(Photo: Mt. Zion Baptist Church)
Four women have accused popular Nashville pastor Bishop Joseph Walker III of Mount Zion Baptist Church and five other church leaders of sexual misconduct and violating their trust over the past 10 years. The women allege contact with Walker led to sexual assault, and in one case, a forced abortion.
Four former female parishioners sued the pastor and five other leaders for "clerical malpractice" and a "conspiracy [to] recruit young women for purposes of sexual, psychological and spiritual exploitation," local media reported. The women are suing for $5 million, according to local news station WTVF-TV.
The women allege they were sexually exploited and abused during counseling sessions sponsored by Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and that church leaders recruited women for exploitation and sex for nearly 10 years.
Mount Zion is one of Nashville's largest churches with some 25,000 members and growing at a phenomenal rate of over 1,800 members per year, according to the church's website. Walker started his ministry at the church in 1992.
Only one of the accusers has revealed herself, while the others have chosen to remain anonymous. The name of one of the accused church leaders, other than Walker, was also revealed.
The Christian Post did not manage to immediately contact Walker or his church for a comment. However, the Davidson County Courts' clerk confirmed to CP that the lawsuit is on file.
The plaintiff who went public, Valencia Batson, spoke to WTVF Wednesday. She said she believes it was time for her to "say something."
She emphasized she does not care for the money that might potentially result from the lawsuit, but about the safety of any woman who is in the church now or who "can't move forward with her life." Batson reportedly declined to comment about specifics like times and dates of the alleged assaults or the nature of the evidence against the church.
Both Batson and her attorney reportedly said they fear for their safety after filing the lawsuit. But Batson's attorney said they have made no reports of any threats.
Mount Zion issued a statement to the media saying: "The only thing this action demonstrates is that anyone can sue, sometimes anonymously, no matter how ridiculous the claims or how sensational the charges."
It is "truly sad that a church and its leaders can be attacked with such shocking and ugly charges," the church officials said, adding that they were convinced the plaintiffs are looking to win financial gains from the lawsuit. "It appears this action is not a quest for truth or justice, but instead solely for money."
One of the accused church leaders, Pastor Kerry Bryant, who is no longer with the church after working there for 20 years, has also issued a statement, calling the accusations false and expressing his conviction that the plaintiffs look for financial gains, reported WTVF.
As no specific places, events, times or dates are noted in the lawsuit, observers wonder if it will be able to stand up in court.
The Mount Zion congregation, as well as Walker's wife, Stephanie Walker, have been supportive of the pastor. Mrs. Walker spoke to the congregation Sunday.
"Please don't mistake these tears for tears of sadness. I absolutely love my husband and support him in every way," she said, as quoted by MSNBC.
Walker reportedly addressed the issue in the Sunday sermon himself. "And I said, 'Then Lord, why now,'" he said, as quoted by MSNBC. "And the Lord said, 'Because you've been encouraging marriages and empowering young people. You've got 2,000 men praying at the altar and you ask, 'Why now?'"
Walker is one of the region's most popular pastors. Next to being a spiritual leader, he is also a counselor, philanthropist, community activist and author who penned several books on marriage and relationships, including Love and Intimacy.
In 2010, Walker and his wife founded the Dr. Joseph & Stephaine Walker Foundation, a nonprofit aiming to help people "help themselves and those around them lead productive and satisfying lives."
Walker also launched in 2001 a community project "committed to low- and moderate-income families and to community economic development," called the New Level Community Development Corporation. Walker has also appeared on TBN's (Trinity Broadcasting Network) "Praise the Lord" program.