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Pastor: I heard 'aggressor'

Last modified: 5/25/2011 12:00:00 AM
When his pastor came to investigate reports that he had impregnated a teenage member of their church, Ernest Willis said he had sex with Tina Anderson twice and described himself as the "aggressor," according to the pastor.

Chuck Phelps, the former pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Concord, said Willis made those confessions while telling his wife that Anderson, their 16-year-old baby sitter, was pregnant and he was the father of the baby.

"He used the word 'aggressor,' " said Phelps, testifying yesterday during the second day of Willis's trial on rape charges in Merrimack County Superior Court. Judge Larry Smukler ruled earlier in the afternoon that Phelps's conversations with Willis were not protected by pastoral privilege.

Willis, who is charged with forcibly raping Anderson twice in the summer of 1997 while she was 15 years old, admits to having sex with her once but says it was consensual. He pleaded guilty to one count of statutory rape last week.

But he denies ever using force against Anderson, who says Willis raped her after pushing her into the backseat of a car during a driving lesson and again by forcing her onto a couch when she was home alone.

Anderson, now 29 and living in Arizona, agreed to be interviewed by the police last year after someone mentioned her story on a Facebook page critical of fundamentalist Baptist churches.

She said she didn't immediately tell anyone what happened, because she was scared of being blamed by her mother and church leaders.

Phelps, she said, had previously told her "good Christians forgive and forget" after she reported being sexually abused by her stepfather, who at the time was in prison for abusing a different child and assaulting her brother.

But Phelps denied instructing Anderson to go to prison to forgive her stepfather and said he didn't endorse the philosophy she had attributed to him.

"I don't teach forgive and forget," he said. "I teach confront."

Throughout his testimony yesterday, Phelps, now a pastor in Indiana, defended his actions to jurors, saying he did everything he could to help Anderson after he learned in October 1997 she was pregnant with Willis's baby.

He said he reported the allegations to the police the next day following a conversation with Willis.

"There was no intent to cover this up at all. Period," he said.

After she reported her pregnancy, Anderson said she was expelled from the school run by Trinity Baptist and sequestered in an area of Phelps's home referred to as the "prophet's chamber."

Anderson was then sent to live with a family Phelps knew in Colorado, but not before she said she was made to stand in front of the Trinity congregation and apologize for being pregnant.

Phelps said Anderson - who left the courtroom during his testimony yesterday - went before the congregation because "pregnancies are public matters" and the church could offer help, he said.

"You can have people whispering about you, speculation about it . . . or you can announce you're with child, let this congregation embrace you," Phelps said.

As for the decision to keep Anderson from coming back to school, "expelled is a difficult word," he said. He said the school's advisory committee decided it wasn't equipped to have a student who was pregnant.

Phelps also said Anderson stayed for just one night at his house in the prophet's chamber, which he said was "the nicest part of the house."

And he said it was her mother's decision to send her to Colorado, where Anderson had her baby and gave it up for adoption.

Having Anderson stay with family nearby "was not an option Christine (Leaf, Anderson's mother,) looked favorably toward," Phelps said. He said he presented Leaf with five options, including the family he knew in Colorado.

"If that had been my daughter and son, that was the finest family" to help in a time of need, Phelps said, describing the couple's educational background and the husband's high-paying job.

Assistant County Attorney Wayne Coull, noting that he had only asked Phelps whether Anderson went to Colorado, commented on his defensiveness.

"How long have you been preparing and practicing your answers to my questions?" Coull asked.

"Well, for a year, I wanted to be on your side, sir," Phelps said, explaining that he expected to be contacted by the Concord police but never got a phone call until last August, hours before the Monitor reported on Willis's arrest and Phelps's role in reporting the allegations.

Phelps said he was "blown away" by how the police described his role to reporters and was upset by the nature of the news coverage, saying he felt "thrown under the bus on this thing."

"I hope everybody on the jury will give me this opportunity to say I'm willing to be guided by the police," Phelps said.

The Concord police have said their investigation stalled when they couldn't find Anderson in 1997.

Asked by Coull if he had told the police Anderson would be moving out of state, Phelps said the idea "never crossed my mind." He said he had instructed Anderson's mother, Christine Leaf, to also contact the police and said the family in Colorado had a listed phone number.

Leaf, who also testified yesterday, said the Concord police never asked for her daughter's phone number in Colorado.

She also said Anderson did not want to be interviewed "and yelled at me for reporting it to the police."

Leaf said she would have pushed the police to investigate if her daughter had told her the same story she told in court this week.

But she said Anderson never reported being forcibly raped by Willis.

"She never really told me anything, but she never said to me it was rape," Leaf said.

Anderson no longer has a relationship with Leaf, who said she supports Phelps and believes her daughter is seeking revenge.

"She's said she's not going to be crossed, because if she is, she'll get even," Leaf said.

She added: "This is supposed to be about Ernie Willis, not about me. This whole trial is supposed to be about Ernie Willis. She isn't so much interested about getting even with him."

Prosecutors yesterday called several former church members to testify about watching Anderson be called before the congregation to apologize for being pregnant.

Willis also apologized during that same service for being unfaithful to his wife, "and never, ever was there a word that they were connected," said Fran Earle, a former clerk at the church.

Another former member, Christine Barnhart, said she was "mortified" watching Anderson stand before the congregation, "pale as a ghost."

Barnhart said Phelps referred to the part of the service where Willis and Anderson came forward as "church discipline."

Prosecutors expect to finish calling witnesses today. Willis is expected to testify as the trial continues.

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com.)


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