A prominent pastor at Gainesville’s First Baptist Church resigned suddenly in August, citing a 2016 lawsuit over an abusive Boy Scouts leader tied to the church. But church leaders this week revealed to their members that a second sex scandal involving the pastor himself is behind his departure.
Bill Coates, a pastor at the church for 20 years, had said that he struggled with his decision to resign for more than a year. He told The Times of Gainesville in August that the main motivation behind his retirement was a 2016 lawsuit filed by a former Boy Scout against the church, its former pastor Steve Brown and admitted child molester Fleming Weaver, a longtime deacon at First Baptist. That story was initially uncovered by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But on Sunday, church leaders revealed in a statement emailed to its members that it was another scandal, involving allegations of sexual misconduct made against Coates by a female church staffer, which led to the pastor’s resignation.
The church said in its statement that Coates no longer has any affiliation with the church. The church has a membership of about 3,000, and counts Gov. Nathan Deal among its members.
The missive included no denials of the allegation on behalf of Coates or the church, which became aware of the accusation in August. The exact nature of the alleged sexual misconduct was not disclosed. Coates could not be reached for comment.
Executive pastor Kent Murphey said the woman who made the accusations did not involve law enforcement but declined further comment.
“Immediately upon receiving this report, the First Baptist Church leaders went to work to provide support for the well-being of the woman with whom Dr. Coates had the inappropriate relationship, in so far as they could, and also to assure that all current staff members are properly informed, educated, and provided with renewed training for appropriate professional ethical standards,” the statement read.
In the 2016 lawsuit against Gainesville’s First Baptist that Coates referenced, a former Boy Scout alleges Weaver raped him at a Boy Scouts campground in 1985 — nearly five years after Weaver had stepped down as scoutmaster of Troop 26, which was sponsored by First Baptist. A 2016 investigation by the AJC determined that Weaver was forced to resign after admitting to Brown he had repeatedly abused two boys under his supervision, often on church grounds.
Law enforcement was never notified and Weaver remained active in the Scouts.
Coates told The Times he had grown weary of dealing with the lawsuit, saying he was starting to feel more like a lawyer than a pastor.
Even then, many members of the church felt there were other, undisclosed reasons behind his resignation. Some surmised Coates’ support of gay marriage, which had angered the congregation’s more conservative members, played a role.
But no one suspected sexual misconduct, said longtime member Cheryl Christian.
“I’m stunned, and also disappointed,” said Christian, who, as the former head of Good News Clinics, worked with Coates on the organization’s board of directors. “He wasn’t everything you thought he was. But he was also human.”
Though Coates, who was also an advocate for the ordination of women in positions of church leadership, could be a polarizing figure, he was also widely respected and well-liked. The church was packed in August when he delivered his farewell sermon.
For his supporters, blaming another scandal, which came years before he was hired by First Baptist, for a retirement actually prompted by his own misdeeds proved baffling.
Church leadership informed the Board of Deacons about the allegation against Coates on Sunday before sharing the news with the congregation.
“For our members, please know that our current church leadership will continue working to help our members recover and heal, and to prepare for its future ministries,” the statement read. “We will share any new information with you as it develops.”
“We encourage you to join us in praying for healing and restoration for our church, the woman affected by the misconduct, the Coates family and all those impacted by this sad news,” the statement concludes.
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