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.
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.
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.