Churches Must Be Honest in Sex-Abuse Cases

By Scott McMillion
Bozeman Daily Chronicle
December 9, 2007

LIVINGSTON - For at least a decade, the news and controversy surrounding church-related sexual abuse of children focused on Catholic priests. But it happens in religious settings of all sorts.

Support groups and informational Web sites exist for sexually abused Presbyterians and Baptists, Buddhists and Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses and Lutherans -- and many others.

Last week, a Livingston jury convicted former Church of God minister Terence Passmore of three counts of sexual assault and one count of rape for fondling two sisters in 1998. The six-day trial was long, draining and intense.

Testimonies contradicted each other in many ways, but there was one topic of agreement: The whole thing should have been handled years ago, when details were fresh and before memories blurred.

Even Passmore testified that, in hindsight, he wished the police had been given the case immediately. But that didn't happen. Officials from the Church of God's regional and national offices instead did their own investigation. And because they found results to be inconclusive - Passmore denied doing anything wrong - the police weren't contacted for years.

* That's the wrong way to go about things, said Duane Huie, pastor of the Livingston Christian Center, an Assembly of God church, for the past 27 years. He sat through almost all of Passmore's trial and said he's been giving a lot of thought to the issue.

Reporting the allegations to the police immediately "probably would have saved a lot of misery," Huie said. And it might have spared the church hierarchy, though not Passmore, the rigors of a civil trial.

"Why did they do that?" Huie mused. "That's the way a lot of churches handled it."

Officials probably wanted to protect the church institution, he said.

"But in the long run, it hurts the church," Huie said. "If pastors try to hide and conceal things, people won't respect them. We need to be open and honest about things."

Jane Dubbe, who runs a statewide network of child-advocacy centers from an office in Missoula, agreed with Huie.

"I would encourage (churches) to let the investigative agencies investigate," Dubbe said. "Because they have the training and skills to do the job."

Don't assume

There is no epidemic of sexual abuse of minors in Montana churches, Dubbe stressed. The majority of sex crimes occur away from institutions like churches, schools and day-care centers. Victims are more likely to be family members, neighbors or friends.

Still, churches are not immune. They offer a welcoming atmosphere and often lots of children.

So church leaders must be aware and be careful, said Huie, who has a doctorate in divinity.

"They assume it's safe, but it isn't necessarily," he said. "People walk in off the street. Nearly every church of any size has someone, whether they know it or not, who is a sexual predator."

He said he's been discussing the issue with lay officials of his church and other church officials, and drafted a set of guidelines to protect churches and children.

* Increase awareness. "Don't assume this can't happen to your child or in your church," Huie said.

* Take precautions. Run background checks on all church employees and volunteers who will be working with children. Check their references. Be thorough. Find the money to pay for the background checks. "They just have to do it," Huie said. "If they don't and something happens, they become negligent."

* Make sure there are at least two adults chaperoning any children's activities.

* Appoint people to help keep an eye on things, to watch for anything suspicious in the sanctuary, the classrooms or the hallways.

* Keep doors open in rooms that contain children's activities.

* Check kids in and out of meetings and activities, especially at night.

* Address any and all suspicions of inappropriate activity.

And if allegations of a sexual nature are made, report them quickly to authorities, Huie said, even though Montana law allows the clergy some room to make their own decisions.

Give case to law enforcement

State law requires teachers, social workers, day-care workers, doctors and nurses, and a host of other people to report any "reasonable cause to suspect" abuse or neglect to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Clergy, however, can be exempted if the information came "from a statement of confession" or other "confidential communication" between a minister and his or her parishioner.

A pastor can keep the grim news mum if "the person who made the statement or confession does not consent to the disclosure" or if "canon law, church doctrine, or established church practice" require confidentiality.

"The laws give them some leeway," Dubbe said.

And by their position, pastors have influence over parishioners.

"Church officials have that power and authority over children to influence whether they report," she said.

But they don't have the training or skill to determine accurately the truth of an allegation, Dubbe said. That's a job best left to professionals.

"Err on the side of caution," Huie said. "If I know of sex abuse of a minor that takes place, I'm going to report it."

Although sexual abuse is probably rarer in churches than in some other institutions, Dubbe said, a lot of kids are being groped, fondled or worse, in all kinds of environments.

"About one in four adult women and one in six adult men report they were sexually abused as children," Dubbe said. "That's a pretty standard statistic now."

Scott McMillion is at


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