Bellevue Baptist Church was "ill-prepared on several fronts" to handle a long-time staff member's confession that he sexually abused his son 17 years earlier, according to an investigative team report delivered to the Memphis mega-church Sunday night.
Bellevue leaders launched the probe after informing the congregation Dec. 17 about a "moral failure" involving Paul Williams, minister of prayer and special projects. While earlier official reports didn't disclose details, Sunday's report confirmed that Williams openly admitted to inappropriate sexual behavior with his son.
"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."
Few people knew about the incident until 2006, when a retired Bellevue staff member, Jamie Fish of the church's Biblical Guidance office, Pastor Steve Gaines and others were made aware, yet told no one.
"When looking at the sequence of events over the 17-year period based on interviews with all witnesses, one glaring fact stands out," the report said. "Starting with Paul, there appears to have been no serious consideration given by anyone to the health and safety of the Bellevue family."
"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," it continued. "His only consideration appears to have been to keep his job and, in the team's opinion, to stay out of jail.
"If he had considered the welfare of the church family, he would have resigned. The molestation of a child is bad enough, but to continue on in a ministerial capacity with responsibility for sensitive areas of our church life is without excuse."
"Even as others learned of the issue in 2005 and 2006," the report continued, "there appears to have been no serious consideration of the consequences on our church and church family with regard to Paul's responsibility on the church staff."
The committee offered several possible explanations for that lack of concern. One was that some witnesses who talked to the group felt that since Williams and confessed and asked forgiveness from his son, wife and the Lord, it was "under the blood" and there was no need to deal with it further. Another was that Williams didn't work directly with children, so some witnesses didn't believe he posed a threat.
While such reasons might have seemed right at the time, the committee reported, "they still do not excuse the fact that common sense would say that Paul should not have been involved in sensitive responsibilities on the church staff or on the staff at all. Also, the decision to address an issue such as Paul's should have been made with multiple counsel.
Gaines reportedly told the committee he erred when he decided on his own to keep Williams' admission confidential until Williams' son and two friends came to Gaines Dec. 7 asking why Williams was allowed to remain on staff.
"The pastor stated that he had never dealt with an incident of this type before," according to the report. "Further, there were no policies and procedures in place that he had been trained to follow.
"In the past, the circle of information on any problems of a sensitive nature in the church was kept very tight to protect the families of the individuals and to protect the church from embarrassment.
"There has been a feeling that policy and procedures of this type 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 committee said it found no evidence that other children were endangered by Williams' ministry at Bellevue Baptist Church. The group did interview persons, however, who felt they were violated by Williams asking them inappropriate questions.
One of Williams' duties was to interview volunteer workers who indicated on an application they had been past victims of sexual abuse. In the future, the committee recommended, persons conducting those interviews should be properly trained, specific questions about sexual abuse should not be asked and people should typically be interviewed by a person of their own sex.
The church offered counseling for individuals who feel they were harmed by Williams' actions. The committee also proposed drafting of new policies and procedures, along with training for current and future staff.
Williams has been removed from the church staff, and a committee will consider revoking his ordination.
"Paul Williams must bear the primary responsibility for putting the health and safety of the church at risk for 17 years by not stepping down from employment at the church when the incident occurred," the report said. "Furthermore, by accepting duties and responsibilities in areas of the church where he would deal with sexually abused adult victims, he placed himself in a position to cause them additional harm."
While it wasn't a primary question in the investigation, the committee said it found no evidence that Gaines' predecessor, former three-time Southern Baptist Convention president Adrian Rogers, knew about Williams' behavior. Williams reportedly told the committee he never told Rogers, who died in 2005.
The report said Williams was also sexually abused as a child. "Paul is a victim, as is his son and the rest of the family," it said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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