Preying on the Congregation

Pastor Stedroy Williams' house of worship has become a house divided as some members insist he sexually harassed women

Another meeting was scheduled for the following night, to resolve unfinished business. But that Friday night, as McPherson and Beerom met with parishioners, Williams telephoned and said he was calling from New Jersey, according to Bayne. He told Beerom to take "my people" into the back office, without the Montreal ministers, and put him on the speakerphone. There he told a group of 20 people to stop the meeting, according to Anglin. He accused the ministers from Montreal of making up stories to try to take away his church. Williams then hung up, and a heated argument broke out between parishioners who supported Williams and those who still wanted help from the Montreal ministers.

"They were arguing, fingers were pointing," recalls Bayne. "Pastor McPherson said to the people, 'I don't want to destroy your church, I don't want to split your church.' One woman was in tears, and she kept saying, 'These ministers are here to help us. They are here to help us!'"

After the meeting ended in a stalemate, the Montreal ministers left for good, as did many parishioners, including Anglin, who took his musical instruments with him. "I felt so let down," he recalls. "I thought, initially, 'Here's a man who's fallen, and I'm going to be there for him, to help him and the victim.' I've lost all respect for the man."

A month after gracing the cover of The Gospel Truth newspaper, Williams nearly lost his church
A month after gracing the cover of The Gospel Truth newspaper, Williams nearly lost his church

He would have lost that respect sooner if his wife, Dez, had told him what Williams allegedly did to her a year earlier. She says Williams twice made passes at her when his secretary was gone and they were alone in the church office. Once, she says, he grabbed her, pushed her against the wall and tried to kiss her and touch her breast. "He said, 'You have nice legs,' and 'I know you want this,'" she says. "Then he called me Bathsheba, who is beautiful."

Dez Anglin says she pushed Williams away and he apologized, saying, "Don't tell your husband, he'll kill me." So she didn't, but she now regrets remaining quiet.

"I thought I was the first person he did this to," she says. "And I felt bad for his wife and kids. But now I have guilt. If I had spoken out, maybe all these other girls wouldn't have been hurt."

The type of allegations made against Williams are, by no means, uncommon. Sexual scandals involving religious leaders make headlines so frequently they're hardly news anymore. Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, priests accused of pedophilia. While these kinds of indiscretions have been going on for centuries, until recently they were kept in the closet, according to theology professor Dwight Hopkins, who has studied black churches. These days American society, in particular, is less tolerant of sexual misconduct and adultery. "The climate has changed," Hopkins says. "The press had a tacit agreement with JFK not to report on his indiscretions. But with Bill Clinton, it's different. These things are less tolerated by the general public now."

And with good reason, he notes. Religious leaders, like psychologists and doctors, are in positions of trust; people turn to them for comfort and help in moments of extreme need and vulnerability. The temptation is too much for some pastors, but to violate that trust is beastly, according to Hopkins, who says he always leaves his door open when talking to a woman in his office. "I am conscious of my power," he adds.

Hopkins feels that a pastor who has sex with his parishioners should be removed from the church and prosecuted. But while it is a crime in Florida for licensed professionals -- psychologists, doctors, even physical trainers -- to have sex with their clients, it is not illegal for clergy to have sex with adult parishioners. Dennis Nicewander, an assistant state attorney in Broward County, notes that, because of the constitutional separation of church and state in this country, "pastors don't go through the same licensing -- although psychologists are pretty close to pastors."

Williams, of course, has not been convicted of a crime, nor has he been formally charged. But he faces serious allegations made by his own parishioners. A reporter stopped by Williams' church on two consecutive Sunday mornings in an attempt to talk with him. The first time, Williams called the reporter outside before the service began. In the parking lot, with Beerom beside him, the pastor denied the existence of a police report containing allegations made by Ricky's nine-year-old daughter. When the reporter said she had a copy of the report in her car, he grew angry.

"A man is innocent until proven guilty," he hollered as Beerom pulled him away and told him to calm down. "Do you see any chains on me?" he asked, clapping one wrist across the other. He then threw his arms to the sky and looked up. "Only Jesus can judge me," he bellowed. "Mrs. McPherson is a devil! We solve our problems inside the church."

Williams and Beerom then asked the reporter to leave, saying, "We have no story for you."

The reporter returned the following Sunday to talk to parishioners. As she was conversing with mechanics at the auto body shop next door, Williams and two men came out of the church and sped toward her. "Why are you harassing my people?" the pastor roared. "Why don't you leave me alone? I'm going to pray for you." He then threatened to call the police.

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