A former pastor at Millcreek Baptist Church in Garland County sexually abused a minor in his care from 2014 to 2018, according to a lawsuit filed last month in Pulaski County Circuit Court.
Also, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and its executive director didn't report the abuse after being told about it, according to the lawsuit filed Dec. 16 by Joshua Gillispie, a North Little Rock attorney.
Teddy Leon Hill Jr., former senior pastor at Millcreek, met the boy, identified in the lawsuit as John Doe, when the boy was 13 years old, wrote Gillispie, who is with the law firm of Green and Gillispie.
"Doe was drawn to Millcreek at a time when his troubled home life led him to seek comfort in the church," according to the lawsuit.
Gillispie said the defendant is now 19 years old. Millcreek Baptist Church is about 12 miles northeast of Hot Springs.
The boy became a member of the church and volunteered his time there, according to the suit. In 2016, Hill became the boy's legal guardian and he moved into the parsonage to reside with the pastor.
But the sexual abuse had begun two years before that, according to the lawsuit.
"Beginning in or about 2014, Hill sexually molested and abused Doe," wrote Gillispie. "Such abuse was perpetrated by Hill in his role as guardian, mentor, counselor and pastor to Doe and occurred on the church property of Millcreek. The abuse perpetrated included multiple acts of sexual battery with Doe and involved deviate sexual activity, as defined in Arkansas Code Annotated 5-14-101(1).
"Such illicit conduct continued unabated until July of 2018, two weeks before Hill resigned as senior pastor of Millcreek."
In February 2018, Hill's former wife, Carolyn Latham, contacted the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and its director, James Tucker, to report the sexual abuse of Doe and possibly other minors, according to the lawsuit.
"Hill's abuse of Doe was allowed to continue on multiple occasions and for months after Ms. Latham's reporting," wrote Gillispie.
A couple of weeks after notifying Tucker and the Baptist State Convention, Latham met with Tucker again, repeating the allegations against Hill, according to the lawsuit.
"She also communicated her concerns in a number of text messages with defendant Tucker," wrote Gillispie.
Based on her reports, Tucker and the Baptist State Convention "had a reasonable basis to believe Hill had engaged in sexual conduct with a minor," according to the lawsuit.
"Regardless, neither defendant ABSC nor Tucker reported Hill to the Child Advocacy Hotline," wrote Gillispie.
The Convention and Tucker, as a member of the clergy, are mandated reporters under Arkansas Code Annotated 12-18-402, wrote Gillispie.
"ABSC and Tucker had reasonable cause to believe that Hill was a sexual predator who groomed and manipulated and then sexually molested minors in his care," wrote Gillispie. "ABSC and Tucker purposely did not immediately notify the Child Abuse Hotline. As a proximate result, Hill continued to sexually abuse Doe for months."
Tucker and the Baptist State Convention are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with Hill, Millcreek Baptist Church and the Diamond Lakes Baptist Association.
Gillispie is seeking a jury trial. In the lawsuit, he said Doe has incurred more than $10 million in damages because of Hill and the other defendants.
The defendants "intentionally pursued a course of conduct they knew would result in injury to plaintiff," wrote Gillispie.
Daniel Herrington, an attorney for Friday, Eldredge and Clark, said in an email that the firm represents the Baptist State Convention on an ongoing basis, and will "vigorously defend" the convention and Tucker.
"The allegations of wrongdoing against the Convention and Dr. Tucker are without merit," Herrington said. "The suit demonstrates a misunderstanding of Baptist church polity. The Convention does not control member churches and has no authority to remove a pastor of a local church. We hope this suit against the ABSC is not an attempt to get at the perceived 'deep pocket.' The Convention and Dr. Tucker deny the allegations that he or any ABSC employee received information sufficient to trigger a duty to report."
The autonomy argument was echoed in a statement posted on the Baptist State Convention's website (absc.org/articles/a-statement-from-the-absc) on Dec. 28: "So far, our lawyers have seen no indication of impropriety on the part of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention or Dr. Tucker. Rather, it appears the plaintiff does not understand the relationship between the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and the local church and pastor. Apparently, the plaintiff mistakenly believes that the Arkansas Baptist State Convention somehow controls the local church and should have been monitoring this local church pastor's actions. In any event, the convention has no responsibility in this case for his and/or the local church's actions."
Gillispie took issue with the statement.
"That statement right there highlights the problem," he said. "When leaders don't take responsibility for the actions under their influence and control, change does not occur. In 2020, organizations that tolerate child sex abuse and throw their hands in the air ... those organizations don't have a place in civilized society.
"It's a legal facade, a disingenuous legal facade that they've kept up in a very obvious way, that these churches are independent," said Gillispie. "The Convention derives monetary and other benefits from these member churches. They do have some degree of supervisory control over these churches."
The lawsuit's filing comes less than a year after the Houston Chronicle published a report on widespread abuse in Southern Baptist churches, with more than 200 church leaders accused of sexually abusing more than 700 church members over the course of two decades.
Churches that are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention -- the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. -- are self-governing, with the belief that each church has its own covenant with God. In June, however, the delegation at the denomination's annual meeting in Birmingham voted to give the convention the right to expel churches that willfully mishandle abuse allegations, a step away from the autonomy churches have otherwise exercised.
The Baptist State Convention has "long placed a high priority on ministry and safety for children and students," according to the Convention's statement. Under Tucker's leadership, the Baptist State Convention conducts training sessions to "equip churches to better prevent and respond to sexual abuse," according to the statement.
According to Gillispie's lawsuit, Hill committed sexual assault, battery and "felonious conduct" (including rape) against Doe.
"As a proximate result, Doe has been injured and suffered substantial psychological and emotional harms including, but not limited to, shame, humiliation, loss of safety, anxiety, loss of enjoyment of life, depression, suicidal ideations and night-terrors," according to the lawsuit. "Doe's damages include the cost of continuing medical care and compensatory damages for emotional and psychological injuries."
Millcreek, the Baptist State Convention and Diamond Lakes were negligent in allowing this to happen, wrote Gillispie.
Millcreek Baptist Church and Diamond Lakes Baptist Association didn't respond to requests for comment.
Metro on 01/04/2020