For several years, I served as a diocesan sexual misconduct training and prevention facilitator. The experience was tremendously rewarding, and meeting people throughout the diocese a wonderful opportunity.
That said, my sense was that even the most motivated cringed at the prospect of spending the better part of a Saturday in a classroom. And it wasn’t hard to figure out that many attendees were silently saying to themselves, “Well, it can’t happen here. We’re a small church, and I know everyone. I’d know right away if something were going on.”
Fortunately, I have a real-life experience that helped reframe the issue; it underscored the fact that it could happen here. It does happen here. It happened to me.
Several years ago, my sister-in-law — we’ll call her Beth — married a really great guy. Highly intelligent, progressive, and engaged, Andy (also not his real name) was a perfect fit. Like Beth, he was working on his PhD, and taught at a highly respected college on the east coast. Their wedding was delightful, and in the years that followed, we traveled to their home several times, enjoying the experience tremendously.
Then, one day, my husband Mike and I were at home, enjoying a quite evening. Out of the blue the phone rang, and it was Beth. I didn’t hear much of the conversation, but it was clear that something was very much not alright. “Andy’s been arrested,” Mike said in a confused and distraught voice.
As a former lawyer and police officer, my thoughts turned to the typical possibilities, DUI and minor drug possession. But as they evening wore on, we learned the grim reality, which is that Andy had crossed state lines to meet up with someone he believed to be a female minor. The reality, however, was that he had met an undercover state police officer and was arrested on the spot.
One thing led to another, and Andy wound up serving several years in jail. In the meantime, Beth filed for an emergency divorce, which was promptly granted. Over time, we also came to find out that much of what we knew about Andy wasn’t true, but rather part of a larger web of deception and misconduct.
I’ll be the first to admit: As a former police officer, I tend to be suspicious. I’m the guy who writes down license plates for strange cars in the church parking lot. The guy who double-checks the church doors when he leaves. The guy who likes to ask the question, “What if?”
Some say I’m a good judge of character.
So I’d like to be able to tell you that I had a funny feeling about Andy from the get-go; a sense that something just wasn’t right.
But I didn’t. In fact, I had not the slightest inkling that there was an active pedophile right under my nose.
Neither did Beth. Indeed, she was horrified when the police told her that they found extensive evidence on her husband’s computer, as well as related paraphernalia none too carefully hidden around the house. Indeed, some items were just about hidden in plain sight, but if you’re not looking for that sort of thing, few would ever even have noticed.
Nor is that the end of the story.
Almost two years later, while Andy was still in prison, a Google alert I had set up for his name returned a hit. It had located a posting from several years earlier, in which Andy had advertised group sexual activity involving children on a Yahoo! message board in India. The location of the planned activity—the basement of the apartment building where he and Beth had lived! In fact, I later learned that this is a common modus operandi for pedophiles, to conceal their activities by posting on overseas message boards.
The upshot is this: Yes, taking mandatory sexual misconduct prevention courses can be a drag, especially if the weather is nice and there are other activities you could be doing. But it’s a small price to pay given the ease with which even the most alert among us can have illicit activity going on, right under our noses. I spent years with a pedophile in my family, and he was someone I liked and cared for tremendously.
So while your church may be small, and you may have known everyone there for years, that is no guarantee. Sexual misconduct, pedophilia, and other forms of misconduct can and do occur right in front of us, in churches large and small, urban and rural, formal and casual.
Simply put, sooner or later abuse happens in all churches.