'People Losing Trust' in Bellevue Pastor, Seminary Leader Says

By James Dowd
Commercial Appeal [Memphis TN]
December 20, 2006,2845,MCA_25340_5225600,00.html

Alarmed by what he described as a crisis of the faithful at Bellevue Baptist Church, the president of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary said Tuesday the senior pastor of the Cordova congregation should resign.

Dr. Michael Spradlin, head of the seminary that moved across the street from Bellevue this summer, said Dr. Steve Gaines should step down because of his initial decision to remain silent amid allegations of sexual abuse involving a Bellevue minister.

Church leaders announced Monday that Paul Williams, a Bellevue staffer for 34 years, had been placed on paid leave pending an investigation regarding a "moral failure."

The alleged incident occurred 17 years ago. Details have not been made public by the church and Williams has not been formally charged with any wrongdoing, but claims of sexual abuse have been posted on the Internet.

"If Steve Gaines found out that a child had been sexually molested by one of his ministers and if he did nothing to address it, then he needs to step down immediately," Spradlin said. "We cannot take chances with other people's children. If he knew about this and kept quiet, then he's put Bellevue in a very dangerous position and possibly put children and the emotionally vulnerable at risk."

The decision is the most recent in a series of miscues made by Gaines since his arrival at Bellevue last year and the congregation has suffered, said Spradlin, who is also interim pastor at Germantown Baptist Church.

"There's a sense of Steve Gaines being the measure of what's right and what's wrong. If you agree with him, you're right and if you disagree, you're wrong," Spradlin said. "But I think he's spent all his credibility and people are losing trust in him."

Gaines acknowledged he became aware of the matter six months ago.

In a statement released Tuesday, Gaines wrote: "The past few days have been difficult ones as I have worked through an issue that no pastor wishes to face. We have had to place a minister on a paid leave of absence due to a past moral failure.

"I learned about this in June from the minister involved and believed the issue was settled. Two weeks ago I was surprised to find out that the issue was not settled.

"Some people have questioned why I waited for several months. It's simply this: I acted out of a heartfelt concern and compassion for this minister because the event occurred many years ago, he was receiving professional counseling; and I was concerned about confidentiality. In light of the events that have unfolded, I realize now that I should have discussed it further with this minister and brought it to the attention of our church leadership immediately."

Attempts to reach Williams Tuesday night were unsuccessful.

Spradlin agreed that the congregation should have been informed immediately and Williams relieved of his duties as soon as news of the situation surfaced. By remaining silent, and by keeping Williams on the payroll, he says inestimable damage has been done.

"People are watching this and talking about how it's being handled and the effect is that it puts everyone under suspicion," Spradlin said. "You can't fault someone for not knowing what to do, but you can fault them for not seeking advice on how to address a situation as tragic as this one. Keeping it hidden and hoping it will go away is not the way to handle it."

David Brown, former Bellevue member and coordinator of the West Tennessee chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said euphemisms don't work, either.

"If it turns out that there was in fact sexual abuse, then calling it a 'moral failure' is not acceptable at all," Brown said. "And there has to be total honesty. Here we have a religious leader who learned about a terrible situation and chose not to come forward."

But church leaders insist there has been no cover up. Results of the investigation, which should last a few weeks, will be released to the congregation as soon as findings are available.

"I think the important thing to remember is that Steve Gaines realized he made a mistake, he's taking ownership of that and trying his best to fix it," said Jim Barnwell, Bellevue's director of communications. "I don't believe there was a deliberate attempt to hide anything."

During the investigation, which includes Bellevue members and independent sources, Williams will not perform any ministerial duties or be on the Bellevue campus.

Mid-America seminary is on 51 acres donated by Bellevue and includes a 130,000-square-foot academic and administration complex, a 1,100-seat chapel, gymnasium, bookstore, dining hall and student lounge. The school has 450 students and receives financial assistance from the church, but is not controlled by Bellevue.

James Dowd: 529-2737

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