The family of a 3-year-old boy who was raped in a bathroom by a teenage male volunteer as they worshipped at a Tennessee church last summer has filed a staggering $37.5 million lawsuit against the organization for negligence.
In the lawsuit filed Monday, according to The Tennessean, the teenage volunteer raped the boy in a bathroom at the Fellowship Bible Church campus in Brentwood on Aug. 24, 2014. He later pleaded guilty in court to aggravated sexual battery.
According to News Channel 5 the toddler's parents had been members of the church for 12 years and were married and baptized there as well.
They explained that their son was raped after they dropped him off at the church's children's ministry but they didn't realize what had happened until the next weekend.
"Their son was saying he didn't want to go back to church," Kathryn Barnett of Morgan & Morgan, the firm representing the family, told News Channel 5. After asking more questions they realized their son was assaulted.
The family alleges that when they reached out to the church to inform them about what happened, Fellowship Bible Church at first denied the claims and charged that the child was lying.
"The church urged the (family) not to pursue criminal charges against the perpetrator," according to court documents.
The parents ignored that advice, however, and took the teenager to court where he pled guilty to aggravated sexual battery.
The lawsuit also charges that the church misled the parents of other toddlers and "sought to hide the truth about the perpetrator pedophile and about the rape of (the 3 year old) from other families."
"We want justice for this family," Barnett said, "but also we want to make sure that every child at this church and every church is safe."
In a statement released on the church's website Tuesday, Fellowship Bible Church Pastor Bill Wellons denied the church tried to cover up the crime.
"We are outraged that this heinous crime occurred. It came to our attention when the victim's family advised our staff, and we immediately reported it to the Tennessee Department of Children's Services and that same morning contacted officers from the Brentwood Police Department," he said.
"(The authorities asked for our cooperation in keeping the matter confidential so that they could complete their investigation, and, of course, we agreed). I can tell you that the alleged perpetrator is a young teen and the child of a volunteer teacher in our children's ministry, and both parent and child were immediately removed from their volunteer positions in our church pending the police investigation," he explained.
Wellons further noted that the church also worked very hard to be transparent with other parents whose children were exposed to the volunteer.
"Toward the end of the investigation, a formal delinquency charge of a sexual nature was subsequently filed by the authorities, and at that time we met with all the parents of children in the classroom where this young teen was volunteering. The juvenile status of both the victim and the alleged perpetrator preclude anyone from identifying them or details of the case," he said.
Wellons noted that even though the church has tried working with the parents, including proving whatever support they need, the parents opted to sue the church.
"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," said Wellons. "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."
According to The Tennessean, the family is seeking $22.5 million for their son, as well as $5 million each for the husband, wife and their daughter, who attended church on Aug. 24, 2014.
"To me, it's incredibly important that every church and every child care facility has a wake-up call, and this should be it now. No one should think it can't happen to them or happen to someone in their community," Barnett told The Tennessean. "Before going to any church or child care facility, I would advise families to ask what the screening process is, what kind of training does the staff have and what is the source of the training. You want to make sure all those steps are being taken."