After going to the early church service and then teaching my 11th and 12th grade Sunday school class, I went home. I received a call from one of the other youth leaders telling me to come back at noon for a very important meeting in the associate pastor’s office. This was a new one. I had been teaching for about 10 years and had never been “called back”.
I remember sitting on the floor in the pastor’s office when he told us that the associate pastor for youth would no longer be working with the kids of the church effective immediately . . . The whole idea of the meeting was basically to ask us to run the youth program in the church. But we were not told why. This caused an immeasurable mistrust. It didn’t seem fair that we should step up to additional responsibilities and not know the reason why. But we did because of the kids.
I called the youth pastor and expressed my concern regarding his absence. He steadfastly proclaimed that he was ill and that was the reason why he would not be working with the kids.
What happened next?
Several weeks later, we found that the associate pastor had been arrested at the church and charged with inappropriate sexual contact with a minor. We further learned that, at a junior high school youth event at the church, he took a youth up to his office at which time the pastor fondled the boy’s genitals.
The boy’s parents were social friends with the associate pastor and his wife and several weeks later, arranged to have them babysit their kids for a weekend. When the molested boy heard this, he broke down and told his parents of the fondling incident. They contacted the senior pastor with expressed orders not to report the event to the authorities.
When confronted with the story by the senior pastor, the associate pastor confessed. The Sunday morning meeting immediately followed. It was subsequently determined that this might not have been the only victim of abuse and the boy’s parents permitted the contacting of authorities.
The senior pastor held an all church meeting at which he told everyone of the incident and the arrest of the associate. In a packed sanctuary, there were several hours of questions, accusations, and concerns, including discussing issues of mandatory reporting.
As I said earlier, the associate pastor confessed so it was not necessary for the victim to testify in court. There were several other boys involved but somehow that never was made clear to us as to whether they were part of the legal process . . . I attended the trial in a packed courtroom during which the associate pastor was made to stand and tell the victim’s mother and father what he had done. He was sentenced to 9 to 23 months in county prison and put on probation for many years after that. Sheriff’s deputies handcuffed him and led him from the courtroom straight to jail.
How would you describe the aftermath?
The church was wounded, wounded badly! The senior pastor was accused of breaking the law [by not reporting the incident immediately at the expressed request of the victim’s parents]. Many felt betrayed by the associate pastor – especially the mothers of boys who had gone through the youth program in past years. I personally felt I had been treated dishonestly by my church. Although I could understand the actions taken from an intellectual standpoint, from a personal standpoint, I had not been trusted to know the truth. That hurt.
Immediately it seemed, we started working on new policies and procedures to protect the young people in the church. From now on, no one could work with the kids until they had been members of the church for x number of months. Background checks were ordered on anyone who seemingly knew a kid’s name. No one was permitted to talk to any kid under 18 alone. And . . . every door in the church had a very large glass window installed. All of this, although intellectually relevant, seemed to be intended to protect the kids of the church from ME and others like me!
You, meaning an adult male working with children and youth?
Yes. One of the requirements to continue working with youth was that we attend a seminar to be presented by outside “professionals” to learn what sexual predators are all about and how to deal with them. The seminar was to begin on a Friday evening and last all day Saturday. It was presented by a group of incredibly angry women who seemed to hate all males. Within the first several minutes, the speaker informed us that if you are male and are working with children or youth, you are most likely a pervert.
I can remember hearing this and asking myself if I heard correctly. To say I was angry and hurt would be like saying Easter is a minor holiday. This was said at my church and paid for by my church to people who had given much of their lives to the children of the church and who’d been previously asked to keep the program together for the kids. Shortly after the statement, there was a break during which I quietly left and went home. I did not return Saturday.
What would you say was some of the lasting impact for you as a volunteer youth leader?
Many of us had been hurt. Most of us had never considered such a situation. We didn’t know the law and what was required of us. Many of us had no idea of the potential jeopardy we placed ourselves in by volunteering with children and youth. So we needed to be educated. We did need to clean up our act and take normal precautions.
But the tendency is to over react. We need to fix it NOW! We enacted rules, policies, changed doors and locks without thinking about how it felt to be one of the people who were being scrutinized under a microscope. Of course the kids come first. That’s easy, but we did a poor job of lifting up the folks who were just trying to help.
Today, 15 years later, the same rules are in effect. Things are back to “normal” but I cringe every time a kid asks for a ride home. I continue to work as a volunteer in the youth ministry program (29 years). But somehow, something was taken from me as a result of this tragedy. I don’t think I ever felt as trusted again. That shouldn’t have happened.
What practices would you identify as most helpful that you and fellow volunteer leaders did in the months that followed?
The youth volunteer staff stuck together and continued a very active program. The volunteers placed the kids first . . . open meetings were held to provide members an opportunity to express their concerns. In retrospect, we should have spent more time educating volunteers as to how something like this might occur or what kind of things of which to be aware. And we should have made a special effort to help our male volunteers know that their ministry is appreciated and that they are not painted by the same brush as the offender just because of their gender.