Multiple civil claims against church organizations related to a sexual abuse case involving a Colonial Heights church have survived after a Chesterfield County Circuit Court judge overruled demurrers.
Judge Frederick G. Rockwell III overruled demurrers brought forth by Immanuel Baptist Church, the Petersburg Baptist Association and the Baptist General Association of Virginia. The groups objected to counts related to vicarious liability, negligence, punitive damages and civil conspiracy.
Rockwell’s ruling came in a letter opinion on May 4. The case is J.W.C. et al. v. Immanuel Baptist Church (VLW 021-8-078).
The civil case stems from the conduct of Jeffrey Dale Clark, who was a youth group leader at Immanuel Baptist Church from 2008 until 2015. Clark’s father, Ted Clark, held several leadership positions at Immanuel Baptist Church and is named as an individual defendant in the civil suit.
Court documents state that in 2009, an allegation of sexual abuse was made against Jeffrey Clark by J.W.C., who was a minor at the time. Documents state that the church was aware of the allegations and that leadership had a divided response on the allegations.
Later in 2009, after a meeting where members of the PBA and the BGAV were in attendance, a follow-up meeting was held where leaders “supported Ted Clark, and thus Jeffrey Clark, in spite of the allegations against him.” Court documents say that “the alarms raised in these meetings” created a schism within the Immanuel Baptist Church, causing Pastor David Prather and youth group leaders to leave the church, taking with them a portion of the congregation.
Jeffrey Clark remained with the church until 2015, when he was arrested after police said he inappropriately touched a boy in his Chester home. In 2016, Clark was sentenced to serve 25 years for seven combined counts of aggravated sexual battery and two counts of taking indecent liberties with a child while in a custodial role. Chesterfield County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Erin Barr said in 2016 that Clark selected his victims through their involvement with the youth group that Clark led.
In 2018, eight plaintiffs filed a civil lawsuit against Immanuel Baptist Church, Pastor Fred. K. Adkins Jr. and Ted Clark. The complaint was amended the following year to include the BGAV and PBA in the amended complaint.
The plaintiffs, who are alleged victims of Clark’s sexual abuse, filed the complaint seeking compensatory and punitive damages. A 2019 story from WTVR-TV referred to the suit as a “multi-million-dollar civil lawsuit.”
The named defendants each individually demurred to the amended complaint in 2020. The Immanuel Baptist Church demurred to counts of negligent, grossly negligent and reckless hiring; negligent, grossly negligent and reckless retention; and punitive damages. The Petersburg Baptist Association and the Baptist General Association of Virginia each demurred to counts of vicarious liability and punitive damages, while the PBA demurred an additional count of negligent, grossly negligent and reckless breach of duty.
All demurrers made by the groups were overruled by Rockwell in his May 4 opinion. Much of Rockwell’s decision revolved around the 2009 meeting attended by members of the PBA and the BGAV that showed the organizations were aware of the “risk” continuing to employ Clark presented.
The Petersburg Baptist Association “may not have had a vote to officially authorize the risk of employing Jeffrey Clark, but the allegations specifically list facts that could allow a reasonable jury to determine that PBA confirmed or accepted the risk by turning a blind eye to the allegations against Jeffrey Clark, not demanding an investigation into the allegations, and walking out of the meeting in solidarity with Ted Clark,” Rockwell wrote. He reached the same conclusion about the BGAV, who had an employee serve as parliamentarian of the 2009 meeting.
Rockwell additionally overruled the PBA’s demurrer of the count of reckless breach of duty, ruling that the plaintiffs “sufficiently pleaded that PBA had direct knowledge of the possible propensities of Jeffrey Clark after the 2009 meetings” and that Clark was still able to bring children to a camp owned by the PBA unsupervised until 2015.
In overruling the Immanuel Baptist Church’s demurrers, Rockwell wrote that two deacons of the church became aware of allegations against Clark in January 2005. The deacons, Rockwell wrote, had the power to make personnel decisions for the church.
“The list of allegations,” Rockwell wrote, “indicates that Defendant IBC knew or should have known of the dangerous propensity for Jeffrey Clark to sexually assault minor boys prior to hiring him to work with the Youth Group or his hiring as the Leader of the Work Group.”
Rockwell continued, “There are substantial and certain factual allegations that would allow a reasonable finder of fact to determine there had been willful and wanton misconduct.”
Adkins and Ted Clark, listed as “individual defendants,” successfully demurred a count of negligent hiring and retention. Rockwell wrote in his decision that “even though the positions held by Ted Clark and Fred Adkins had some measure of power in hiring and firing decisions for IBC, they cannot be held directly liable for negligent hiring or retention.” Rockwell wrote that because of precedent set by Jane Doe v. Michael L. Baker, the count of negligent hiring or retention is only available against an employer, not individuals involved in personnel decisions. Additional demurrers for counts of civil conspiracy to commit fraud and punitive damages were overruled.
The rulings on demurrer are the latest chapter in a case that spans nearly a decade from alleged misconduct to present. Virginia Beach attorney Kevin Biniazan, who represents the plaintiffs, said the ruling meant his clients “are one step closer to that truth.”
“The perpetrator’s alleged sexual abuse of our clients began over a decade ago. Years later, we are still looking for answers from Immanuel Baptist Church, the Petersburg Baptist Association and the Baptist General Association of Virginia as to why they failed to protect our clients from a serial sexual predator who was right in front of their faces as we’ve alleged in our complaint,” Biniazan said.
Editor’s note: The version of this story that appeared in the June 14 print edition misidentified J.W.C. et al. v. Immanuel Baptist Church as VLW No. 021-8-076.