parishioners. According to the suit, the women were sexually exploited and abused during counseling sessions sponsored by the church. The lawsuit goes on to claim that this abuse was not an isolated incident. The plaintiffs accuse the church of recruiting woman for exploration, sexual battery and psychological and spiritual manipulation for nearly ten years.

The charges were filed against the church and specifically against Bishop Joseph Walker III who one woman claims participated and aided the abuse.

One of the four women went on TV with specific allegations:

"It's not right. It's not right. That's why I'm doing it, at whatever cost," said Valencia Batson in an exclusive interview with Channel 4 News. "It's not right and it just needs to stop."

Batson said until now, fear kept her from coming forward with explosive allegations against Walker and Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

"Church is not to get sick," said Batson. "It's to get better, to be better."

Friday, the 42-year-old real estate broker filed a civil suit claiming she was sexually abused and spiritually and psychologically manipulated at the hands of the bishop and other church leaders.

"When you're in a position of power, you're not to misuse that power," said Batson. "It is not for you to take control over another person and have them do things for your benefit or your pleasure. That is abuse because you're damaging that other person."

Batson wouldn't speak in detail about the alleged abuse, but claimed it started two years after she joined the church.

Batson and three other women listed as "Jane Does" in the suit claim they would meet with Walker and other leaders for counseling and were coerced into sex at a time when they were most vulnerable.

"There is an incident where I was forced to do something while someone else watched," said Batson.

Still, Batson stayed at the church for 11 years.

"All of me was trapped there. My spirit was in that place and I didn't know how to get out," said Batson. "I didn't know how to leave."

"It's a secret society where you don't say anything, but you know what's going on because you're either arranging it or you're participating in it," she said.

Batson said she was afraid to call police, but one time told a church leader about her concerns and was threatened.

The church is denying the charges.

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