Churches Deal with Sex Abuse
Efforts to Prevent Molestation a Priority in Carolinas, U.S
Children's Stories Are No Longer a Secret Religious Leaders Take Steps to Protect Them

By Ken Garfield, Diane Suchetka
Charlotte Observer (North Carolina)
March 17, 2002

Religious leaders in the Carolinas - like hundreds of others across the country - are instituting new programs and policies designed to prevent clergy and other employees from sexually abusing children.

The changes are a response to reports of dozens of allegations - some new, some from the past - of priests sexually abusing minors from Boston to Palm Beach to San Francisco to Rock Hill.

Church officials in the Charlotte area are responding in several ways.

Leaders of the N.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are meeting this weekend to talk about forming a task force to help congregations set up stricter policies.

Pastors from the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church will attend mandatory workshops this spring focusing on sexual conduct, according to the Rev. Earl Wilson, head of the Charlotte district.

Heads of Friendship Missionary Baptist, one of the area's largest black congregations with 4,300 members, are talking about instituting criminal background checks for volunteers.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte will begin training for all priests, employees and volunteers in the diocese, which covers Western North Carolina.

The head of the diocese, Bishop William Curlin, outlines the program in a letter he has asked the diocese's 150 priests to read at masses this weekend. The letter calls sexual abuse "a tragic and incomprehensible evil."

"I ask you to pray for the success of this program," he says in the letter.


Boston cases raise the issue

New policies and programs here and across the country follow a Boston case called the biggest child-molestation scandal to hit the Roman Catholic Church in America. The scandal centers on defrocked priest John Geoghan, now serving nine to 10 years in prison for groping a 10-year-old boy. More than 130 other people claim that, over decades, Geoghan molested them too.

The Archdiocese of Boston eventually gave prosecutors the names of 80 other priests suspected of abusing children over four decades.

Settlements in those cases are expected to cost the archdiocese an estimated $100 million, an amount church leaders acknowledge is not covered by insurance.

Many changes - in Boston and across the country - followed the Geoghan case. Some dioceses, for example, are going through priests' personnel files to find prior reports of abuse. Other dioceses are asking victims of sexual abuse as children to come forward and name the perpetrators.

And in some cities, such as - Philadelphia, children's advocates and prosecutors are demanding that the Catholic Church release the names of priests suspected of sexual abuse.

For decades, the Catholic Church treated sexual abuse of children by priests as an internal issue. Some priests were quietly sent to treatment centers. Some were simply transferred to other parishes, only to abuse again.

Now, it appears, the church is willing to look at the issue differently.

The lead editorial in a newspaper published by the Archdiocese of Boston on Friday asks, among other things, if the Catholic Church should continue to require celibacy for its priests.

"Even if our present woes in the archdiocese were suddenly to disappear," the editorial says, "these questions have taken on an urgency and will not slip quietly away."


Addressing issue in Charlotte

In Charlotte, Curlin, bishop of one of the fastest growing denominations in the Carolinas, reaffirmed last week what he called his diocese's "zero tolerance" for sexual abuse by clergy and laity.

The diocese, which includes 132,000 Catholics in Mecklenburg and 45 other N.C. counties, will report allegations to authorities and cooperate fully with police, he said. The diocese will provide names of accused sexual abusers to the police, but only after determining for itself whether the allegation is "credible."

"If it's a credible thing, we're going to deal with it," Curlin said.

Priests found guilty of child abuse will be "removed from their ministry and never again be allowed to exercise ministry in this diocese," he said.

"That bars them from any other diocese," Curlin said Tuesday.

Now, the diocese checks the criminal background on candidates for the priesthood. A priest coming here from another diocese is required to furnish a letter from his superior that there are no allegations against them.

Priests are instructed not to be alone with a minor, and diocese rules prohibit a priest from having an overnight guest in the rectory who is not a relative or fellow priest, Curlin said.

Other Catholic leaders in Charlotte are addressing the issue, too. The Rev. Conrad Hoover apologized on behalf of the entire Roman Catholic Church from the pulpit at St. Ann Catholic in Charlotte last Sunday - not just about sexual abuse but about what he called "the lack of appropriate action on the part of some bishops, archbishops, cardinals and Vatican officials."

"May God have mercy on us," Hoover said.


Cases in Carolinas

When you look at the issue of sex abuse by clergy in the Carolinas, it's clear that it is a serious problem here too.

A Lincoln County preacher was arrested Thursday and charged with sexually propositioning a 15-year-old girl when he drove her home from church in October. Dewey "Eddie" White, 56, pastor at Heavenly View Full Gospel Baptist Church in Iron Station, was charged with a single misdemeanor count of solicitation to commit a felony - crime against nature.

White pleaded guilty in 1990 to indecent liberties with a different child and was sentenced to three years probation, according to court records.

Earlier this month, a Rock Hill priest active in the Latino community was arrested and charged with performing a lewd act with a 5-year-old girl.

In January 2001, Greenwood, S.C., Baptist minister Fernando Garcia was sentenced to 60 years in prison after admitting he sexually assaulted 23 children.

Police said they found 26 videotapes of Garcia molesting children. The minister told officials he too had been abused as a child - by a Roman Catholic priest.

In 1998, a Boone family filed a lawsuit charging that Roman Catholic priest Damion Lynch repeatedly molested their teen-age sons from 1991 to 1995. Lynch was never charged with a crime, according to Curlin.

He has since left the priesthood and the state, the bishop says.

The only other case in the Charlotte diocese of which Curlin said he is aware occurred about 20 years ago. He said the accuser did not pursue the case. Curlin had no other details.

And there is the case of tent-revival preacher Mario "Tony" Leyva, who once lived in Henderson County, and admitted sexually abusing at least 100 boys throughout North Carolina and in nine other states.

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1988 after he was caught in Virginia.

None of the stories shock Denis Ventriglia, a Wilmington lawyer who has handled about 100 cases of sexual abuse of children, 20 or so in the Carolinas.

In 99 percent of his cases, he says, children were abused by clergy members; and most were abused by Catholic priests.

"And most every client I've ever had wants to make sure that little children never have to suffer what they've had to suffer all their lives," Ventriglia says.

"Sex abuse thrives in secrecy, and removing that secrecy gives other victims the confidence to come forward, to support fellow victims and to try to prevent it from happening to other children."

That's why some of his clients have agreed to talk publicly about what happened to them.

Marion LaFong is one of them.


S.C. altar boy's life changes

LaFong was 12 and a student at a Catholic elementary school in Charleston when, he says, he was assaulted by a priest named Frederick Hopwood. The assault changed his life immediately.

"I just went from being an altar boy to being a hoodlum," LaFong, who's 58, says now.

"One minute I was going to church, serving communion and the next minute I was 13, 14 years old, sitting in bars, drinking.

"But you know what the biggest thing is? It's trust. I find it very hard to trust."

That's true, LaFong says, even after two years of therapy.

In the early 1990s, Ventriglia helped LaFong and more than half a dozen other men who alleged they had been sexually assaulted by Hopwood negotiate financial settlements with the church. Hopwood resigned in 1993. The next year, he admitted that he repeatedly molested an altar boy in the early 1970s. He pleaded guilty to committing lewd acts on a child. He received three years' probation and 250 hours of community service as part of a plea bargain.

All the recent cases in the news, LaFong says, are a sign that it is finally time for someone to put a stop to the abuse.

Priests who molest children should go to jail, he says.

"And all these bishops who know about it and keep switching them around should be brought up on some kind of criminal charges because they're a part of it too.

"How many is it going to take for them realize they have a problem?"


Abuse lingers into adulthood

Children who were sexually abused often grow up, like LaFong, struggling with lifelong problems that can affect the people around them and the communities they live in.

Because the abuse affects their success in school, it also affects their success in the workplace, says Suzanne Jones, a clinical therapist at the Family Center, a private nonprofit agency in Charlotte for the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect.

In addition, other problems are more prevalent in those who've been sexually abused, Jones says.

Victims, for example, are more likely to commit crimes, abuse alcohol and drugs, and kill themselves, she says.

They often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a recognized disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some symptoms include panic attacks, nightmares and depression.

"Adults can have auto accidents because all of a sudden they're having flashbacks," she says. "It's very, very far-reaching."

And the impact can be worse when the perpetrator is a member of the clergy.

"I've had clients tell me that they felt they were being abused by Jesus Christ," Ventriglia says. "Many, the vast majority, don't go back to church. Some don't believe in God anymore."


Asking churches to do more

Churches have been working on solutions for years.

Many Charlotte-area churches stepped up efforts in the past decade to screen Sunday school teachers, coaches and other adults who work with youths. Some denominations offer guidelines and recommendations, but it's generally left to each congregation to decide what to do.

Some smaller ones lacking the money and manpower to do criminal background checks do very little; they rely on adult volunteers who are trusted parents and longtime church members.

Larger congregations that might not know everyone who walks through their doors have to be more vigilant.

Typical is Carmel Baptist in Matthews. The 2,600-member church asks volunteers who work with children to fill out a form that asks whether they have a criminal background. No adult is allowed to be alone with a child.

Even with its rules, Carmel Baptist administrator Kermit Erickson said it's "miraculous" that a church with more than 1,000 children and several hundred adult volunteers have had no allegations of abuse.

But many church leaders think more should be done. Charlotte's Sarah Rieth, an Episcopal priest and pastoral therapist who counsels adults who were sexually abused as children, is among them.

She is asking the church to require mandatory criminal background checks for anyone who works with children; prevention workshops for employees, volunteers and members; a two-adult minimum at children's events; canceling programs if the ratio of adults to children is unhealthy; and encouraging members to take reasonable suspicions to the pastor, or to lay leaders if the pastor is involved.

"When there's abuse in the church," Rieth says, "it's almost as if God is sanctioning it."


Abuse is often unreported

More changes are coming, experts say.

"Actually, the crisis is just beginning, if you ask me," says Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist, former Catholic priest and author of books including "Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis."

"I was on the staff of a mental hospital that treated clergy. I know what's underneath."

For 25 years, Sipe has been compiling data on Catholic priests who sexually abuse children. But there's little additional information on clergy of other denominations.

A 2001 survey of 985 U.S. churches conducted by Christian Ministry Resources in Matthews, found that 0.1 percent had responded in the past year to an allegation of sexual misconduct involving children.

And, in a 2000 survey of 1,394 U.S. churches, 3 percent indicated they had responded in the past year to an allegation of sexual misconduct involving children.

Many experts question data on this topic though, because sex abuse so often goes unreported.

According to the U.S. Justice Department sexual assault is the most underreported crime - reported only 30 percent of the time. While exact numbers are not known, one national survey found that 27 percent of women and 16 percent of men reported being sexually abused before they reached age 18.

Sipe's data, he says, come from more than 1,000 priests and 500 people who've had sex with priests, many of whom he's treated.

Celibacy, Sipe says, doesn't cause the abuse, but what he calls the "celibate culture" is a factor.

"It's a boys-will-be-boys culture from the top down," Sipe says, "so that sexual transgressions and sexual activity are easily forgiven on all levels of clerical status, whether that be a bishop with a woman or two priests with each other."

Sipe, 70, agrees with those who say this crisis will lead to a new reformation or religious revolution.

"And it will be a reformation as thorough-going as the Protestant reformation was," Sipe says, referring to the religious movement of the 1500s that began with protests against abuses in the Catholic Church and led to the formation of Protestantism.

"All the elements are there," Sipe says. "The money, the sex, the disquietude of the people, the questioning of authority."


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