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Saturday, February 24, 2024
Courthouse News Service
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TN Church Responds to Sexual Assault Lawsuit

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (CN) - A Tennessee family says their young son was sexually assaulted at their church because of a lack of supervision, while the church says it fully cooperated with authorities and parents.

The lawsuit, filed by two John Doe parents on behalf of their two minor children, begins with a graphic description of an alleged assault they say occurred in August 2014.

"This case arises out of the reckless and negligent failure of defendant Fellowship Bible Church of Williamson County to provide a safe place for a young child entrusted to the church's care by his parents, who were worshiping at the Sunday morning service," the complaint states. "While his parents were participating in the Sunday morning worship service, their young son, Johnny Doe, was orally and anally raped by his church teacher in a bathroom attached to a classroom in the children's ministry."

Johnny Doe is now four years old, according to the complaint. The family says they attended Fellowship Bible Church for 12 years.

"For more than a decade, the church lay at the heart of the Doe family, and the Does placed complete, loving trust in the church and its leadership," the Nov. 30 lawsuit states.

The alleged perpetrator was a male teenager who was put in charge of Johnny's toddler classroom by the church, the family claims. According to the lawsuit, he pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

The family blames the church for not supervising the teenager and claims the church tried to ignore the incident.

"Instead of taking responsibility and striving to protect Johnny Doe and the other toddlers who were subjected to the care of the perpetrator by the church, at first, the church tried to blame the Does for what happened, insisting the horrors their son described must have been something he heard at home," according to the complaint.

The lawsuit seeks $37.5 million in compensatory damages as well as punitive damages for negligent supervision and infliction of emotional distress. The unnamed family is represented by Kathryn Barnett of Morgan & Morgan in Nashville.

Bill Wellons, teaching pastor and organizational leader for Fellowship Bible Church, said last week in a letter to church members that its leaders "are outraged that this heinous crime occurred."

"Please know that we are personally sickened by this crime and will strive to do all in our power as leaders to prevent this grotesque criminal behavior from occurring again," Wellons wrote.

The pastor explained the church's cooperation with law enforcement after the incident was reported and said church officials met with all parents of children who attended class there.

"In our cooperation with authorities and our communications with parents, there has been nothing to suggest that this was more than a one-time, isolated event," he wrote. "We have also endeavored to work with the victim's family, offering counseling and any other assistance they might find helpful. They have chosen, instead, to file a lawsuit."

Wellons denied allegations against the church made in the lawsuit and said Fellowship Bible Church has "no tolerance for anyone who seeks to harm a child in a physical, sexual, or emotional way."

"I am distressed that statements in the news media, quoting from the lawsuit, have been so erroneous-that we denied anything had happened, that we claimed the victim had 'lied' and urged the family not to pursue criminal charges, that we don't take child safety seriously and have no proper policies and procedures, and that we sought to hide the truth from other families," the pastor wrote. "All of these statements are untrue."

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