Bellevue pastor admits withholding abuse report from authorities

Action News 5 [Memphis, TN]

May 24, 2022

By Joyce Peterson

An independent investigation commissioned by the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, showed that sexual abuse allegations were ignored or covered up by church elders for nearly 20 years.

That scathing report named Steve Gaines, the senior pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church, as one of the SBC leaders who “protected or even supported abusers.”

SBC leadership called for this investigation at last year’s annual convention. Guidepost Solutions took seven months to complete its investigation, looking at incidents between January 1, 2000 and June 14, 2021.

The nearly 300-page report concluded, “to survivors, the 2016 election of Steve Gaines as SBC President conveyed the message that a clergy sex abuse cover-up was considered ‘no big deal.’”

It was a stunning remark about Gaines, spiritual leader of one of the largest churches in the Mid-South: Bellevue Baptist in Cordova, 30,000 members strong.

Gaines became Bellevue’s senior pastor in 2005. In 2006, he waited six months before reporting that one of his ministers, Paul Williams, had sexually abused his own son. Gaines told Guidepost investigators he failed to report it out of “heartfelt concern and compassion for the minister.”

In a statement to Action News 5, Pastor Gaines said:

“When I was informed, I believed that it was being properly taken care of and did not know my obligation to report it to authorities. I now know I did not handle the situation properly.”

Williams was put on leave in December 2006, then ultimately fired.

Another more recent event at Bellevue Baptist Church, not mentioned in the report, happened in May 2019. James Hook, a paid volunteer at Bellevue, pleaded guilty to sexual battery by an authority figure after cops found a 16-year-old hiding under a blanket in his car in a park.

The victim’s family filed a civil suit against Bellevue in 2020, saying church leaders failed to remove Hook after they were warned about suspicious behavior and that behavior, said the suit, happened on church property. The church denied all accusations.

Bellevue officials said the church now offers training to spot and report suspected abuse. Videos and important resources are posted on the church’s website.

“We do not and will not tolerate abuse of any kind and desire complete transparency and accountability,” Gaines told Guidepost investigators.

The Guidepost investigation found that SBC kept a running list of clergy suspected of sexual abuse. SBC leaders announced Tuesday, May 24 that they intend to publish that list, promising more transparency. No date has been set for the release of that information.