Local Churches Strive to Keep Sanctuaries Safe from Sexual Predators, Harm

By Wendy Isom
The Jackson Sun
August 24, 2004

The Rev. Craig Christina has gotten used to the security bracelet with the wrist coil.

On Sunday mornings and evenings, the pastor is not bothered when his own church childcare staff checks his bracelet against his 2-year-old son's matching safety badge before the father and son can leave together.

This practice is repeated every time any adult comes to pick up a child who is being looked after during morning and evening services at First Baptist Church in Jackson.

The men that patrol the church's hallways on Sunday mornings have, too, become a regular fixture at the church that Christina pastors.

"After church starts," Christina said, "we lock the doors from the outside of the nursery (entrance)."

Ministries today must now be more transparent.

With alleged sexual abuse cases involving children at national and local churches being reported, the faith community has begun to pair steadfast prayer with stricter safety procedures.

Background checks and other implemented safeguards, long held in the secular world, are fast becoming standard practice in the religious realm.

"Individual churches are doing quite a lot in terms of looking at ways to ensure the safety of children," said Ben Boone, district superintendent for the United Methodist Church, which has stringent guidelines in place aimed at protecting children in the church.

First Baptist has had a successful security bracelet system in place to protect its children for the past year.

Before that, they used security cards, but they found that the cards were too easy to get lost.

Childcare staff also issue pagers to parents of infants and toddlers so that parents can be paged during worship service if an emergency arises.

Churches avoiding the appearance of evil

With counseling being such a major part of ministry, that too, is especially protected.

Christina and fellow First Baptist ministers accept the fact that all one-on-one counseling sessions are to be held behind glass doors in view of a nearby secretary.

"All of our ministers' offices have glass in the doors so that we can never be behind closed doors," Christina said. "The Bible tells us that we should avoid the appearance of evil," he said, referring to the Scriptures found in 1 Thessalonians 5:22.

First Baptist also is working on a safety guidelines book to distribute to parents in their congregation, which advises them of the standard supervision rules in place to protect children.

The church, which operates an after-school program and a childcare center, does background checks on all paid staff who work with children.

Many churches have adopted safe sanctuary guidelines that include background checks.

"We were advised five or six years ago to do background checks," said David Bailey, church administrator at Northside Assembly of God in Jackson, adding that careful screening of staff is part of their church policy.

These safety measure enhancements are not without just cause.

Church sexual abuse scandals across the nation have proven that, including a case in Jackson.

In 2002, Curtis Hudson, 33, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for attempted rape and sexual battery by an authority figure. Hudson is a former associate youth pastor at First United Methodist Church in Jackson and was initially charged with sexually abusing three teen-age boys who were members of the church.

An employee of another Jackson church also was recently accused of a sexual offense.

Douglas Dale Polk Jr., 25, is on unpaid leave as an administrative employee of West Jackson Baptist Church after he was indicted on a statutory rape charge. A 17-year-old female who was a summer employee at West Jackson Baptist reported she had sexual contact with Polk at the church, police said.

Investigators believe the incident was a one-time occurrence and did not involve the threat or use of force. Polk was released on a $3,000 bond after his arraignment Aug. 9.

In the most recent incident, St. Mary's Catholic Church parishioners two weeks ago learned of sexual abuse allegations against their pastor. The Rev. Richard Mickey was put on administrative leave Aug. 12 following sexual abuse allegations that were made public Aug. 11.

Twin brothers Blain and Blair Chambers said that Mickey abused them in 1980 when they were students at Bishop Byrne High School in Memphis, where Mickey, was working as a counselor. Mickey, who was ordained as a priest in 1988, was a counselor to one of the teens and a religion instructor to the other, according to the lawsuit.

Mickey formerly pastored the Church of the Ascension in Memphis and began serving St. Mary's and St. John's Catholic Church in Brownsville June 30. He also served as pastor for St. Mary's Catholic School, a K-8 school.

The lawsuit, filed in Circuit Court in Memphis, alleges that the twin brothers' repressed memories of the abuse surfaced for the first time when they took a fishing trip in July 2003. The brothers, now 39, live in Montana.

"We are deeply concerned about the safety of the children in our care both at the school and the church in Jackson," said Bishop J. Terry Steib. "We have a wonderful group of counselors who will be available for anyone who might wish to air their concerns about the charges alleged against their pastor."

Security: A 'necessary' part of ministry now

For years, Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church in Jackson has tried to have supervisory safeguards in place, said Ronald Brown, the church's pastor.

"We've been trying to be very cognizant (of safety)," he said.

Fellowship Bible Church, a growing nondenominational church in Jackson, is now in the process of establishing safe sanctuary guidelines.

"It makes me sad that this is necessary in our culture," said Randy Pierson, pastor of worship and development, who has six children.

The church, which has about 500 members, has four full-time pastors and three part-time children's workers. Fellowship Bible Church also has an active youth ministry, which includes about six trips a year for its teens.

"I just try to teach and encourage and impart to them that you just can't trust everybody," Pierson said. "You can't completely eliminate risk (in the world). That's what you have to trust the Lord on."

There was a time when a parent might take a group of six or eight children on a trip, said Boone, the United Methodist leader.

"Now, two parents need to go," he said.

And the supervising adults, he said, should not be from the same family. Most churches have adopted the two-adult rule, that requires two non-related adults to supervise children and youth programs.

Boone would encourage parents to request safety procedures at their church if policies aren't already in place.

Though St. Mary's pastor and parish are now thrust into the public spotlight over the allegations against Father Mickey, Sara Jojola prefers not to share much of the news with her son, who attends St. Mary's Catholic School.

A letter from St. Mary's principal, Sister Mary Thomas, was sent out to all parents of the school on Aug. 17 making them aware of available counseling. Announcements of the counseling sessions also were made known during Saturday and Sunday worship services at St. Mary's and St. John's.

Counselors began converging at St. Mary's Catholic Church and School in Jackson last Thursday to help families and children in the parish cope with the recent sexual abuse allegations. They will return on Wednesday to hold counseling sessions.

"In all these situations, the church wants to be sure that our children are always safe," said the Rev. John Geaney, communications advisor for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.

"I don't feel the need to (attend the counseling sessions)," said Sara Jojola, 27, whose 8-year-old son attends St. Mary's School. "If he has questions, we'll sit him down" to talk.

"I'd like to keep him from the scandal," she said. "I don't want to put adult problems on his tiny shoulders."

Kathy Grande and her husband, Joe, who now belong to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Humboldt, are former members of St. Mary's.

"We fully support the diocese of Memphis and their investigation and we hope that Father Mickey will be reinstated to the parish," Kathy Grande said. "We do believe that Father Mickey is innocent of the charges."

In the meantime, Sara Jojola said: "It's important that we don't turn away from the church." Jojola, a mother of three, and her husband, David, 30, have been members of St. Mary's for a year and a half.

During the investigation, Mickey will live in Memphis and be assigned to administrative duties. Mickey won't be ministering to any parish. The bishop recently appointed the Rev. Robert Ponticello as temporary administrator at St. Mary's Church and St. John's Church. Ponticello is the Episcopal Vicar of the Diocese of Memphis.

The Rev. James Vellankal of Memphis the Rev. Anthony Onyekwe of Nigeria, who were appointed as associate pastors at St. Mary's and St. John's, will help serve the parishes in Mickey's absence.

- Wendy Isom, (731) 425-9782

What to know

A team of counselors will be available from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at St. Mary's Catholic Church, 1665 U.S. 45 Bypass in Jackson.

Counselors will be available to work with children and families of St. Mary's School, St. Mary's Church and St. John's Church in Brownsville after the alleged sexual abuse allegations made against their pastor.

Catholic Diocese of Memphis officials say that counselors will return as needed.

Father John Geaney is the communications advisor for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, which has been trying to cope with accusations of abuse by one of its priests. St. Mary's Catholic Church parishioners learned on Aug. 11 of sexual abuse allegations against the Rev. Richard Mickey. Two brothers say they were abused in 1980 and have recently recalled it.

"It makes me sad that this (amount of safety) is necessary in our culture."


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