Brentwood Church Rape Suit Shows Challenges in Cases with Young Kids

By Holly Meyer and Dave Boucher
The Tennessean
December 16, 2016

Allegations of sexual misconduct, including the rape of a 3-year-old boy, at a Brentwood church have been “resolved,” says an attorney for the church.

“The only comment that I have is that statement that the parties have resolved their differences in both cases,” said Minton Mayer, an attorney for Fellowship Bible Church.

A lawsuit filed in December 2015 accused a teenager who was working in a Sunday school class of raping a 3-year-old child in August 2014. Although the lawsuit says the teen pleaded guilty to criminal charges, records of the case are not publicly available because he is a juvenile. Williamson County prosecutors declined to speak about any specific proceedings.

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The circumstances highlight issues surrounding child care and safety within churches across the country, and the challenges law enforcement face in trying to investigate and pursue actions against possible perpetrators.

'It should happen much sooner'

In court documents, the church says it contacted law enforcement as soon as it heard the initial allegation in August 2014. But it waited nearly a year before telling other families that anything had happened in the Sunday school class, according to the family of the boy who was assaulted.

"Fellowship Bible Church abided by the requests of investigating authorities not to communicate with other persons about the allegations during the pendency of the investigation. When Fellowship Bible Church was informed that a petition against the juvenile, male volunteer had been filed in juvenile court in relation to the alleged sexual abuse of Johnny Doe, it consulted with investigating authorities on how to communicate about the matter," states a court filing from the church.

The family of the child who was attacked pointed to a July 30, 2015, email from Richard Scott, the church’s executive pastor and elder, as evidence the church was trying to downplay the situation, court documents say.

“We wanted to ask you to attend an informational meeting with a few pastors and elders this Sunday, August 2, at Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood regarding an incident that occurred between two juveniles in one of the Sunday classes in which your child attended this past ministry year,” the email states.

A year later is too late to alert others exposed to an offender, said Victor Vieth, a national child protection expert. He founded the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center in Minnesota, which helps people recognize and report child abuse.

“It should happen much sooner than that to do any good,” Vieth said.

Churches should work with authorities to determine how much information to share and who needs to know it, Vieth said. Cases involving juvenile offenders require more care because young people engage in sexually inappropriate behavior for far different reasons than adult predators, he said. But sharing some details can stop the spread of misinformation, he said.

Policies and training are paramount to preventing abuse at church and should exist well before an allegation arises, Vieth said. That increases the chance that a church will respond appropriately and fairly when something happens, he said.

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Policies need to be tailored to each church and drafted with the help of child protection experts. Training and policy reviews should occur frequently.

“Offenders say that in a number of studies that they like to go to church because the dynamics are so solidly weighted in their favor. That’s a choice. That’s a choice that American churches have made,” Vieth said.

Fellowship Bible had child protection policies, including bathroom restrictions and two-adult supervision requirements, when Johnny Doe was assaulted in the bathroom, the church says in court documents. The church also said it had a training video for volunteers that addressed protecting children from molestation at the church.

In the lawsuit, Johnny Doe’s family called the church’s facilities unsafe, policies lax and the training not enough. The suit also said the church tried to blame the family for what happened and urged them not to pursue criminal charges. The church disagreed. The Tennessean is not naming any family members to protect the identity of the child.

Tough to prove

Even if experts interview all children who may have been with a predator, it still can be a challenge to get enough information to pursue formal charges, legal and child safety experts said.

“Being able to prove it and believing it actually happened are two very different things from a prosecutor's perspective,” said Kristen Menke, a private attorney and former child sex abuse prosecutor in Nashville.

Prosecutors want a verbal admission from a child that something happened. They also want physical evidence to link the alleged perpetrator to the crime or show an injury could have happened only through sexual assault.

Both are particularly challenging when dealing with young children.

“It is not unusual for young children not to disclose — or to be able to disclose — instances of abuse, even to trained forensic interviewers at a child advocacy center,” said Rob Johnson, spokesman for the Department of Children's Services.

DCS, the Brentwood Police Department and Williamson County District Attorney Kim Helper declined to comment on specific cases.

In general, Helper and Jay Fahey, the juvenile prosecutor for Williamson County, agreed there are inherent challenges with pursuing cases involving young children who are possible victims.

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“It’s really hard for them to basically tell you what happened, and being able to explain it, for legal purposes — what’s penetration, sexual battery,” Fahey said.

“It’s very hard for young children to explain exactly what happened because they don’t know.”

Any physical evidence of an assault or abuse can disappear rapidly; Menke noted children’s bodies heal quickly so barring the contraction of a sexually transmitted disease, it can be difficult for a doctor to conclude any physical condition came as a direct result of an assault.

Helper said there are cases in which children are told by the perpetrator to keep an assault a secret, so that by the time an allegation is made any bruising or other ailments are gone.

In recent years a change in law allowed forensic interviewers to testify as to what a child told them, in theory replacing any need for a child to take the stand. However, Helper and Fahey said the law still requires a child to be present to verify the interviewer’s testimony is accurate and to be available for cross-examination.

Even without physical evidence, Menke said she’s taken cases to trial where the children were credible. But a he-said, she-said case with children is extremely challenging, Helper said.

“If all you’ve got is this person, a victim says this happened, the perpetrator says this happened, that’s a challenge for prosecutors across the board,” Helper said.

“But I think with children it’s a problem more so because it may be more difficult to articulate exactly what happened.”








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