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'20/20' to feature Trinity accusation

Last modified: 4/8/2011 12:00:00 AM
Trinity Baptist Church, where a former parishioner said she was forced to stand before the congregation to seek forgiveness after she was raped and impregnated as a teenager, is going under the national television spotlight.

The Concord church will be featured tonight on ABC's 20/20 program, in what the network described in a news release as a 'yearlong investigation' into 'a religious subculture many Americans have never heard of, yet has thousands of churches across the country . . . churches that critics claim can foster physical and sexual abuse.'

Anchor Elizabeth Vargas said yesterday the 1997 incident at Trinity is 'a big part of our hour' but other churches are also examined.

Last May, Gilford resident Ernest Willis was arrested by the Concord police and charged with twice raping 15-year-old Tina Anderson in 1997. Both attended Trinity Baptist Church, 80 Clinton St., at the time.

The Monitor typically does not identify alleged victims of sex crimes but has made an exception in its reporting on this case at Anderson's request.

Anderson, now 29, has said Willis raped her, once in a car when he was teaching her to drive and a second time at her Concord home.

She became pregnant and told a neighbor, her mother and the Rev. Chuck Phelps, who was Trinity's pastor at the time.

In a written statement last year, Anderson said Phelps put her up for 'church discipline,' had her write a letter asking forgiveness for 'allowing a compromising situation to occur' that led to 'immorality' and read it to the congregation while she stood in the front of the church. Anderson then moved to Colorado, where she gave birth to a daughter who was put up for adoption.

Anderson came forward to the police last year, and Willis, now 52, was arrested. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial in mid- to late-May in Merrimack County Superior Court, said Assistant Merrimack County Attorney Wayne Coull. A message seeking comment was left for one of Willis's public defenders.

Phelps, who is now pastor of an Indianapolis church, has said he reported the crime both to the police and the state Division for Children, Youth and Families in 1997. The Concord police have said their investigation was hampered by not being able to locate the victim.

The Rev. Brian Fuller, who arrived in Concord in 1998 and took over for Phelps as Trinity's senior pastor in 2007, expressed regret last summer for how the incident was handled.

He said that Anderson shouldn't have been brought before the congregation and that Willis shouldn't have remained a church member. (He was disciplined and left around 2004.)

Fuller said yesterday that the church has created a 'security team' of members 'to ensure that a person who has been accused would not remain in our congregation.'

And, he said, its constitution now ensures that 'a minor can never stand before our congregation. You have to be 18 to be a member. So that will never happen again.'

Fuller was interviewed by Vargas last September, and he said ABC sent a camera crew into the church to attend Sunday services.

'We try to be very open with our community. We're trying to be extremely open with the media,' Fuller said. 'That's why we allowed 20/20 to come and film. . . . We have nothing to hide here and certainly try to make sure we understand the situation and make sure the truth comes out.'

Vargas said Fuller was 'very open' and sat for a 'wide-ranging interview with no conditions.' She said the program also spoke to Phelps and others.

In a news release this week, ABC News described the 20/20 episode as a look at the 'Independent Fundamental Baptist Church,' which isn't a formal denomination but refers to a number of churches across the country. Trinity Baptist Church describes itself as an independent Baptist congregation.

ABC News described the churches in the release as 'a religious subculture that critics claim can foster - even cover up - physical and sexual abuse.'

Vargas said the program 'let both sides tell their story. Obviously, many of these victims feel that this is more than just a network of churches, that there are relationships between these pastors, that they communicate amongst themselves. We can document that the pastors move from one IFB church to another IFB church.

'But listen, we can tell the stories of these victims and we have several of them at several different IFB churches. I mean, nobody's saying, however, that every single IFB church is like the Trinity Baptist Church when Tina Anderson was there as a young teenager and as a child,' Vargas added.

Asked about the characterization in ABC's news release, Fuller said he hadn't yet seen the piece.

20/20 will air at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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


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