Prominent pastor Rev. George Waddles Sr. will be preaching Easter Sunday at Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side—as he has for the last 29 years—despite evidence that he may have sexually molested a young girl in his office during counseling sessions.
Waddles has pleaded not guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse, a felony that carries a potential seven-year prison sentence.
According to Cook County prosecutors, who laid out their case during a bond hearing in September 2015, the 67-year-old Rev. Waddles had known the alleged victim since she was a toddler. The girl—whom The Daily Beast is not naming because she is a minor and an alleged victim of sexual abuse—and her family had dutifully attended services multiple times a week and her mother even taught Sunday school at Zion Hill.
By the time the girl was 13, in 2011, Assistant State’s Attorney Tara Pease-Harkin said, Waddles—who has a master’s degree in social work—was privately counseling her in his office. Within a year, the sessions between the pastor and the teen allegedly became “inappropriate.”
Prosecutors said that from 2012 to 2014, Waddles told the girl that he had been dreaming about her and thinking about her when she wasn’t around. He asked, and she refused, to lift her shirt, and he tried to kiss and hug her at the end of counseling sessions.
On two different occasions, Waddles tried to inappropriately touch the girl and apologized when she refused, Cook County State’s Attorney’s spokesman Steve Campbell told The Daily Beast.
In 2014, Waddles allegedly asked the then-15-year-old girl to sit on his lap. When she did, he put his hand inside her pants, and inside her underwear. She left his office and told her mother a month later.
The mother and daughter confronted Waddles at a meeting in his office, and later with Waddles’s wife, Karen Waddles, present, Pease-Harkin said. (In an unrelated Facebook post a few months earlier, Karen Waddles wrote that she was “concerned about what’s happening with our young girls. They’re becoming sexualized at an early age and it’s hard to know how to protect them…I think the church must speak up—we need to set standards, live by those standards ourselves, and hold each other accountable.”)
From that meeting allegedly came an admission from Waddles that he had inappropriately touched the girl as well as a request that the pair not go to police—all secretly recorded by the girl’s mother on her cellphone, prosecutors say.
Such an admission, if it is allowed in court and it indeed shows what Pease-Harkin suggests, could be a particularly damning piece of evidence. Though Illinois has strict privacy laws which regulate the recording of public conversations, Waddles’s taped confession might meet the criteria for an exception to the law, according to Eric Johnson, a professor at University of Illinois College of Law.
Ticking off the statutory exceptions to state law, Johnson noted that since the alleged victim’s mother wasn’t recording at the behest of police, was participating in the conversation, and suspected Waddles had committed a crime against her daughter, “it’s my guess that the recording will be admissible,” Johnson told The Daily Beast in an email.
At the September hearing, Pease-Harkin also said that two other women had come forward claiming to be victims of Waddles’s abuse. One who reported unwanted hugs and kisses in 1996 when she was 11 also claimed Waddles made her touch his penis. Another said he tried to hug and kiss her during office counseling session in 2006, and wouldn’t allow her to leave his office. No criminal charges were ever filed in these cases.
A spokeswoman from the state’s Department of Children and Family Services told the Chicago Tribune an agency investigation did not find that abuse had occurred.
Waddles turned himself into police on Sept. 29, 2015, and according to prosecutors, made “a positive disclosure” to detectives consistent with the girl’s story.
Waddles was released from jail, and a judge ruled he would be allowed to continue to perform his duties as pastor, but could have no contact with anyone under the age of 18 without another adult present.
Calls to Waddles and Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church were not returned. When called for comment, Waddles’s attorney, Marc Salone, said, “You mean any comment besides the presumption of innocence guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution? I believe in the Constitution. I think we should let the courts decide.”
“At some point. the trial will happen and the court, and not the court of popular opinion, will decide every defendant’s fate,” Salone said.
But according to the girl and her family, the only person being treated like a criminal in this case is the alleged victim.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, the family said that they had been shunned by their former congregation and were receiving weekly intimidating phone calls. At the same time, according to the Tribune, Waddles has remained in the pulpit, and been invited to speak at other churches. His congregation celebrated the anniversary of his service with a special program, and offered prayers and words of encouragement on the church’s Facebook page, which has since gone private. The judge also granted Waddles’s request to travel to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he preached at Greater Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church on its 19th anniversary.
Three weeks before he was charged, at the National Baptist Convention (NBC), Waddles resigned as president of the group’s Congress of Christian Education. NBC president Jerry Young addressed the “street talk” about Waddles’s resignation at the convention and said he was not fired, but was stepping down for unspecified health reasons. (In arresting documents, Waddles reported taking medication for hypertension and a heart condition.)
“When you’re so wrapped up in it, it’s hard to see the truth,” the alleged victim told a Tribune reporter. “They see him as God. They don’t do what God says. They do what he says.”
“You’re supposed to be championed for doing what’s right,” her mother said.
The reaction to rally around the accused, especially when he is in a position of power, is all too common, said Barbara Blaine, founder and president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support group for sexual-abuse survivors.
Blaine has been to Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church to pass out fliers to churchgoers urging them to stand with the alleged victim and remove Waddles from ministry until the case is resolved, but church officials and hired security kept her away from the parishioners, she said.
Blaine plans to go back on Sunday, April 24, the day before Waddles’s next court appearance.
Since starting her group 27 years ago, Blaine—herself a survivor of abuse—told The Daily Beast, “It never ceases to amaze me how parishioners still will not believe that their pastor could do such a thing, as if the barometer is, ‘If I know the accused, it couldn’t be true.’”
“We all know perpetrators, we just don’t know we know them,” she said.