MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Sexual abuse allegations have led to the suspension of a longtime minister at Bellevue Baptist Church and to at least one call for the church's senior pastor to step down.
Bellevue Baptist, a 30,000-member Southern Baptist congregation, announced Monday that Paul Williams has been placed on paid leave pending an investigation of a "moral failure" 17 years ago. The church didn't provide other details on the allegations.
But some church members have said the claims involve abuse of a child and that the Rev. Steve Gaines, who is senior pastor at Bellevue and a former pastor in Alabama, didn't act fast enough when he found out about them.
"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," Dr. Michael Spradlin, the president of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, said Tuesday. The seminary gets financial support from Bellevue but isn't controlled by the church.
"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," Spradlin said.
Gaines, formerly pastor of First Baptist Church in Gardendale, Ala., acknowledged that Williams told him about the claim in June but said he didn't act then because he "believed the issue was settled. Two weeks ago I was surprised to find out that the issue was not settled."
He said in a statement that he now realizes he should have told church leadership immediately.
"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," Gaines said.
Church officials said the investigation of the allegations against Williams continues and that the findings will be released to the congregation when finished. They deny there has been a cover-up.
"I don't believe there was a deliberate attempt to hide anything," said Jim Barnwell, Bellevue's director of communications.
"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."
Under the terms of his suspension, Williams will not perform any ministerial duties or be on the Bellevue campus. He couldn't be reached for comment.
Gaines took over leadership of the church in September 2005 after the retirement of longtime pastor the Rev. Adrian Rogers. Some members have vented their unhappiness with Gaines' performance at a Web site called savingbellevue.com.
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