HOOVER, Ala. (WIAT) – Last Sunday morning in Hoover, after he’d reminded the congregation about the men’s breakfast at Golden Corral, Pastor Jimmy Bassham of Hoover First United Methodist Church said he had one other announcement to make.
Bassham, who describes himself as a “very part-time” pastor at the church, addressed claims that the church’s day school used hot sauce to punish children two years old and younger.
Bassham’s comments, which confirmed that day school staff used hot sauce as punishment “for years, if not decades,” began with a firm commitment.
“This practice has stopped,” he told those in attendance. “It will never be done again.”
Mothers of children who attended the day school said they appreciate that commitment from Bassham. But nearly everything the pastor said after that, the mothers told CBS 42, has compounded the pain and frustration the church has already caused.
The mothers said the pastor’s comments from the pulpit downplayed what occurred, pushed blamed onto one individual when multiple mothers expressed concerns, and did not accurately reflect what happened since the issue first came to light. The pastor said he’s sorry “if any mothers were upset by his comments” but added that the update was “meant solely for this church family.”
Bassham’s July 10 comments came during the first Sunday service following a CBS 42 report that first outlined allegations that day school staff forced hot sauce into the mouths of children two years old and younger in situations where the kids were biting, screaming, or exhibiting other disruptive behavior.
Church officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment before the initial report’s publication. In a statement sent after the report was published, a representative of the Hoover United Methodist Day School said the daycare was cooperating with a state investigation.
“The safety and well-being of the children and families we serve is our top priority,” the statement said. “We are aware of the allegations and take them seriously. We are cooperating fully with the Department of Human Resources investigation. We are praying for all involved.”
The Alabama Department of Human Resources said that while it could not comment on particular allegations of abuse, the agency could confirm that the Hoover day school was not in compliance with state law.
“I can share that this facility never completed steps required by law to operate as either a licensed or license-exempt child care program,” an agency representative said in a statement. “This was confirmed by our Child Care Services Division during a site visit on Thursday. As a result, we have notified the appropriate legal authorities, in accordance with our standard procedures.”
Religiously-affiliated daycare facilities like the Hoover First UMC Day School are not required to be licensed by the Department of Human Resources. Such facilities are, however, required by law to register with state officials as an “exempt” daycare. The Hoover day school, state officials confirmed, was not registered with the state at all.
Pastor Bassham said in an e-mail following initial reports of the allegations that he did not have anything to add to the daycare’s response.
Days later, though, Bassham had more to say about the issue from the pulpit, telling congregants that although hot sauce was used by daycare staffers as punishment for “years,” the practice was limited to only two children.
“It was done for two children,” Bassham said. “The parents of those children were not bothered by this, but another mother was, and she proceeded to call the Hoover Police Department, the Department of Human Resources, and at least channel 42 news.”
Later, Bassham said that the parent he was referencing was the only one to pull her child out of the day school.
“Even though her children were never impacted with this,” he said.
Bassham also added that he had only recently learned that the day school is not licensed.
“There is some question as to whether a day school such as ours has to be licensed,” he said. “But we are trying to work through that – determine what is and isn’t required.”
Mothers of children who attended the day school said they aren’t even sure which mom Bassham was referring to. His “misinformed” comments, they believe, are an effort to shift blame to a single, disenchanted parent.
Anna Sims Barnes’ involvement with the issue began when her four and five-year-old kids commented on a bottle of hot sauce at dinner.
“That’s what they give the babies at school,” her five-year-old son said. His sister echoed him: “Yeah, it is,” she said. “That’s what they give the babies.”
Barnes said the notion that only a single mother was upset about what happened at the church is “completely false.”
“Four parents confronted the day school director as soon it came to light,” she said. “One of us filed a police report. Another took to social media. I contacted DHR. This was a joint effort of several parents.”
None of the parents interviewed for this story initially reached out to CBS 42.
Barnes said she’s disappointed and angry that what happened at the day school has been “minimized in favor of protecting a church’s image.”
“I think the parents and the students of Hoover First UMC Day School are owed a sincere apology,” she said.
Heather Willoughby’s three-year-old daughter confirmed to her that hot sauce was being used on younger children. Like Anna Barnes and several other mothers, she pulled her child from the daycare. She said there’s no excuse for Bassham to bend the truth from the pulpit.
“He had weeks to contact parents, to look at the news, and to reach an understanding of what happened from all the angles,” she said. “He failed to do so and is complicit in what I see as a cover-up of child abuse.”
Heather Agee is the mother who decided to report the incident to police. She said that she was jumping up and down in frustration and anger when she watched a video of what Bassham said during the church service.
Agee said the way the situation is being handled isn’t very Christian.
“They are causing harm to other human beings,” she said.
When she asked her daughter whether infants were being given hot sauce at the day school, her four-year-old said no. Then, Agee’s heart sank as her daughter continued her answer.
“No, mommy,” her daughter told her. “They get the red drink in the bottle with the peppers on it.”
Agee said her daughter was impacted by what happened even if the hot sauce wasn’t put on her tongue.
“She was absolutely impacted,” Agee said. “Who wouldn’t be impacted by watching infants get hot sauced for crying?”
Bassham said that he is sorry if any mothers were upset by his comments but that the message was meant “solely for this church family.”
He said his comments were “based solely on what had been told to me.”
“As the pastor of this church and on behalf of this church, I can only say that I was appalled upon learning that this was a practice in our Day School,” he said. “When I was first told about this episode, I said that I believed that the teacher involved should be terminated.”
Bassham said, however, that he does not have the power to make hiring and firing decisions at the day school.
“I can say that I have stopped the practice and it will never happen again,” he said. “The First United Methodist Church of Hoover is deeply ashamed of what was done to the children under the care of our Day School (and that includes all of the children under the care of our Day School). It does not reflect the love we hold for those children and the ministry we desire to have with them.”
Anna Barnes said for the church to reflect that “love,” it should truly take responsibility and repent, not downplay mothers’ experiences from the pulpit.
“A program that cruelly punishes children for child-like behaviors is hardly a ministry,” Barnes said. “The only remedy is for the church to take responsibility morally and legally.”