Last year, 43-year-old James Hook was found in the back of a car, underneath a blanket, with a 15-year-old girl. The description of what happened made it clear he had sexually assaulted her. Separate from that, he had given her a ring symbolizing who-knows-what about their “relationship.” He was eventually sentenced to six months in jail followed by 4.5 years of probation.
All of that is disturbing enough. Now here’s the additional twist: Hook worked at Bellevue Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, as a paid volunteer coordinator. The 15-year-old girl was one of the volunteers.
Now the girl’s family is suing Bellevue saying they didn’t do enough to protect their daughter.
According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the lawsuit, which was initially filed in April, blames church leaders for not recognizing and stopping the problem.
“Bellevue Baptist Church placed Hook in a position that would put him in contact with minors, it ignored warnings about Hook, it failed to have policies in place that would prevent him from being alone with a minor on church property, and it failed to have training for its employees and staff to identify suspicious behavior and report it in an effort to prevent abuse.”
The lawsuit notes that Hook knew “Janet Doe” and her family outside of Bellevue: Hook and the victim’s mother had an extramarital affair in 2011, “long before the abuse,” according to the complaint. They also had a child together, “Janet Doe’s” sibling, according to Bellevue’s response to the complaint.
While there may be legal relevance to the connection there, it doesn’t negate the crime.
The church says in its response that no one there knew what was happening and that they never allowed “unsupervised and unrestricted access to volunteers.” But apparently they knew enough to believe Hook was innocent of any wrongdoing; members of the church apparently showed up to his sentencing hearing to “show support and ask the judge for leniency.” The complaint also alleges that staff members saw Hook and the girl together, alone, but failed to intervene.
Giving the SBC’s disturbing record regarding sex abuse, it’s all too familiar to hear about church leaders distancing themselves from any crimes to the point where members were asking a judge not to be too harsh on him. After all, all he did was touch a child inappropriately. Is that such a big deal?
The church is asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit. But if the initial allegations of the church’s negligence have teeth, this could be a major (and necessary) blow to one of the crown jewel churches within the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
(Screenshot via WREG)