The judge will decide whether allegations of abuse can move forward.
Judge Herb Wright said he would determine whether Riley Fields’ lawsuit against Millcreek Baptist Church in 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, are in court of which Millcreek is connected. Fields is a 20-year-old resident of the Hot Springs area and his suit claims he was sexually abused by a Southern Baptist minister. In particular, Fields accused Teddy Leon Hill Jr., a 60-year-old Greenwood man, of “sexually abusing him for years since he was 14” and calls Hill a “sexual predator.”
The church’s three defendants take a somber stance, saying they “cannot be sued for the legal protections that churches have long recognized in courts across the country, as well as the special protections that only a few states other than Arkansas offer is available and protects nonprofits from litigation in general. ” The two accused associations further argue: “They cannot be held responsible for what happens to their church membership, as each church is an independent operator who makes its own decisions, even when it comes to hiring and firing pastors. The role of the associations is to support their membership without overseeing the internal affairs of their members. “
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Fields would still be able to assert his claims against church insurers if he were unable to take action in this case. If the decision is favorable to the plaintiffs, the defendants also have another opportunity to appeal the lawsuit through summary judgment. Fields’ attorneys argued it was too early for Church defendants to seek immunity.
An investigation by the Arkansas State Police Department of Crimes Against Children found that Hill, who was Fields’ court-appointed guardian for a year, told authorities: “Fields had made sexual advances towards him since he was 13 years old by acting occasionally fumbling around him, rubbing himself against Hill, or making comments on his anatomy. Hill told investigators that he hadn’t told anyone in church what was going on, or that he was seeking advice on Fields or other help. “
However, Fields claims he became interested in Millcreek when he was 13 and his troubled life at home led him to seek solace in church. At Hill’s suggestion, Fields volunteered regularly to help with church services. He eventually moved into the rectory to live with Hill. The suit continues, “Hill used his position in the Church as a mentor, pastor and spiritual leader” to sexually abuse him, and that “Church officials knew or should have known what Hill was doing. Hill’s abuse humiliated Fields and made him depressed and suicidal. “
In an affidavit in support of Hill’s guardianship of Fields, the plaintiff’s adoptive parents said (referring to past behavioral issues), “Riley is our son and we love him and we want the best for him. We believe this arrangement is best for everyone at this point in time. Riley has agreed to this arrangement and is fine with Pastor Hill. We are working on our family relationship. However, we do not believe that it is appropriate or safe for anyone involved in this to have Riley return to our home at this point. Pastor Hill has agreed to be Riley’s guardian. “Hill is the family advisor.
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