Arkansas Baptists seek dismissal of sexual abuse lawsuit

by Diana Chandler, posted Tuesday, March 31, 2020 (one month ago)

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (BP) -- The Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC), Millcreek Baptist Church and other defendants have denied allegations and filed motions to dismiss a 2019 lawsuit accusing them of liability in alleged multiple sexual assaults of a minor.

The defendants responded to a lawsuit filed in December 2019 accusing former Millcreek pastor Teddy Hill Jr. of sexually assaulting Riley Fields over a period of years. Fields, now 19, alleges the sexual assaults began in 2014 and continued after Hill was appointed as Field’s guardian in 2016, according to court documents filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Pulaski County, Ark. Fields originally identified himself as John Doe, but revealed his name in an amended complaint in January.

The lawsuit names the ABSC, Millcreek Baptist Church and the Diamond Lakes Baptist Association as liable defendants as "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 suit claims that all parties were responsible for the care of Fields because of each defendant's connection to one another.

The ABSC and its executive director J.D. "Sonny" Tucker answered Fields' latest amended complaint Feb. 26. Tucker is accused, among other allegations, of failing to notify authorities when Hill's former wife Carolyn Latham told Tucker she had reason to believe Hill had sexually abused Fields and other minors, according to court documents.

"Both the ABSC and Dr. Tucker specifically deny all of the claims made by the plaintiff," the Arkansas Baptist reported. "Plaintiff Fields incorrectly claims that the ABSC was in control of the church and the pastor and therefore should have known about and prevented the alleged abuse. ... The ABSC denies ever exercising any control over Millcreek or any other Arkansas Baptist church. In fact, the ABSC is prohibited by both The Baptist Faith & Message and the ABSC's governing documents from ever interfering with the operations and/or ministry of any autonomous ABSC church."

Fields is seeking more than $10 million in compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages against each defendant for intentional and grossly reckless misconduct, according to a press release from his attorney Joshua Gillispie of Little Rock.

The ABSC claimed charitable immunity and denied financial liability as a charitable organization, as did fellow defendant Millcreek Baptist Church, according to court documents.

"Plaintiff's claims against Millcreek are barred by the charitable immunity doctrine as the complaint fails to state a cognizable claim or cause of action against Millcreek outside of tort," the church said in its motion filed Feb. 28. "Accordingly, the claims against Millcreek should be dismissed pursuant." The church, represented by Anderson, Murphy & Hopkins, LLP, referenced Arkansas civil code and the 2005 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling in Low v. Insurance Company of North America. The church did not respond to Baptist Press' request for a comment Tuesday (March 31).

Hill, who retired in 2018 as Millcreek senior pastor, is accused of sexual assault, battery, felonious conduct and intentionally inflicting emotional distress on a minor. Hill, represented by attorney Garrett H. O'Brien of Memphis, Tenn., answered the complaint March 4, denying charges and seeking dismissal of the case.

Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, the Cincinnati Insurance Company and the Continental Insurance Company, all named as defendants, have all filed motions for dismissal of the case.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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