Woman sues church in sex abuse by foster father Ex-pastor abused adopted daughters SOUTHWEST--Mount Airy * Woodbine * Taylorsville * Winfield

April 13, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

It all came rushing back to Belinda Byrd one afternoon last summer in her Rosedale apartment. Her 2-year-old daughter, Tiffany, had accidentally fallen down and begun to cry.

Suddenly, Belinda was 7 years old again, lying in the bed of her home in Mount Airy. Images stored in her subconscious for more than a decade began playing across her mind:

Her foster father, the Rev. Alvin Hall, pastor of the local Assembly of God Church, was on top of her.

He was pressing a pillow so hard against her face and neck that he had broken her collarbone.

"He was trying to suffocate me because I was screaming so loud," said Mrs. Byrd, now 23.

"That was the first time I was raped."

Late last month, Mrs. Byrd filed a $20 million suit in Howard Circuit Court against the Assemblies of God, a Missouri-based Pentecostal church, several church officials and Hall.

The suit follows Hall's guilty plea in Howard Circuit Court in January to two counts of child abuse and one count of second-degree rape. He confessed to having sex with Belinda and another foster daughter 12 to 15 times, according to police.

Hall, now 46, received a 20-year suspended sentence and 78 days' worth of weekends in jail.

The suit claims church officials knew that Belinda had been abused by Hall, but failed to protect her. The Assemblies of God "with knowledge of the pedophilic behavior of Alvin Hall failed to take any steps to protect . . . Belinda Byrd," the suit alleges.

She also claims in the suit that church officials reneged on a 1988 deal to defrock and banish Hall in exchange for her silence.

Officials of the church, which has 11,689 parishes in the United States -- including about 100 in Maryland -- declined to comment.

"We really are not issuing any statements at this time," said the Rev. Joseph Flower, the church's general secretary. "It's in the hands of our attorney."

Mrs. Byrd's lawsuit is one of a growing number that victims of child sexual abuse have filed against American churches in recent years.

As the stigma surrounding child sexual abuse has lessened and old memories have percolated to the surface, more victims have come forward to demand justice and money.

Between 1982 and 1992, sexual abuse cases cost the Catholic Church about $400 million in settlements, legal expenses and medical treatment of clergy, according to Jason Berry, author of a recently published book, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation -- Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children."

Hall began abusing Belinda and another foster daughter in the mid-1970s while he was a minister of the Faith Tabernacle Assembly of God Church in Mount Airy, according to police records. He adopted the two children in 1982.

Soon afterward, the other daughter revealed the abuse to Hall's wife, the suit said. After a family confrontation, Hall told church officials about some of the abuse and received counseling, Mrs. Byrd said.

Hall stopped having sexual intercourse with Belinda when she reached puberty, but continued to molest her, the suit said. In 1988, Belinda finally left her home in Baltimore County, where Hall served as pastor of the Bethel Assembly of God Church in Sparrows Point.

Regional church officials, including Savage minister E. Donald Cox, met with her to find out why she had fled, the suit said.

She said she told them about the molestation, though not the intercourse; the memories were still buried.

The officials promised to strip Hall of his minister's license and not allow him back in the area for five years, according to the suit.

"Mrs. Byrd was further told not to tell anyone of what had occurred and that if the information got out, it would be a great victory for Satan against the church as well as causing her to be burned in hell for all eternity," the suit said.

When Mrs. Byrd learned in 1990 that a Savage church school had hired Hall as a custodian, she confronted Mr. Cox, according to the suit.

Mr. Cox told her, the suit said, "to keep her mouth shut and to stop spreading false rumors." The suit also states he also said that "if she ever stepped foot on church property again she would be prosecuted for trespassing."

Mr. Cox denied the charges last week.

"I don't have anything to hide," he said. "I'm not really concerned with what they have to say. I'm concerned about Belinda Byrd."

Mr. Cox, who was named in the suit as a regional official of the church, said the charges had nothing to do with his Bethel Assembly of God parish in Savage.

Mrs. Byrd also has requested damages from Hall for the psychiatric and physical abuse she says he inflicted upon her for more than a decade. Hall, who is living with his parents in Howard County, did not return phone calls.

Mrs. Byrd says if she wins in court she would like to give some of the money to the Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Center in Baltimore and use some of it to pay for her group therapy sessions.

She has mixed feelings about her adopted father. Some days, she is filled with anger.

"Sometimes, from the Christian perspective, I feel sorry for him. He has a lot to deal with on Judgment Day."

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