Innocence Stolen, Justice Served in Baptist Rape Case

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!

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About Howell Scott

I have been a Southern Baptist pastor for the last fourteen years. Before entering the ministry, I was a practicing attorney in my homestate of Florida. I have been married to my wife, Brenda, for 18 years and we have three sons, Stephen, Jacob, and Andrew.
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13 Responses to Innocence Stolen, Justice Served in Baptist Rape Case

  1. Joe Blackmon says:

    Howell,

    You’re the lawyer so you’d know this better than I would, but a 15 year old can’t legally give consent, can they? I mean even if she did consent (and I don’t think for even one second she did–she was raped) that wouldn’t matter because statutory rape laws say that she can’t give consent, right?

    • Howell Scott says:

      Joe,

      I don’t know what NH laws are specifically, but Mr. Willis did plead guilty to one count of statutory rape (that was before the trial). Typically, consent is not allowed as a defense to the charge of statutory rape. If it is proven that a victim is a certain age and the defendant is an adult and that sexual intercourse took place, then it is a pretty open and shut case (of course, there maybe exceptions). What may have happened in this case, like in many states today, when there is a wide age difference between the victim and the defendent, the charges are automatically increased to the more serious “sexual assault” or “aggravated sexual assault.” If one is convicted of these more serious crimes, then he will be considered as sex offender and will have to register with the state. I would assume that “consent,” at least with the more serious charges, would be a defense. That maybe one reason why this defense was used in this case. However, like you, I find it hard to believe, given the circumstances, that this girl could have given meaningful consent. Obviously, the jury did not buy this defense either. Thanks for the question. Have a great day and God bless,

      Howell

      • Linda B. says:

        The age of consent in NH is sixteen, and was sixteen at the time of the assaults. Tina was fifteen when the assaults happened, and sixteen when her mother contacted Phelps about her pregancy. Phelps has tried – on his blog – to paint Tina as having been of age when this happened. All of the sworn testimony in the case, however, pointed to her being under the age of consent.

      • Howell Scott says:

        Linda,

        I have not read all of Phelps blog (don’t think I could make myself do it), but I still find it incredible that he is trying to say that even a 16 year-old (which Tina was not), under the circumstances that were presented in this case, could have given any meaningful consent. His actions and words — back in 1997 and today — were wrong. Not only has Willis been brought to justice, but Phelps is getting his own dose of justice as well. Thanks again for the heads-up. God bless,

        Howell

  2. Judy Jones says:

    We urge anyone who has knowledge or may have been harmed by Ernie Willis to contact law enforcement, or an attorney, not church officials. It is a crime to sexually abuse a child.
    Child predators are very cunning and manipulative. They know every trick on how to groom, threaten, lie, and put the fear of god into their victims and sometimes even their family members.
    They also appear to do a lot of goods things, they can be extremely caring and appear they would never harm to a child. They have to be this way, in order to not get caught and to continue to abuse.
    Tina Anderson is to be commended for speaking up and taking action to expose the truth. This is not an easy thing to do. But keep in mind your silence only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others.
    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, 636-433-2511
    snapjudy@gmail.com
    “Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests” and all clergy
    http://www.snapnetwork.org/

    • Howell Scott says:

      Judy,

      Thanks for reading and taking time to share the link to SNAP Network. I am more than happy to publish it so that other victims or friends and family of victims can have an excellent resource to turn to. God bless,

      Howell

  3. Brother Howell,
    You and your readers might be interested in the pastor’s response at:

    drchuckphelps.com

    David R. Brumbelow

    • Howell Scott says:

      David,

      Thanks for the link. It is my understanding that some of what Dr. Phelps included on his blog, as well as in his contemporaneous notes, were contradicted by his sworn testimony on the stand at trial. That he did not take legal advice and keep his mouth shut in this instance perhaps shows a continuing hubris for which he is now paying. He can spin all he wants, but the facts as reported and the evidence at trial were enough to convict Mr. Willis on four counts of sexual assault. There’s an old adage that says, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” Dr. Phelps should probably heed that advice, but I have my doubts. Thanks again for reading and for sharing that link. God bless,

      Howell

    • Linda B. says:

      @David. That website was set up quite some time ago, and – as Howell has pointed out – much of what is there has been contradicted by Phelps’s sworn under oath testimony. I wish he would either take it down or update it to reflect the actual facts that came out in the case – some of them from his own contemporaneous notes.

  4. Sibyl says:

    Is there any connection between Charles Phelps and Fred Phelps at Westboro Baptist?

    • Howell Scott says:

      Sibyl,

      As far as I know and what has been reported, there is absolutely no connection between these two Phelps. Thanks for reading and thanks for the question. God bless,

      Howell

      • Linda B. says:

        The only connection between the two is Bob Jones University. Fred Phelps spent at least a semester there, while Charles is a graduate.

  5. Linda B. says:

    Thank you, Howell, for digging into this from both a pastoral and a legal angle. This kind of thing isn’t isolated or confined to one denomination/religious group, and the more cleansing sunlight we can shine on it, the more awareness we create, and the more justice will be served.

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