Arkansas Baptists seek dismissal of sexual abuse lawsuit

Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC): "Plaintiff Fields incorrectly claims that the ABSC was in control of the church and the pastor and therefore should have known about and prevented the alleged abuse. ... The ABSC denies ever exercising any control over Millcreek or any other Arkansas Baptist church. In fact, the ABSC is prohibited by both The Baptist Faith & Message and the ABSC's governing documents from ever interfering with the operations and/or ministry of any autonomous ABSC church." - BPNews

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Bert Perry's picture

Looks like the core of the allegations at hand are being made by a very angry ex wife.  If the suit were just against the church, you've got the testimony of the young man (ewww.....), but since it involves the association, the key of this suit is whether they knew.

Since perjury appears to be incredibly common in divorce cases (and unpunished), this one has an uphill battle unless someone really collapses in cross examination.  Word to the wise; if you're giving someone a call regarding such a matter, as is alleged to have occurred in this case, check to see whether your state has one party or two party consent for recording the conversation.  This is especially the case if you've caught your husband abusing a boy and are going to present him with divorce papers.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bert Perry's picture

My thought is that if the victim wasn't in the room with the ex-wife when (if) she made the calls, it becomes a he said/she said that's hard to prove either way unless someone gets caught badly in cross examination.  Even with two witnesses one way, it's difficult.

Regarding the overall suit, my take is that the filing by the state association is probably going to fail because the association is appealing to the "Baptist Faith and Message", which is in effect the "club rules".  So if I'm the lawyer for the plaintiffs, I simply point out what BF & M is, and then assert that since the club has rules, they also are somewhat responsible when one of their members blatantly violates them.  

(you might joke it's guilt by the association called the "Arkansas Baptist State Convention")

No prediction from me on whether the overall lawsuit will win or lose.  Just praying that whatever happens, justice is done.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jeremy Horn's picture

Your analysis really only works if the local association and or state convention have the same authority and government structure as Presbyterianism. They don't have the authority to remove/formally discipline a pastor or church staff member from an individual church. At most they can remove a church if the church fails to remove the pastor/staff member. That requires that the association/ state convention have knowledge of the situation. It also assumes that for whatever reason the church isn't handling it properly and refuses to do so for some reason.

It's important to note that the SBC(local association, state conventions, National) is not a credobaptist version of Presbyterianism. The BFM is not the only governing document for the associations, state conventions, national convention.

It will be interesting to see what happens with this case and potential implications for formal associations of independent churches.

Bert Perry's picture

Jeremy, I know that's the party line, but the Southern Baptists--the parent denomination of the Arkansas convention here--have expelled a number of churches for serious breaches of "club rules" in the past, including women pastors and homosexual pastors.  They don't have direct authority, but as recent events in the national association regarding child sexual abuse have demonstrated, they do have the right to tell a church that their choice is to remove an errant pastor or be disfellowshipped from the association.

Plus, clergy members are mandatory reporters in Arkansas.  So if indeed a phone call and followup was made, and nobody took action, yes, there will be civil liability.  I don't know if that can be proven, but Southern Baptist polity does not protect them any more in this, if it ever did.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jeremy Horn's picture

I am currently a member of an SBC church. Any level higher does not have the authority to remove a pastor. They can advise and strongly recommend that church remove a pastor/staff member all they want, but they church is not obligated to listen. No different than IFB churches actually. SBC churches are just as autonomous as IFB churches. Regarding removing a church from membership, I already stated that the only thing  the association can do is remove a church from membership. The Mandatory reporter is a legal step(they have to be aware of an accusation in order for that to apply I am talking ecclesiastical discipline. SBC associations above local church simply do not have that authority to remove/discipline church pastors/staff members.

That's not a simple party line as you call it, it's reality.

Mark_Smith's picture

Look, if the woman did talk to the association person and told him about suspected abuse, it is unconscionable for the man to not have acted. This is not about the BFM or any other "rules" or protocol. If a minister of the gospel is sexually assaulting someone, and you are told about it, you act by reporting it. I am tired of Christian "leaders", whether it be pastors, elders, deacons, or associational leaders, claiming that the rules mean they can't act. OK, you can't make the church fire the guy. But you can contact Child Services. You can tell the elders/deacons what you have found out. That is the minimum that should be done. Why are leaders so willing to let such obviously despicable men serve in positions of leadership? What else are they winking at? It lets me know that many others are disqualified for a lot of other reasons. Christ is weeping....

Now, if all that is true, is the association on the hook for $10 million? No. Not in my opinion. Did the woman call the police and Child Services?

Bert Perry's picture

Jeremy, the point is that if a state association has a member that egregiously violates club rules and does not take efforts within their constitution to deal with that, and someone is hurt, there is legal liability.  That's a position that no less than J.D. Greear has taken.  

And really, do you want to be part of a church association that tolerates pederasts/rapists in the pulpits of member churches?   For my part, if someone asks me what the situation would be in the MARBC, my response would be "we don't directly hire or fire pastors in churches in our fellowship, but if I became aware of such at a member church, you bet I'd be pushing for their repentance or expulsion."  If congregationalism means that fellow churches need to accept any and every behavior from a church in the association, count me out.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jeremy Horn's picture

Mark, my comments above are how the SBC as a whole functions(in regard to member churches). The steps you mentioned are the only steps they can take, which I already mentioned in my previous post. According to the article, the plaintiff seems to assume that the association and state convention have an actual hierarchial structure than they do(it's possible they function that way contrary to the rules).

But all this assumes that these groups were informed of the situation. The article doesn't say one way or another and I doubt we'll find out until it goes to court. A good rule of thumb is that the bigger an organization is, the harder it is to keep track of everything.


Bert Perry's picture

The ABSC and its executive director J.D. "Sonny" Tucker answered Fields' latest amended complaint Feb. 26. Tucker is accused, among other allegations, of failing to notify authorities when Hill's former wife Carolyn Latham told Tucker she had reason to believe Hill had sexually abused Fields and other minors, according to court documents.

Tucker, head of the organization, is accused of not taking any action when personally told about the matter.  He had at least two avenues for action if evidence supports the notion that Latham contacted him, and another article on BP about the matter suggests several contacts were made..  I'd personally be surprised if the lawyer took a case if he wasn't persuaded that the call(s?) were made.   

(again, if your state is one party consent-MN is, as is AR--and you're reporting or hearing something really significant, why let there be debate about what was said and to whom? Record it!)

So it's not a question of the organization being able to filter things; the organization is named because its head is accused of not taking either of two courses of action he had available.  

Per Mark's note, I don't like things not going to criminal court.  I want rapists to spend time in the graybar hotel as much as anyone.  That said, if the evidence cools before charges can be filed in part because mandatory reporters fail to do their duty, what are the aggrieved to do? 

Moreover, if a Star-Tribune series from a few years back was indicative, the police tend to do a good basic job (no Sherlock Holmes heroics, just basic Watson) investigating reports only about 20% of the time.  One would infer that there are a significant number of real victims who didn't get any effort for justice for the police; what are they to do?  The hurt doesn't go away just because "Officer Friendly" says "this one doesn't look interesting enough to get me off traffic patrol", after all.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jeremy Horn's picture

Based on the following quote  I am getting the impression that the Fields and Latham were expecting the ASBC and Diamond Lakes Association to do more than simply report and influence the church to get rid of Hill.

"Both the ABSC and Dr. Tucker specifically deny all of the claims made by the plaintiff," the Arkansas Baptist reported. "Plaintiff Fields incorrectly claims that the ABSC was in control of the church and the pastor and therefore should have known about and prevented the alleged abuse. ... The ABSC denies ever exercising any control over Millcreek or any other Arkansas Baptist church. In fact, the ABSC is prohibited by both The Baptist Faith & Message and the ABSC's governing documents from ever interfering with the operations and/or ministry of any autonomous ABSC church."

Regarding Congregational Government(using Ryrie's terminology), Ryrie has this to say about  Congregationalism in his Basic Theology 1999 edition pg 472

"Authority. Basically the congregational form of government means that ultimate authority for governing the church rests in the members themselves.

Autonomy. Additionally, it also means that each individual church is an autonomous unit with no individual or organization above it, except Christ the head."

Ryrie also talk about Responsibility and Fellowship in Congregationalism, but I wanted to highlight the first two distinctives of Congregationalism as those seem more relevant to this current discussion. A survey of Baptist church constitutions will also bear these distinctives out.

i can understand and respect that the autonomy of Congregationalism bothers you, but autonomy is an essential distinctive of congregational government. If that bothers you(again I can respect and understand that), then you might feel more comfortable in presbyterian type form of church government.