Judge will determine if abuse allegations can move forward.
Judge Herb Wright said he will rule whether Riley Fields’ lawsuit can go to trial against Millcreek Baptist Church of Hot Springs, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, its executive director, James Tucker, and the Diamond Lakes Baptist Association, one of the convention’s 41 members, of which Millcreek is affiliated. Fields is a twenty-year-old resident of the Hot Springs area, and his suit contends a Southern Baptist minister sexually abused him. Specially, Fields alleged Teddy Leon Hill Jr. a 60-year-old Greenwood man, of “sexually abusing him for years, beginning when he was 14” and calls Hill a “sexual predator.”
The three church defendants are asking for a dismal, 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 listed as defendants are further arguing “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.”
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Fields would still be able to submit his claims against church insurance providers if he cannot proceed in this instance. If the decision is favorable to the plaintiffs, the defendants will also have another opportunity to challenge the lawsuit by summary judgment. Fields’ attorneys argued it’s too soon for the church defendants to claim immunity.
An investigation by the Arkansas State Police Crimes Against Children Division found that Hill, who was Fields’ court-appointed guardian for a year, told authorities “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.”
However, Fields contends he “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.” The suit continues, “Hill used his position in the church as mentor, pastor and spiritual guide” to sexually abuse him, 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.”
In a sworn affidavit supporting Hill’s guardianship of Fields, the plaintiff’s adoptive parents said (referring to past behavioral problems), “Riley is our son, and we love him, and we want what is best for him. 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. We are working on our family relationship. 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.” Hill is the family’s counselor.
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