How can a 15 year-old girl recover her innocence, an innocence that was stolen from her when a trusted, 39 year-old member of an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church (IFB) raped her 14 years ago? The short answer is she can’t. But, even though Tina Anderson had something precious stolen from her all those years ago, she can — with God’s help and the help of family and friends — heal from the grievous crime that was committed against her in 1997.
Part of that healing process occurred last week when Ernie Willis “was found guilty of three counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault and one count of felonious sexual assault for raping Tina Anderson twice in 1997, when she was his 15-year-old babysitter.” He now faces up to 50 years in prison for his crimes.
Even though the jury only took one day to bring back a guilty verdict on four counts, the most ardent defenders of Willis and Trinity Baptist’s former pastor, Chuck Phelps, continue to believe that a 39 year-old married man (Willis) having sex with a 15 year-old was somehow consensual. There is a Hebrew word for that kind of thinking: baloney! I wonder how these same defenders would feel if their daughter was faced with the same set of circumstances? Would they buy the defense that their 15 year-old child could engage in consensual sex with a man 24 years her senior? For supposed Christians to accept this defense, particularly with the facts of this case, is absurd and disgusting.
They say that the wheels of justice grind slowly. In this case, those wheels seemed to have been purposely slowed down by the actions of Trinity’s former pastor, Chuck Phelps. In fact, if one reviews the actions and words of Rev. Phelps, both in 1997 and today, one could reasonably conclude that Phelps abrogated his moral responsibility to help one of the “least of these” in the congregation that he was entrusted by God to oversee. How he chose to respond to the original allegations when they first came to light in 1997 is a case study in what pastors should not do (at least if they want to obey the law — both God’s and man’s). And, just so we are clear, God has instituted governments to carry out His justice (see Romans 13). Unless one wants to argue that New Hampshire’s rape laws somehow contradict God’s laws, then Rev. Phelps seems to have a mighty big problem!
The facts of this case — which I was alerted to by a reader of From Law to Grace — are both sad and outrageous. That a pastor of any church, much less a church where Christ is supposedly proclaimed, could take the actions that Phelps has admitted to taking, is breathtaking. From the moment that Pastor Phelps was apprised of the situation involving Willis, an usher at Trinity Baptist Church in Concord, NH, and the 15 year-old Anderson, he appears to have taken the absolutely bare minimum of steps to protect the minor victim while simultaneously taking extraordinary steps to make this problem go away.
As he was taking these steps, Phelps seems to have wrapped his decisions in a spiritual veneer, even going so far as to use “church discipline” to deal with the “sin” of both Willis and Anderson. According to Phelps, the 15 year-old pregnant teenager “voluntarily” stood before the congregation to confess her sins. I guess the sins would have been having sex before marriage and getting pregnant. At the same public gathering, Willis also confessed his sin of being unfaithful to his wife by having sex outside of marriage, but, according to church members, “the confessions were presented as separate issues and there was no suggestion that Willis was the father of Anderson’s baby.” Can we say in our best Church Lady voice, “How convenient.”
I believe that Biblical church discipline is a still-relevant principle that Jesus Christ instructed the church to practice (see Matthew 18). However, I do not believe that what happened in Tina Anderson’s case is what Jesus meant. And, in no event can a system of “church discipline” circumvent the criminal justice system in the case where there is reason to believe that a minor child has been sexually abused by an adult, in this case a member and leader within the church. Furthermore, I’m not sure how “voluntarily” young Tina Anderson stood before the members of Trinity Baptist Church to confess that she was guilty of having sex before marriage. I suppose that those who think this type of confession was voluntary are the same kind of people who think that this 15 year-old girl could voluntarily consent to have sex with a man twice her age.
Not only was Biblical church discipline abused in this case, but the moral, ethical, and legal obligations to a young victim of an alleged (at the time) crime were apparently abused by the undershepherd of the church that this teenage girl was attending. The local police apparently were investigating this case when it occurred, but “were unable to find Anderson and closed the investigation.” Could Pastor Phelps have helped the police with the investigation? He could have, but he must have had different thoughts at the time.
In actions which would further slow the wheels of justice in this case, the pastor and Ms. Anderson’s own mother arranged for Tina to be sent to live with another IFB family in Colorado:
In his testimony this week, Phelps said he did not notify police that Anderson was leaving the state for Colorado but added, “I didn’t whisk her away…I’ve been thrown under the bus on this thing.”
Was this an anonymous family? Did Pastor Phelps or anyone else at Trinity know the name, address and phone number of the family that Tina Anderson was shipped away to live with? And, to try to use some kind of clergy/parishioner privilege to withhold information relating to the sexual assault of a minor will not fly. The judge in the case admitted Pastor Phelps contemporaneous notes into evidence in the Willis case. In most jurisdictions today, clergy (be they Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, etc.) have no privilege to withhold vital information when they know or have reason to know that a minor is being abused (physically and/or sexually).
For Pastor Phelps to now feign injury at being thrown under the bus should bring him no sympathy whatsoever. No one threw him under the bus. By his own foolish actions, Pastor Phelps — both then and now — has thrown himself under the bus. For whatever happens to him, both in terms of obstruction of justice (which could be a distinct possibility if it was proven that he withheld information from the police which would have aided in their original investigation) and divine justice, will have been earned on his own merit (or demerit as the case maybe).
There are really no winners in this sad tale of a sexual predator using the influence of the church to steal the innocence of a young girl and of the powerful pastor attempting to make it all go away by perverting the laws of God and man. Justice came slowly for Tina Anderson, but come it did. For those who continue to make excuses and stand behind half-truths and lies, justice may not come this side of heaven. But, justice will be served someday!