×

Pastor finds '97 response regrettable



Last modified: Wednesday, June 16, 2010
The pastor of Trinity Baptist Church expressed regret yesterday for aspects of how the Concord church responded to the alleged rape of a 15-year-old parishioner in 1997, including having the girl stand before the congregation and allowing the accused rapist to remain a church member for years afterward.

The Rev. Brian Fuller, who became Trinity's senior pastor in 2007, said the church followed state law and reported the crime to the authorities. But Fuller said he and other church leaders are conducting a process of self-examination to determine exactly what happened in 1997 and if the congregation lived up to its Christian mission.

"Our desire at Trinity Baptist Church is to display the love of Christ and mercy, and that is what we believe should be the signet for our identification as followers of Christ," Fuller said. "The most disappointing, hurtful thing in all of this has not been that we're getting bad press. It's not been that the story just keeps going and we want it to stop. The most disappointing thing is that our love and compassion toward people has been questioned."

Tina Anderson, now 28, said she was raped twice and impregnated by Ernest Willis, now 51, in 1997. Willis, a former real estate agent who is charged with two counts of rape and two counts of having sex with a minor, is expected in Concord District Court today for arraignment.

Anderson told the police that then-pastor Chuck Phelps had her stand before the congregation as he announced she was pregnant and read a letter she had been ordered to write, asking forgiveness for "allowing a compromising situation to occur" that led to "immorality."

The Monitor generally doesn't name victims of sexual assault but has made an exception at Anderson's request.

Phelps helped Anderson move to Colorado, where she delivered her baby, and Willis remained a church member until he was disciplined in another matter and expelled about seven years later.

"We have heartfelt regret for the victim, that she ever stood in front of our congregation, as well as absolute regret and . . . disgust that the perpetrator remained so long in our congregation," Fuller said.

 Soul-searching

Fuller came to Trinity Baptist Church in 1998 as a youth pastor and took over for Phelps as senior pastor in 2007. Phelps is now senior pastor at a church in Indianapolis.

The church at 80 Clinton St. sees 900 to 950 worshippers attend Sunday morning services each week, Fuller said. It's an independent Baptist congregation that isn't affiliated with a denomination or convention.

Fuller said he is trying to piece together exactly what happened in 1997, one year before he arrived, and is speaking with church members who were there at the time. He said it appears church leaders properly reported the situation to the authorities and didn't intend to cover up the alleged crime.

Phelps said he called the Concord police twice in October 1997 to report the rape after he learned of it, as well as contacting the Division for Children, Youth and Families. The Concord police have declined to discuss details of their 1997 investigation but said it was hampered because Anderson couldn't be located.

But beyond the legalities, Fuller said, the church must examine whether it fulfilled its Christian charge to promote love, compassion, mercy and justice.

In a sermon delivered to the congregation May 30, 10 days after Willis was arrested, Fuller said the process of considering criticism was difficult but necessary.

"We are being accused of not showing mercy to a victim, not showing real justice to a criminal. These are heavy charges to the people of God," Fuller said in a recording on the church's website. "And I want you to know, as your pastor, that I take them very seriously. . . . I want to consider everything carefully and prayerfully and humbly."

Fuller said in an interview yesterday it is too soon to know for certain what happened 13 years ago, but the church's mission is clear.

"We desire to show the love of Christ. Jesus Christ demonstrated love and respect to women . . . and he also showed incredible compassion and protection for children, and those two things have to be true of any church that calls themselves Christian," Fuller said. "If something happened like this today, we want to display the love of Christ and the justice of Christ. You protect children, you pursue justice on those who hurt them, you respect women and you treat them with the dignity that Jesus Christ treated them."

Anderson said she stood before the congregation at a meeting where Willis apologized for being unfaithful to his wife and Anderson's pregnancy was announced by Phelps.

"We regret, if that's exactly how things happened, that it ever took place that way, because we would want to extend care and mercy and love to the victim, and being in front of our congregation would communicate shame and guilt, and we absolutely would regret that if that is exactly how it took place," Fuller said.

Fuller also expressed regret that Willis remained a member of the church for years after the incident. "There's no excuse for it," he said.

Willis was disciplined and left the church about 2004, Fuller said. He wasn't sure why Willis was disciplined.

Phelps said the meeting where Anderson and Willis stood before the congregation was intended to inform the community of Anderson's pregnancy and offer her help, as well as prepare the congregation for Willis's arrest, which Phelps said he expected soon.

Phelps said yesterday that the meeting would have been "inappropriate" if it had been meant to discipline Anderson, but that wasn't its goal.

"There was no intention of disgrace and shame . . . and we all regret that that is how it is read today," he said. "If that is the way it is read today, it could have been done better."

Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.