CORDOVA, Tenn. (ABP) — Paul Williams, minister of prayer and special projects at Bellevue Baptist Church, sexually abused his son 17 years ago, according to a report from the church's investigative committee. The committee announced its findings to the congregation Jan. 28.
“Paul Williams engaged in egregious, perverse, sexual activity with his adolescent son over a period of 12 to 18 months,” the report said. “Paul became convicted of his actions, and he stopped. He asked for forgiveness from his son and never touched him inappropriately again. At that time Paul told no one else.”
Williams first came under public suspicion Dec. 17, after Bellevue leaders told the church he had committed a “moral failure” that required his leave of absence and an investigation into the allegations. Williams has since been fired.
The month-long investigation, lead by David Coombs, administrative pastor, included interviews with witnesses, the seizure of Williams' computers, and three face-to-face interviews with Williams.
Williams, who had served at Bellevue for 34 years, told investigators he was sexually abused as a child.
Steve Gaines, senior pastor at the Memphis-area megachurch, told the congregation Williams had confessed the misconduct to him six months earlier. Gaines later said he should have immediately disclosed the information to church leadership. Gaines did not participate in the investigation.
At least 10 people affiliated with the church knew about the abuse before Dec. 7, when William's now-married son and two friends told Gaines, the report said. The group included family members, a retired Bellevue staff member, and Jamie Fish, who works in the church's Biblical Guidance office. Adrian Rogers, the now-deceased legendary pastor of Bellevue, reportedly was unaware of Williams' abuse.
Christa Brown, founder of Voice to Stop Baptist Predators, said she isn't surprised that so many people knew about the abuse. The “miracle” is that it was publicized at all, she said. Brown also works for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a volunteer self-help organization of survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
“In many ways, the dynamics of clergy abuse are akin to the dynamics of incest, except the church family is much bigger,” she said. “In most cases, other ministerial colleagues and deacons and often even church family members are simply not capable of receiving that kind of information about a beloved minister and objectively considering it, investigating, and doing the right thing.”
That's why churches should use outside intervention with cases like this, Brown added. She emphasized that denominational offices should give congregations resources for handling clergy abuse. And she called for a denominational office — not run by the local churches — to which victims can report crimes.
“If a church with the sort of resources that Bellevue has … still did such an awful job of handling this, why would anyone imagine that churches with much lesser resources would be capable of handling it any better than Bellevue?” she said. “They aren't. It's usually even worse.”
Had Williams considered the welfare of the church family, he would have resigned, committee members said. While molesting a child is bad enough, to continue working in ministerial duties involving sensitive issues is without excuse, committee members wrote in the report.
“Starting with Paul, there appears to have been no serious consideration given by anyone to the health and safety of the Bellevue family,” the report said. “On Paul's part, there appears to never have been any time in 17 years that any consideration was given to the effect that having a child molester on the ministerial staff of Bellevue Baptist Church would have on the church. His only consideration appears to have been to keep his job and, in the team's opinion, to stay out of jail.”
According to the report, Williams did not seek help for himself or his son until recently, when his son initiated counseling. Williams told investigators he “checked every year or so to make sure all was right” between the two of them.
Calling the church “ill-prepared,” the report blamed a “lack of knowledge” for the delay in removing Williams from his post. No policies on problems of “a sensitive nature” existed, and a precedent of keeping those issues under wraps in order to protect the church and families from embarrassment led leaders to avoid disclosure, the report said.
“Policies, procedures and protocols were and are inadequate,” committee members said. “There has been a feeling that policy and procedures of this type [regarding sexual abuse] were more suitable for the world than for the church. This feeling is not only found in Bellevue Baptist Church, but also is prevalent across churches in general. The events relating to the Paul Williams issue have vividly brought to light the need for change.”
The investigation committee stated Williams “did not pose a danger or risk to children at the church” from 2006, when Bellevue Baptist Church ministers learned of his past sexual misconduct, until the time of his dismissal. However, some church members told interviewers they felt they had been violated by Williams when he asked inappropriate questions in the course of his ministerial duties.
The committee recommended that Bellevue provide or pay for counseling for those who felt they were harmed by Williams or felt hurt by the church's inaction. Bellevue is in contact with the Tennessee Department of Child Services through its attorneys and is cooperating fully with that agency.