Filings in sex-abuse suit against Bellevue Baptist Church reignite parents’ claim

Daily Memphian [Memphis TN]

June 16, 2022

By Ben Wheeler

New court documents show that leaders of the Bellevue Baptist Church fired a paid volunteer coordinator accused of sexual abuse, and he did not resign as they previously stated, a move that has led to a motion to reopen a portion of the civil case.

The case, filed against the Southern Baptist Convention-member megachurch, was filed in 2020 and settled in part in early June, when Janet Doe, the victim of sexual assault by James Ashley Hook, 47, accepted a sealed settlement. While the victim was compensated in the suit, claims brought by her parents were dismissed.

Lawyers for the Does say a deposition by church officials backs the basis for the claims that the church had adequate knowledge of suspicious behavior of Hook, who was fired before he was arrested and did not resign as church officials have previously claimed.

The parents are asking for a motion to reconsider the complaint for relief, which was filed in Shelby County Circuit Court Wednesday.

“Their first press release said he resigned, he didn’t resign,” said Gary Smith, attorney for the Doe family. “He was terminated because they suspected his activity. We feel that it’s obvious that they had a duty to warn the parents of their concerns about his activities.”

“All of this would’ve been avoided.”

Hook was found in a Memphis park with Janet Doe, then 16, hiding under a blanket in his car in May 2019.

At the time of the arrest, Bellevue Baptist was quoted in media reports as saying Hook was a “former part-time employee” and that he resigned from his position two months before his arrest and discovery of the relationship with Janet Doe.

Hook was charged with sexual battery by an authority figure and solicitation of a minor. He served six months in jail and received five years of probation. He was arrested again in February 2022 for violating rules connected to the sex offender registry.

Within the filings were semi-redacted depositions of church leader and former SBC president Steve Gaines, Bellevue Children’s Ministry Pastor Ken Hindman and former childcare coordinator Gwen Kaluzny.

In the deposition of Hindman, Smith asked Hindman multiple times if he fired Hook, to which he said yes, saying Kaluzny came to him and warned him about Hook.

“A former childcare employee (Kaluzny) came to me and said Ashley Hook is hanging around the preschool wing on Wednesday night talking to the Doe kids,” Hindman said in the deposition.

“I don’t think she said, ‘hanging around.’ When Gwen came to me, she said Ashley Hook was standing at the door where one of the Doe girls was working.”

When initial reports of the settlement came out, Bellevue Baptist officials were quoted as saying, “At no time during his employment did we hear, learn or have suspicion that he was engaging in any inappropriate conduct with a minor. It was not until May 5, 2019, two months after his employment ended, that we first learned of his sexual abuse of a minor.”

The lawsuit also detailed that Hook had an affair with Doe’s mother while both were married and fathered a child with her. Pastor Eric Brand was counseling the Hooks and Does. After being informed of the affair, he shared explicit photos of his wife with them saying the wives of Hook and Doe should do the same to “keep their husbands interested in order to maintain the marriage,” according to the original complaint.

In the deposition of Bellevue Pastor Steve Gaines, Smith asked Gaines if he knew that Brand had done this, not just with the Doe family. Gaines said he was unaware until after it had occurred and that it was at least “more than one.”

Gaines said in his deposition that he was unaware of the firing of Hook and was only told later.

Hook would later share explicit photos and videos of the victim’s mother with Janet Doe for “protection to use against her mother,” seven years after the affair, according to the initial filing.

Hindman was asked in his deposition if he remembered telling Kaluzny after she approached him with concerns, “What you’re telling me, Gwen, does not surprise me.” Hindman said it was because Hook had shared his information about his affair with Jane Doe with him.

Smith asked Gaines during his deposition why there was not an investigation after the arrest of Hook and whether there have been any instances of failure within that system, to which Gaines said they already have a protocol, and he was unaware of any failures within the system in place.

Smith asked how church officials would know that without an investigation, to which Gaines responds, “I don’t know.”

In May, Guidepost Solutions, a third-party investigative group contracted to look into allegations against the SBC, released a report on how church officials covered-up sexual assault allegations against members of the church for nearly two decades and ignored reform efforts. Gaines becoming SBC president in 2016 was seen by survivors as “conveyed the message that a clergy sex abuse cover-up was considered ‘no big deal,’” the report said.

Gaines was previously found to not have reported a former Bellevue employee, Paul Williams, had abused his son years earlier and admitted the abuse to Gaines. Gaines said then he had known of the abuse for six months but didn’t disclose the information church leadership immediately. Williams was ultimately fired.

“It was wrong,” Gaines said in his deposition. “I did not know I was mandated to do that. I mean, I own that. I’d been a pastor for 25 years. It’s the first time I had ever had anything like that. That was my bad.”

Gaines was later asked if he or anyone on his behalf reached out to Janet Doe to see what help could be offered, to which Gaines said he didn’t and he’s not sure if anyone did.

The filing comes as the SBC national conference is taking place in Anaheim, California, in which delegates voted to issue a formal apology to the victims of sexual abuse.