‘Night terror’: First-person account of handling sexual abuse in the church

The very reason salt is needed is because of the decay and death which exists in our neighborhoods and our nation. The desperate need for light is only because the darkness is pervasive.

Young people were abused by our youth minister on my watch. It was worse than a nightmare. This was going to be a night terror, and part of me would like to forget all of it. In reality, it’s become something I never want to forget and never want others to experience.

It was June 1995. We were where we often are in June, attending the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting. This particular year it was held in Atlanta, a few hours’ drive from our home. We were 13 years into what would become a nearly 25-year pastorate in the greatest place with the greatest people. Challenges occurred, but we always worked through them. God is good. Problems occasionally cropped up, but we pursued His kingdom and life was good.

‘You’d better sit down’

That good was shattered while we were at the annual meeting in Atlanta. Late one evening we received a phone call from a church leader back home. The familiar and trusted voice on the other end of the call was anxious, and the call was quickly serious. “You’d better sit down. I have some tough news,” he said. This trusted friend went on to say our youth had returned from a weeklong retreat. But all was not well. As the unwinding and debriefing of the trip took place in various homes around our faith community, a couple of boys who were part of the youth event made serious allegations about being improperly touched by our male youth minister.

As quickly as we could, we loaded the car and began the longest ride home from Atlanta. It was five hours that seemed like five days.

Processing it all

Among the things we talked about, prayed about and wept over were these questions:

  • How could this happen?
  • How did we miss it?
  • What could we have done to prevent it?
  • What about the boys?
  • What must they be going through?
  • How will we ever make this right?
  • Will we get through this?
  • Will they get through this?
  • How will they get through this?

As the full truth was uncovered, it was even more disturbing than first imagined and threw our world into a chaotic press of multiple challenges unfolding all at once. The challenges were acute for our family of faith, and doubly so for our family as we learned our son was one of those molested by our youth minister. Even while we were making our way home, we were learning about the specifics being shared by the two boys, best friends, who were abused.

‘Pierced our hearts’

The details pierced our hearts and challenged our ministry to the core. Once fully divulged it was clear the actions of our youth minister were calculated, abusive and criminal. The years have not been kind to my clarity on all the details from those days and months — God’s grace, for sure. In the intervening 28 years, some of the pain and some of the details have faded. What remains clear, what makes me hopeful, is recalling the gracious way in which our leaders gathered and agreed on the things we had to do.

I shared what had happened with our church on the following Sunday morning. The youth pastor was immediately terminated. Having determined the veracity of the accusations, the police were notified and a near yearlong process of depositions, hearings and sentencing was completed. The boys and their family members were connected to resources to help them process, heal and discover new depths of God’s kindness and grace. Our family of faith slowly worked through the many questions and points of anger and hurt. This tragic event prompted new thinking about ministry to youth and children, enabling the conception, development and implementation of clearer safety guidelines.

Our youth minister was convicted and sentenced to a lengthy term in jail. The notoriety from our legal proceedings generated news from another state and previous place of ministry where he had committed a similar offense, but had not been prosecuted. Our response and ensuing prosecution resulted in additional charges being made from this newly discovered offense. This led to added jail time as well as justice for other victims. For this we are additionally grateful.

It is still unsettling and painful to recall those experiences from nearly three decades past. However, our pain is small and inconsequential compared to the boys who endured the actual offense. They endured what no young boy ought ever to have to endure.

Salt and light

In a way, those months of dealing firsthand with brokenness and evil are what we sign on for when we connect ourselves to Jesus and agree to be salt and light. The very reason salt is needed is because of the decay and death which exists in our neighborhoods and our nation. The desperate need for light is only because the darkness is pervasive.

As a family, we never once thought about choosing a new line of work or another place of ministry in response to this tragedy. In fact God was kind and blessed us with more than a dozen years of additional fruitful ministry in the very same place, and among the same people where we had walked through pain and brokenness.

EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by South Carolina Baptists Robin and Vicki Heath, and was originally published by The Baptist Paper.


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