A Nashville judge on Thursday morning dismissed allegations levied against Mt. Zion Baptist Church’s Bishop Joseph Walker III by a former parishioner.
Davidson County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Brothers granted Walker’s motion for summary judgment based on the one-year statute of limitations on tort claims, freeing him from allegations of sexual assault, battery, fraud, false imprisonment and other claims filed against him by Valencia Batson.
Batson had claimed the last physical or verbal contact with Walker was in January 2005, meaning the suit filed last January was six years past the statute of limitations.
I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know why Batson made a tort claim and not a criminal complaint. I do know that coming forward and leveling these kinds of allegations, no matter what the venue, is difficult. We're pretty quick to dismiss these kinds of allegations as "gold-digging" or "a misunderstanding." Having the charges dismissed, even if it's on a technicality, is going to add to some people's belief that regardless of what happened to Batson, nothing really terrible happened to her.
This isn't just bad for Batson. If the allegations against Walker are true, but nothing ever happens to him, it's much harder for the people around him to protect themselves from him. Not only might they not know the danger that they're in, if something does happen to them, they've got a firm object lesson in how there's no use going to the authorities.
The outcome for Walker, if he's innocent, is not much better. The judge isn't saying that the incidents didn't take place — just that if they did, they happened too long ago for Batson to have a legal remedy. This means Walker will always have a cloud over him, because he didn't have a chance in court to clear his name.
So either way, this is an unsatisfactory result. And yet it's the legally correct one. Unfortunately, there's another bad outcome of that correct decision.
One of the motivations behind this case was to determine whether there's such a thing as "clergy malpractice" in Tennessee. In other words, specific to this case, they were hoping to determine whether there's anything illegal or not about whether the pastor who is counseling you is also having sex with you.
As you can guess by the framing, in some states this is handled the same way it would be if someone recognized as a credentialed counselor by the state was using his or her position to unduly influence clients to do things they otherwise wouldn't. There are good arguments for not lumping pastors in under a law like this. The most persuasive one is that even if pastors are providing counseling for congregants, it's really not the same thing you'd get from a secular counselor, and so the law should treat them differently. For instance, you wouldn't want a licensed secular counselor to be telling people there was anything wrong with being gay. But it's imperative that pastors have the right (however wrong-headed) to tell people that without fear of state sanction.
Still, it'd be nice if there were some legal recognition that pastors have a unique power over their flock — one that can be coercive if abused. And using one's position as pastor to make congregants do things they otherwise wouldn't is a violation, no less than if a counselor or teacher were doing the same thing.