Abuse Victims Question System
April 21, 2016
As rows of victims and their family members watched in stoic silence, a former church volunteer quietly uttered the word “guilty” when asked how he was pleading to a myriad of child sexual abuse charges.
Timothy Probert, 57, of Princeton, pleaded guilty Monday morning to 37 charges related to the sexual abuse of teen boys while he served as an elder and youth volunteer at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bluefield, West Virginia and as a mentor for a program working to eliminate child abuse.
Probert’s plea brought an end to a more than two-year legal struggle that roiled a small city near the Virginia border and saw three judges recuse themselves from the case due to conflicts of interest.
Probert entered the plea before retired Fayette County Judge Charles Vickers, who was assigned to the case in 2015 after Mercer County Circuit Court judges Omar Aboulhosn, Derek Swope and William “Bill” Sadler recused themselves. According to the Bluefield, West Virginia Daily Telegraph, all three judges signed a letter to the West Virginia Supreme Court citing conflicts of interest. Steve Canterbury, administrative director for the high court, told the Daily Telegraph there were no additional details as to the specific conflicts of interest.
“That is all that is required,” Canterbury said.
Vickers allowed Probert to remain free on bond, scheduling a hearing on Friday to address the issue.
“We’re going to be requesting that bond be revoked,” Harshbarger said after Monday’s hearing.
Following the hearing, several victims and their family members were visibly upset. One victim asked Sitler why Probert was being allowed to “walk free” after he had pleaded guilty, and questioned whether other children were in danger. Sitler responded that Probert was on home confinement.
The exchange embodied some of the frustration felt by the victims and their families over the past two years as the case dragged on in the courts.
“I would have felt angry and betrayed no matter who the person was, but the fact that it was someone from a church made it even worse,” said the mother of one of the victims, who was interviewed on the condition of anonymity. “Probert had spent a long time earning the trust of victims and their parents. It’s hard to say how many lies he told to convince people in the church that he was really the person he claimed to be. He’s the best example I’ve ever known of someone living a double life. He pretended to be a friend to his victims and their parents. He violated children under the disguise of being a Christian. I can’t think of any worse betrayal.”
The mother said the abuse has brought “horrible emotional pain.”
“As a parent, I’ve felt a lot of guilt — like it’s my fault that Probert hurt my child. Good parents protect their kids, but I didn’t protect mine.”
She also said the many delays in the case caused the family to start losing trust in the justice system.
“It seems like the system allows too many ways for guilty people to keep things dragging on,” the mother said. “I know the law says that a person is innocent until proven guilty, but Probert confessed to the police that he did these things to my son and to other children. Why was he ever allowed to be home after his arrest?”
Probert pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree sexual abuse, three counts of third-degree sexual assault, one count of second-degree sexual assault, one count of first-degree sexual assault, 24 counts of sexual abuse by a parent, guardian or custodian, and one count of delivery of a controlled substance.
He faces 171 to 489 years in prison and up to $50,000 in fines.
Probert originally faced 50 charges relating to the sexual abuse of children. His trial was scheduled to begin Monday.
Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ash said Probert’s decision to plead guilty to the charges was not part of a plea agreement.
“In final preparation for trial, (assistant prosecutors) Kelli Harshbarger and George Sitler believed there were several counts that did not have sufficient evidence to take to trial and those counts were to be dismissed as an ethical obligation prior to trial,” Ash said. “Thereafter, we were advised by defense counsel that Probert intended to plead ‘straight up.’”
Following the hearing, Westminster Presbyterian Pastor Jonathan Rockness said the church was “thankful” for Probert’s decision to plead guilty.
“It was the right thing to do,” Rockness said, “and it spared the survivors from having to relive painful events in a public setting.
“At the same time, it would have been better for this acknowledgment of guilt to have taken place long ago,” he continued. “For almost two and a half years, Westminster Church has been living with dark storm clouds overhead. Further, and more importantly, the survivors who have courageously stepped forward as witnesses have lived the last two-plus years in great anguish, turmoil and anxiety, as they have contemplated how a public trial would bring great upheaval to their lives. Their actions — their very difficult and brave actions — finally forced this legal matter to a resolution.”
Probert was arrested in December 2013 on 38 counts of child sexual abuse-related charges. However, the number of charges grew to 50 when he was indicted in February of 2015.
The 12 new charges stemmed from another victim coming forward and additional charges being added in other cases, Sgt. M.D. Clemons, with the Crimes Against Children Unit of the West Virginia State Police, said in a previous report.
Clemons said the abuse occurred between 1986 and 2010, and all the victims were male teens.
During a preliminary hearing in February 2014 on the charges, Clemons gave graphic testimony of the alleged acts, which he said included “mutual masturbation” between Probert and the victims, as well as oral and anal sex. She testified that the youths would come to Probert’s house, where he would give them alcohol and provide them with heterosexual pornographic movies.
Clemons’ investigation into Probert’s alleged acts began when she was contacted by Rockness about an initial incident. At that point, there was not enough evidence for authorities to pursue criminal action, so church leaders began their own investigation.
After more allegations were revealed during the church’s inquiry, Clemons began a criminal investigation.
In a previous statement, Rockness noted Probert was never employed by the church but had volunteered in various capacities, including youth trips that required chaperones.
Probert was accused of similar crimes in 1999 but no charges were filed at that time.
Charges against Probert include alleged acts against a male youth in the WE CAN program who, along with his brother, would stay at Probert’s Bluefield home on weekends, according to a criminal complaint filed by Clemons.
In the complaint, Clemons stated that the youth said the accused would watch them shower, give them wine during dinner and come into their room at night and touch them inappropriately. The youth stated he would “wake up with the accused touching him inappropriately.”
After this occurred twice, the youth said he told his mother what happened and she made a complaint to the WE CAN program, according to Clemons’ criminal complaint.
Joanne Boileau, director of the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, the parent organization of WE CAN, told the Daily Telegraph in a previous report that police were notified in 1999 when the accusation was made.
“We closed that match and terminated the mentor (Probert),” Boileau said.
“We had made our decision,” she added. “He was too high-risk to try any additional matches with him.”
The Bluefield (West Virginia) Daily Telegraph contributed to this story.
Timothy Probert case timeline
• December 12, 2013: Timothy Probert, a former youth volunteer at Westminster Presbyterian Church and mentor with the Working to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect program, is arrested on 38 counts of child sexual abuse related charges.
• December 18, 2013: A Bluefield Daily Telegraph investigation reveals Probert was accused of similar crimes in 1999.
• February 4, 2014: Graphic testimony is recounted during Probert’s preliminary hearing by Sgt. M.D. Clemons, with the West Virginia State Police Crimes Against Children Unit. Probable cause is found, and the case is bound over to the grand jury.
• March 2014: Probert is placed on house arrest after a man testifies at a hearing that he was propositioned by Probert when he went to his Bluefield home seeking to do yard work or other labor.
• February 10, 2015: Probert is indicted on 50 charges related to alleged sexual abuse of children. The new charges stem from another alleged victim coming forward, and additional charges added in other cases.
• February 18, 2015: Probert case assigned to a senior status judge after Mercer County Circuit Court judges Omar Aboulhosn, Derek Swope and William “Bill” Saddler recuse themselves from the case, citing a conflict of interest.
• December 2015: Pre-trial hearing on defense motion that Pastor Jonathan Rockness violated priest-penitent privilege.
• February 17, 2016: Order filed denying motion of priest-penitent privilege violation.
• April 18: Timothy Probert, 57, of Princeton, pleads guilty to 37 charges related to the sexual abuse of teen boys.