Advocates for survivors of clergy sex abuse say they are disappointed the Southern Baptist Convention has elected a new president once accused of shielding a child molester.
“We’re disappointed that the Southern Baptist Convention just elected Bellevue Baptist pastor Steve Gaines as president,” said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “He covered up abuse by minister Paul Williams for at least six months.”
Gaines, elected by acclamation June 15 as president of the nation’s largest faith group behind Roman Catholics, nearly lost his pulpit 10 years ago for not telling his church that a longtime staff member had confessed in counseling to sexually abusing a family member 17 years earlier.
Gaines kept the secret for six months until details of the incident appeared in a blog.
Bellevue Baptist Church fired Paul Williams, minister of prayer and special projects who served at the church 34 years, in January 2007 after an investigation into a “moral failure” he had confessed to Gaines six months earlier.
Gaines said he agreed to confidentiality because he mistakenly believed the matter was settled within the family and since the man had repented and asked God to forgive his sin, there was no point in dredging it up after nearly two decades. Gaines later said he should have alerted church leaders immediately, but he had never encountered a situation like that before.
One of Williams’ responsibilities at the church was to counsel potential nursery workers who answered affirmatively to a question about whether they had experienced abuse in their own backgrounds.
“No matter what church officials do or don’t do, we urge every single person who saw, suspected or suffered child sex crimes and cover ups in Baptist churches or institutions to protect kids by calling police, get help by calling therapists, expose wrongdoers by calling law enforcement, get justice by calling attorneys, and be comforted by calling support groups like ours,” Clohessy said. “This is how kids will be safer, adults will recover, criminals will be prosecuted, cover ups will be deterred and the truth will surface.”
Christa Brown, a former activist who for years catalogued clergy sex offenses on the website stopbaptistpredators.org, said the election of Gaines to lead the nation’s largest Protestant group speaks loud and clear: “Clergy child molestation cover-ups are no big deal in Baptistland.”
Brown campaigned unsuccessfully a decade ago to persuade SBC leaders to develop a nationwide system for receiving, evaluating and sharing reports of clergy sex abuse. The convention declined, citing autonomy of the local church.
Recently Clohessy and other SNAP leaders called on two SBC officials to at a minimum create a central “safe place” office to which Baptist clergy sex abuse survivors can file reports about their alleged perpetrators. Clohessy said June 16 that neither Executive Committee President Frank Page nor Ethics and Religious Liberty head Russell Moore has acknowledged receipt of the open letter released June 3.
Clohessy, an abuse survivor who testified before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, predicted that if the SBC persists in doing nothing that the next “Spotlight”-style exposé will focus on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
Bellevue isn’t the only high-profile Southern Baptist megachurch questioned for its handling of reported child abuse. In 2013 protestors stood outside Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, alleging cover-up of a former staff member who molested multiple boys in the late 1980s.
Prestonwood Pastor Jack Graham served as SBC president in 2003-2004 and was featured at this year’s SBC Pastor’s Conference just prior to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 14-15 in St. Louis, Mo.