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Judge weighs Baptist vulnerability in sex-abuse suit

by John Lynch | February 28, 2021 at 5:13 a.m.

A 20-year-old Hot Springs Village man's lawsuit against the Southern Baptist minister he says sexually abused him as a child is at a crossroads as a Pulaski County circuit judge considers whether the litigation can proceed against the church the defendant once pastored and the network of churches it belongs to, all the way up to the statewide Baptist Convention.

Judge Herb Wright said he will rule in the coming days whether Riley Fields' lawsuit can go to trial against Millcreek Baptist Church of Hot Springs; the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, a network of churches and affiliated organizations; its executive director, James Tucker; and the Diamond Lakes Baptist Association, one of the convention's 41 members, of which Millcreek is a member.

The three church defendants have called for the judge to dismiss them from the suit, saying they cannot be sued because of legal protections for churches long recognized by courts nationwide, as well as special protections available in only a few states besides Arkansas that generally shield charitable nonprofits from litigation.

The two associations further argue they can't be held responsible for what happens with their church membership because each church is an independent operator that makes its own decisions, even when it comes to hiring and firing pastors. The role of the associations is to support their membership without oversight of their members' internal affairs, their lawyers told the judge.

An adverse ruling for Fields wouldn't necessarily end the litigation. He could still pursue his claims for punitive and compensatory damages against church insurance providers, although there are questions about the extent of that coverage.

If the judge rules against the church defendants at this juncture, they can get another opportunity to challenge the lawsuit by summary judgment once the parties have completed the exchange of evidence process known as discovery, which can include taking testimony from the litigants and their representatives.

Fields' lawyers contend it's too soon in the proceedings for the church defendants to be able to claim immunity and that discovery should progress further to see if the evidence truly supports their assertion that they cannot be sued.

'SEXUAL PREDATOR'

Fields sued Teddy Leon Hill Jr. and the church defendants in December 2019, accusing the 60-year-old Greenwood man of sexually abusing him for years, beginning when he was 14. His lawyers, Josh Gillispie of North Little Rock and Eva Ravindran of Florida, describe Hill as a "sexual predator" in the suit.

Gillispie, with law partner Chad Green, has received public attention for representing childhood sexual abuse victims, including five who have sued the Boy Scouts, as well as freedom-of-religion advocates who are challenging the legality of a biblical 10 Commandments monument placed on the state Capitol grounds.

Hill has not been criminally charged and has denied wrongdoing, telling authorities that he did have sex with Riley but only after he had turned 18, according to the state's maltreatment investigation, a copy of which was provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette by Fields' lawyers.

The maltreatment report, the results of an investigation by the Arkansas State Police Crimes Against Children Division, states that Hill, who was Fields' court-appointed guardian for a year, told authorities that Fields had made sexual advances toward him for years, from as early as age 13, by occasionally groping him, rubbing himself up against Hill or making comments about his anatomy. Hill told investigators that he never told anyone at the church about what was going on or got counseling for Fields or other help.

In the suit, Fields states that Hill used his position as "mentor, pastor and spiritual guide" to molest Fields and that church officials knew or should have known what Hill was doing. The abuse inflicted by Hill humiliated Fields and made him depressed and suicidal, according to the suit.

According to the lawsuit, Fields became interested in Millcreek when he was 13 and "his troubled home life led him to seek comfort in the church." At Hill's suggestion, Fields regularly volunteered at the church to help out at services. He eventually moved into the parsonage to live with Hill.

Hill began to sexually abuse him in 2014, about a year after they met, Fields asserts in the suit, stating that Hill regularly molested and raped him, sometimes on church property, through July 2018, shortly before Hill quit the church.

A FAMILY TORN

In a sworn statement to the court supporting Hill's guardianship of Fields, his adoptive parents described him in February 2017 as having discipline problems at home and school, including an open case in juvenile court that had resulted in his temporary placement in a juvenile detention facility. The couple stated that Hill, the family's counselor, was willing to take him in.

"Riley is our son and we love him and we want what is best for him," their affidavit states. "We believe this arrangement to be the best for everyone at this time. Riley has agreed to this arrangement, and he is doing well with Pastor Hill."

The couple said they were concerned that Fields' return home could lead to a "physical altercation" between father and son.

"We are working on our family relationship," their affidavit states. "However, we don't believe it is appropriate or safe for anyone involved for Riley to return to our home at this time. Pastor Hill has agreed to be Riley's guardian."

According to the state investigation, the mother of a friend of Fields told investigators she had taken him into her home in June 2018 after Hill had "kicked out" the boy.

Fields contends that church authorities certainly knew what Hill was doing to him as of February 2018 because that's when Hill's ex-wife told Tucker, the state convention's executive director.

Tucker, in his response to the lawsuit, has denied knowing about Hill doing anything improper and certainly not any kind of child abuse.

In court filings, Tucker said he contacted Hill's ex-wife in February 2018 at the request of the woman's mother because the woman was enduring "ongoing extreme emotional difficulties."

The woman complained that Hill was a "bad person" who should be removed as Mill Creek pastor, but she did not accuse him of any kind of child abuse, the filing states.

Tucker said removing Hill was beyond his abilities or the authority of the Baptist Convention, so all he could do was pray with her and offer her free counseling services as the former spouse of a pastor.

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