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Lawsuit Accuses SBC Executive Committee of ‘Maliciously and Systematically’ Covering Up Abuse, Seeks $10 Million

By Liz Lykins
SBC Executive Committee unified expel
The headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

A federal lawsuit brought by alleged abuse victims accuses the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBCEC) of “maliciously and systematically” covering up sexual abuse and seeks $10 million in damages.

The suit, filed in a U.S. District Court in Tennessee, also calls out several prominent pastors for being a part of alleged cover-ups. These include Steve Gaines, pastor of the megachurch Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tennessee, and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Named as defendants in the 20-page suit are the SBCEC and four SBC churches where plaintiffs claim they were sexually abused as minors.

The churches named in the suit are:

  • Fountain Valley Baptist Church in Fountain, Colorado, where Pastor Charles Griffen allegedly molested plaintiff Candence Finch when she was 13 to 18 years old.
  • Airline Baptist Church in Bossier City, Louisiana, where Assistant Pastor and Youth Director James Hoover and Minister of Music Roger Merritt allegedly molested plaintiff Kellie Mims when she was 14 to 18 years old.
  • First Baptist Church in Talladega, Alabama, whose employee, John David Cornelius, allegedly molested plaintiff James Shannon at an SBC camp when Cornelius was 8 to 10 years old.
  • Faith Baptist Church in Danville, Illinois, where a “church staff member” molested plaintiff Sally George when she was 17.

Two other churches—a “Southern Baptist church in (Aurora), Colorado,” and “a church located in Holy Hill, Florida”—are also accused of harboring abusers in the suit but are not named as defendants.

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The abuse cited includes fondling, masturbation, and in some cases penetration. This caused harm to the plaintiffs, ranging from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress and the inability to maintain gainful employment and relationships, the suit says.

The churches named in the suit and the SBCEC have turned a “blind eye” to inappropriate conduct and sexual misconduct “as a strategy of denying the rights of sexual abuse survivors,” the suit claims.

The Roys Report (TRR) reached out to the SBCEC for comment but did not hear back prior to publication.

‘Widespread sexual abuse’

As context, the suit notes an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express News, which uncovered “widespread sexual abuse” in the SBC.

The investigation found that at least 35 SBC pastors, employees, and volunteers, who exhibited predatory behavior, were still able to find jobs at churches. Additionally, some church leaders failed to alert law enforcement about sexual assault complaints.

The investigation demonstrates that “the Southern Baptist Church has gone to great lengths to protect ‘its own,’” the suit stated.

Guidepost Solutions
Guidepost Solutions logo. (Courtesy image)

The suit also cited the landmark investigation into abuse and coverup in the SBC by Guidepost Solutions. The Guidepost investigation found that top SBC leaders had mistreated abuse survivors for decades and tried to downplay the issue of abuse, TRR previously reported.

The suit claimed the Guidepost investigation showed that leaders’ “main concern” when responding to survivors was “avoiding any potential liability.”

The suit continued, “In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its policy regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”

Suit Implicates Bellevue Baptist Church and Pastor

The lawsuit also noted that the Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express News investigation implicated Pastor Steve Gaines.

In 2006, Gaines, who at the time was SBC President, allegedly waited six months to fire a pastor who had confessed to molestations.

TRR reached out to Bellevue for comment but did not immediately hear back.

Pastor Steve Gaines preaches at Bellevue Baptist Church in July 2020. (Video screengrab via Facebook/Bellevue Baptist)

Gaines and Bellevue also made headlines for another sexual assault suit in 2020, TRR previously reported. The 2020 suit claimed that a former teenage volunteer in the church’s child-care program was groomed and later abused by a church staffer.

Then in 2022, a former staff member in Bellevue’s youth ministry program, Keenan Hord, was charged with sexual assault against a minor and sexual indecency, TRR reported. Hord had also worked as a former Southern Baptist youth pastor in Arkansas.

Freelance journalist Liz Lykins writes for WORLD Magazine, Christianity Today, Ministry Watch, and other publications.

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7 Responses

  1. Thank you for keeping such a close watch on things. I am more weary than ever of hearing people rip people like you for “airing out the church’s dirty laundry.” I think it is more a matter of us learning to not soil the bed so often

  2. yet the SBC are more concerned and makes a bigger fuss about women as pastors/ other leadership positions and counseling them to return to abusive husbands. It is time something is done about the abuse caused by patriarchal teachings.

    and i hope christian parents go after the universities next with big lawsuits where atheist professors take delight in destroying the faith of their christian students—(they do not target any other world religions) sending home a kid with mixed up emotions and doubt, sometimes having given up any faith. the parents did not spend 2 decades raising a child and tens of thousands on college education to have their kids’ minds and hearts changed by someone who only has them in their class for a very short time –those profs should be educating them not indoctrinating them.

    1. Susan, I completely agree with your second paragraph. But I see no connection holding the orthodox position of leadership, which may be debated but certainly can be defended by sincere Bible scholars, and sexual abuse. l was abused at 9 years old by a male pastor in an environment that had women speakers routinely. Should I blame their views on leadership?

      Covering up abuse is awful and sadly my abuse was in a foreign country where I have no recourse. I hope these survivors get their day of justice.

    2. .. and another thought. Those professors targeting the faith of our children would rail ainst male leadership in the church. They reject the scripture, but perhaps some of their journey began by questioning teachings from the scripture that seems pretty clear to the bulk of the Christian church worldwide, and that is that certain roles are for men and certain roles are for women.

  3. First of all $10 million seems low for such a wealthy organization. I’m sure there are 10 people just in the state of Texas who could write a million dollar check to settle this.

    Hopefully the victims will not settle, but rather get all of this out in the open and get testimony under oath.

  4. As to the article itself, I wish the plaintiffs all the success in this and future lawsuits. Sadly, money is the only language most institutions really listen to. Perhaps hitting them in the wallet can be the thing that finally drives them to repentance and recognition of this institutional sin. 10 Million is not nearly enough and I suspect if this lawsuit is successful it will just be the beginning.

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