Parents of a teenage girl who was sexually abused by a former part-time employee of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., are suing the church. The suit alleges negligence in allowing James Hook “complete discretion and freedom to have personal and private encounters with volunteers and minors.”
Hook, who was employed on Sunday mornings as the church’s preschool wing coordinator from January 2017-March 2019, pleaded guilty in January to sexual assault by an authority figure. He had been arrested in May 2019 after police found him and the girl, 16, underneath a blanket in the back of his car in a local park. He was sentenced to six months in jail and 4 ½ years probation.
The teenager’s parents allege “Hook groomed Janet Doe and fomented his incredibly inappropriate relationship with her at Bellevue Baptist Church,” and also allege some of the “extended horrific acts of sexual abuse” took place on the Bellevue campus.
Bellevue, which has denied all of the allegations and filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, confirmed in a statement to Baptist Press (BP) that Hook resigned his position at the church two months before the arrest. “Moreover, during his tenure, no allegations of illegal conduct were brought to our attention,” the church said in the statement, which was released July 13.
The church said it has conducted mandatory annual training for childcare employees since 2007, and conducts multiple strategic trainings throughout the year for all childcare employees. Bellevue volunteers also attend annual child abuse prevention training.
“It pains us greatly that anyone anywhere is the victim of abuse,” the church said in a statement. “It is our desire to put an end to abuse and to care for the victims in any manner they need. We are greatly concerned by the abuse that occurs in churches throughout the world and are working here at home to provide education/training and to ensure all immoral and/or illegal behavior is brought forward.”
In the statement, the church also acknowledged, “training and procedures alone are not enough to deal with this issue. We endeavor to support the victims first and encourage people with any knowledge of abuse to come forward. … We desire to build a culture that deals with abuse directly and honestly.”
The victim’s parents base their lawsuit on actions they say occurred before Hook’s arrest. Hook has not been charged for any other alleged actions.
Filing as John and Jane Doe on behalf of their daughter, who is referred to as Janet Doe, the parents accuse Bellevue of improperly putting Hook in a position that allowed contact with minors, of ignoring a warning by the parents about Hook, of not having policies in place to prevent Hook from being alone with minors on church property, and not training staff to recognize and report suspicious behavior.
In a court response June 3, Bellevue denied all of the allegations. The church filed a motion to dismiss June 5.
Hook had a previous relationship with the Does. In 2011, he was involved in an extramarital affair with Jane Doe. The complaint alleges that both couples participated in counseling with a Bellevue staff member.
John and Jane Doe both joined Bellevue in 2017, where Hook was already a member. The Does filed for divorce in 2018, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges that John Doe warned Bellevue staff that Hook should not be trusted around children, and that he specifically didn’t want his children around Hook.
In the fall of 2018, Hook initiated what he described to law enforcement as a “father-daughter relationship” with Janet Doe, who was then 15. He gave her a ring to wear until she wed and began initiating intimate contact that both the victim and Hook told police never progressed to intercourse.
The plaintiffs allege that while employed by Bellevue, Hook began “grooming” Janet Doe to have a relationship with him, showering her with gifts, and placing himself in close proximity to her while she volunteered in children’s classes on Sundays and Wednesdays.
The lawsuit further alleges “Bellevue Baptist Church allowed James Hook unsupervised and unrestricted access to the volunteers and specifically Janet Doe,” and that “Bellevue Baptist Church further allowed Hook to leave the church with Janet Doe.”
In its response to the lawsuit, Bellevue denied knowledge of Hook’s alleged behavior.
“Bellevue cannot be liable for Mr. Hook’s independent, unauthorized criminal behavior,” the church said in its response, adding, “It is simply not enough to allege that childhood sexual abuse was a reasonably foreseeable risk based on ambiguous, vague allegations.”
In a statement released July 10, Bellevue said it would provide additional information to the church family as the case advances.
“The wellbeing of our church family is of the utmost importance to us,” Bellevue said in the initial statement. “We pray for and will continue to support anyone who has been a victim of abuse.”
In its subsequent statement to BP, the church said, “We are praying for all involved in the pending lawsuit and the family affected by this situation.”
The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount of monetary damages, according to court documents.
Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention 2019 Annual Meeting addressed the issue of sex abuse, approving two constitutional amendments and bylaw changes, establishing sex abuse as grounds to disfellowship a church from the convention, and repurposing the SBC Credentials Committee to make inquiries and recommendations for possible disfellowship of churches if sex abuse is mishandled.
The constitutional amendments require a second vote of messengers to become effective, but the vote has been delayed until 2021 due to the cancellation of the 2020 SBC Annual Meeting.
Following a church investigation in 2007 related to assistant pastor Paul Williams’ abuse of his adolescent son 17 years earlier, an internal investigative committee concluded the church was “ill-prepared on several fronts for handling the Paul Williams matter,” and that the church’s procedures and protocols “were and are inadequate.”
The committee recommended a complete review and overhaul of the church’s policies and procedures and additional staff training, and provided counseling for those who felt harmed by Williams’ behavior.
Steve Gaines, who served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2016-18, has been Bellevue’s senior pastor since 2005.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)