Arkansas Baptist State Convention failed to report abuse allegations against pastor, lawsuit claims

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A Southern Baptist leader in Arkansas has been accused of violating state law by failing to report allegations that a Hot Springs pastor sexually abused a minor on church property, according to a lawsuit filed in December. 

The civil lawsuit filed Dec. 16 accuses Arkansas Baptist State Convention Executive Director Sonny Tucker of failing to report suspected child sexual abuse to authorities after he was contacted by the ex-wife of Millcreek Baptist Church pastor Teddy Leon Hill about concerns that Hill might've been abusing minors.

It's unknown whether Hill's ex-wife, Carolyn Latham, made any attempt to contact the police to report her suspicions. 

Attorney’s representing an unnamed plaintiff referred to as "John Doe" claim Hill met Doe when Doe came to the church at 13 years old seeking refuge from a troubled home. The lawsuit accuses Hill of sexually molesting and abusing Doe starting in 2014.

In 2016, Hill became Doe's legal guardian, the lawsuit adds. Doe then moved into Millcreek's parsonage, where Hill was living. 

"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 lawsuit alleges. "The abuse perpetrated included multiple acts of sexual battery with Doe and involved deviate sexual activity."

The lawsuit alleges that Latham contacted Tucker and ABSC in February 2018 to report her suspicion that Hill was sexually abusing Doe and possibly other minors. A few weeks later, Latham reportedly met with Tucker to discuss her accusations concerning Hill. 

"Based on Ms. Latham’s reports to ABSC and Tucker, ABSC and Tucker had a
reasonable basis to believe Hill had engaged in sexual conduct with a minor," the lawsuit claims. "Regardless, neither Defendant ABSC nor Tucker reported Hill to the Child Advocacy Hotline." 

The lawsuit adds that illegal conduct allegedly continued "unabated" until July 2018, about two weeks before Hill resigned as the church's senior pastor. 

Hill, who retired in July 2018, told The Houston Chronicle that he retired because he was “old.” Hill added that he was unaware of the lawsuit or the claims in it. 

Listed as defendants in the suit are Hill, Millcreek Baptist Church, the Diamond Lakes Baptist Association, Tucker and the ABSC. The attorneys claim that Tucker had an obligation under the Arkansas Child Maltreatment Act to report the allegations against Hill to the Child Abuse Hotline. 

In a statement released last week, the ABSC explained that no criminal charges have been filed against Hill or anyone else listed in the lawsuit nor have there been any criminal convictions related to the matter.

The state association stressed that it's taking the allegations “very seriously.” ABSC is represented by the law firm of Friday, Eldredge & Clark.

“So far, our lawyers have seen no indication of impropriety on the part of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention or Dr. Tucker,” the ABSC statement reads. “Rather, it appears the plaintiff does not understand the relationship between the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and the local church and pastor.”

The ABSC contends that 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.”

The lawsuit contends that "defendants are part of a hierarchical institution in which there exists a system of oversight and control by ABSC over Diamond Lakes and Millcreek and Hill and by Diamond Lakes over Millcreek and Hill."

The Southern Baptist Convention is not a top-down denomination but rather an association of autonomous churches that govern themselves. 

“In any event, the Convention has no responsibility in this case for his and/or the local church’s actions,” the ABSC statement argues.

“The Arkansas Baptist State Convention has long placed a high priority on ministry and safety for children and students. For several years, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, under Dr. Tucker’s leadership, has been involved in an intentional, statewide safety and training emphasis to equip churches to better prevent and respond to sexual abuse.”

The convention added that it will cooperate with attorneys to defend “what appears to be false accusations.”

The lawsuit comes as the SBC and the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Petersburg Baptist Association were added to a similar lawsuit earlier this year. 

The Virginia lawsuit alleges that Baptist leaders mishandled complaints about a youth minister convicted of abusing young boys. The Virginia lawsuit contends that the convention can be held liable for the actions of local churches, according to The Houston Chronicle. 

“These organizations are working together in harmony,” attorney Kevin Biniazan told the newspaper. “The success of one benefits the other. And vice versa.”

At SBC’s annual meeting last June, SBC delegates approved a resolution to expel churches accused of mishandling claims of sexual abuse or racism. They also amended SBC bylaws to give SBC’s Credentials Committee the power to investigate complaints against churches in instances of sexual abuse or racism. 

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