Child Molestation: One Family’s Experience
John Chirban, Editor
Hellenic College Press, 1994
Editor’s note: The authors of this article have changed the names of the persons and locations reported in this presentation to protect the victims and their family members.
We would like to tell you about events in our lives concerning child molestation that began in 1989. Let me give you a short summary (in David’s voice):
The triggering event was the discovery that our youngest daughter Anna and her friends were victims of sexual abuse that occurred within our church. We experienced first hand just how tragic child molestation is for both the child and the child’s family. Children were molested in St. Mary’s Church by a man calling himself Joseph. The abuse started sometime between 1989 and lasted until the end of 1990. The molestations occurred in the church proper and victims ranged in age from two to five years old. The children were too young to be of use in criminal prosecution, but the case is open, the police investigator has backed the families in their petitions for financial assistance from the State, and the children’s therapists have no doubt that the children were harmed. All of the children have exhibited inappropriate knowledge of sexual acts for their ages, seemingly unfounded fears, anxiety, anger, and other telling symptoms.
It should be noted that the abuse only ended because Joseph was arrested for child molestation committed at his workplace. He is now serving a fifteen year sentence on this conviction.
Our particular situation was made more devastating because it happened in our church, and was compounded by the prior knowledge of some parishioners, and the subsequent indifference of fellow parishioners, the clergy, the bishop, and the metropolitan, who were devastatingly unloving and uncaring– in short unchristian.
The children, and their families, were re-victimized by the church itself as it tried to cover-up the molestations and protect itself. It is important to note that this aspect or our ordeal continues to this day.
In the middle of 1989 a man by the name of Robert Jeffrey Williams began to attend services at our church St. Mary’s Church. Robert Jeffrey William’s told us his name was Joseph. At this time our youngest daughter was two and one-half years old, Joseph’s presence at our church was to impact our lives dramatically.
A year and one-half later, Joseph was chrismated into the Orthodox faith by the parish priest Father Gregory. Less than one month following his chrismation, Joseph was arrested and convicted for child molestation committed at a local college where he worked. The families at St. Mary’s Church were unaware of this arrest, although we did notice that he had stopped attending church. We later heard from his godmother that he was in jail for “something or other.”
One month following his arrest, Margaret found out, from the choir director, the reason for his incarceration. Our reaction was grief for the young victim and relief for having escaped harm. Another month passed . . .
On March 6, 1991, Margaret and our five children were driving a fellow parishioner home from a pre-sanctified liturgy. The topic of the arrest of Joseph came up in conversation, and our daughter (who at that time was four years old) piped in with comments that were impossible to ignore about Joseph. She was surprised to hear that he was in jail. Margaret remembers being shocked that this small girl even remembered the man’s name. She went on to talk about games they played that began to reveal the unwholesomeness of the play, e.g., looking for the snake in the balcony, playing house (in which the children’s mother is dead and he is the father). She also indicated involvement of other children in the play and mentioned being in the balcony of the church with Joseph.
It took Margaret all of her being to keep the car on the road and get them home safely. She recalls feelings of shock, then denial, and shock again. That night she also had to deal with three very upset teenage girls who were devastated by their sister’s revelations. David was out of the country on business at this time.
Slowly an understanding of what we thought were isolated problems, incidents, and unusual behaviors for our youngest daughter began to emerge and form a pattern. Another parent called us after hearing of the arrest and stated that she once walked up to the balcony and found Joseph alone with our child, in what appeared to be a diapering position. She thought he must be a relative or friend of ours and did not think anymore of it.
The Events Change from Tragic to Bizarre
We became aware of Joseph’s criminal background and discovered that he had been on probation for child molestation while attending our parish. By playing with the children he was breaking his parole, let alone destroying any attempt he might claim to make at curbing his perversion.
Joseph, and a number of other parishioners at the Church, were former members of the religious cult known as the Holy Order of MANS. This connection was never apparent during the time prior to Joseph’s arrest and did not become apparent until much inquiry and questioning.
Robert Jeffrey Williams, the molester, chose to call himself Joseph and was chrismated Matthew. He admits, in court documents, to have a desire for sex with children, and has been convicted at least three times for this crime. His modus operandi has often been to disguise as a religious person seeking God in a trusting community. His association with the Holy Order of MANS goes back about fifteen years. Through this association he knew a number of parishioners at St. Mary’s who were also former cult members.
One of the individuals, Nicholas Lewis, converted to Orthodoxy a few years ago after close to a lifetime in the Holy Order of MANS, and he quickly became sub-deacon, ordained by our bishop. After Joseph’s arrest we approached Nicholas concerning the molester and he admitted that he knew Joseph had a history of child molestation. Yet Nicholas and his wife had looked on while Joseph played with our children, and insisted that they had been watching out for the children. His wife (who was raised in the Holy Order of MANS) recalled Joseph exposing himself to her as a young girl, but subsequently denied this saying that it was someone else in the Order. This did not reassure families considering the number of ex-Order members at the Church. The Lewis’ summary comment was “We did not want him (Joseph) to think that we did not trust him and that he couldn’t play with the children.” At best, we call this a gross distortion of Christian charity.
Shortly after the crisis at St. Mary’s emerged, Nicholas and his wife moved out of the state. Nicholas had claimed to be a mental health professional working with abused children, yet did not advise the Child Protective Services, the families, or Joseph’s probation officer. He and his wife left with many questions still unanswered. They left town and moved cross country where he started work at a youth home. He has since been ordained a deacon in the Orthodox church, despite pleas from several families to his new bishop concerning our belief that Nicholas is not worthy of ordination. In our one and only conversation with his new bishop, we were personally assured we would be notified if Lewis’ ordination were to be scheduled– an assurance that was not kept.
Lewis’ in-laws (his wife’s parents) were also members of our parish and former Holy Order of MANS members. They took Joseph into their home during his probation, knowing full well of his criminal past. This has been disturbing to us as Nicholas and his wife twice offered to and did baby-sit for our daughter, and on both occasions took her to the in-laws home. When later asked, not one of the four of them could recall the dates that Joseph was living at the in-law’s house. We still not know if Joseph was in that house during those visits.
Our priest, Father Gregory, told us that Joseph had been dropped off at the church by a leader of the Holy Order of MANS. It sounded like a passing of the Olympic torch from one runner to another, but he changed the details of this story so many times, that we don’t know what to believe.
There were “meetings,” but all the meetings seemed to be attempts to silence the families, put this all “behind us” and sweep the whole mess under the carpet. In short, damage control. Did anyone ask “How are the children?” or “Are the children all right?” — No!
Fr. Gregory was incapable of dealing with the crisis. He put off telling families of possible problems until our family found out on our own and insisted that he advise others. Even after our insistence, he did not contact all the families. He had a short meeting one Sunday liturgy, but seemed purposely to delay the meeting until some of the families had already left. We ended up contacting some of these other families. To the best of our knowledge, Fr. Gregory made no visits and no phone calls and wrote no letters to any family. Fr. Gregory did visit the molester in prison two or three times to deliver solace, pastoring and Holy Communion.
At one point we phoned Fr. Gregory, and while he wept on the phone to us, he said that he was going to resign, explaining how hurtful this had been to him. On another occasion he asked David to advise him if any families needed his help, rather than contact the families directly. David told him that he was not in a condition to take on what was Fr. Gregory’s responsibility.
The Church’s (lack of ) Response
Seeing the crisis that the families, the parish, and the priest were in, we phoned our bishop to beg for help. His response was that we are “not the Protestant church” and “we don’t offer counseling,” that it is not why we have priests, and that their job is strictly liturgical. He told David that he had already told Fr. Gregory to gather all of the families and children together to have a healing service for the molester as that was the Christian thing to do. He did not express sorrow, sympathy, love, compassion, concern, or righteous anger. David turned white and gave the phone to Margaret who advised the bishop that she was, ” . . . not that good of a Christian,” while our teenagers sobbed in the background. We have subsequently learned that one of his first actions upon notification of the problem was to contact the diocesan lawyers; he certainly did not call us.
We did get Fr. Gregory to schedule a prayer service for the children shortly thereafter, but the night before the service we were advised that there would be a meeting first, with no details given as to content. We remember walking into the church and feeling like we were being set-up for something. The meeting turned into an attempt at a cover-up. Evil seemed to fly across the room; it was very ugly. Nothing that was said that day lessened the hurt and betrayal the families felt.
When the meeting was over the priest that was brought in to lead the service said he was sorry, but he could not pray with us under these circumstances, and he left. There was no healing service. The children who were the real victims were victimized again, and this was only the beginning.
That meeting was on Lazarus Saturday, 1991, and from that day forward, families with children started trickling away from the church. All families with children eventually left the church, and included in those numbers were three members of the parish council, several choir members, the starista, and the entire Sunday school.
As we felt ourselves sliding downward into depression, anxiety, isolation, and most especially anger there was not a hand from the church held out us to grasp. We would have been happy with a life preserver thrown overboard, but we were left to drift on our own, seeking secular counseling as we tried somehow to keep our faith, pass it onto our children, and even sometimes defend the church to people that heard our story. Our family therapist is probably amazed that we still go to church, as she has not seen a very Christian view of the Orthodox Church.
Help from Outside the Parish (?)
A few weeks later, shortly after Pascha (we did not go to our parish), we continued our search for some type of help, and the lay vice president finalized arrangements for a Fr. Mark to visit St. Mary’s Church for the weekend to make an attempt at salvaging the parish. The pain of obtaining this visit is a story in itself, but trust us when we say that it was a miracle that Fr. Mark ever made it. We agreed to meet with Fr. Mark on Friday evening. As a very personal side, I left that meeting to see my mother in the hospital, and spent the night at her bedside until she died early Saturday morning. With no sleep, we proceeded to meet with both Fr. Mark and Fr. Gregory. Again, we did not get any answers to the specific questions we asked Fr. Gregory (i.e., which one of his many stories regarding Joseph was the real story). My last question of Fr. Gregory was simply, “Can you pastor to us?”, that was answered with a very positive “Yes!”
The next morning (Sunday) at the regularly scheduled liturgy, Fr. Mark and Fr. Gregory announced from the ambo that we had a problem and that children had been hurt. A blessing of the entire facility preceded the liturgy, although it must be noted that the choir and most of the parish did not participate as Fr. Mark went through the church, grounds, and rectory. It was left to the families to follow and sing in their feeble voices, “O Lord save Thy people and bless thine inheritance . . . .” After the liturgy few if any of the parishioners spoke with the families. It was amazing to us that no one seemed shocked at what had happened, and the most common observation was to ask if we were sure something had happened. We never heard from Fr. Mark after that weekend. He has not returned phone calls nor has he answered letters.
Monday morning Fr. Gregory resigned as rector of the parish, and it would be six months until the parish had a new priest.
During this time our bishop was noticeably absent except for one brief meeting when, at the insistence of the lay vice president of the parish, he finally and reluctantly agreed to meet with the families for the first and only time. There was no inquiry as to the health of the children, no righteous anger, no compassion, none of our questions answered, and no assurance that anything was to be done that might keep this from happening again. We asked only that we not be deserted.
That was our last contact with the bishop. The bishop made no effort to see that a temporary priest was made available for the families let alone for the parish as a whole. St. Mary’s Church had no priest for six months and on at least one Sunday, liturgy was not celebrated.
Weeks went by and our family of seven was barely functioning. One Sunday night David telephoned the Chancellor of the Diocese, Fr. Valery, to inquire into the search for a new priest, and to seek some pastoral help. The chancellor started screaming uncontrollably into his phone loud enough that Margaret could hear his words, and he finally blurted out, “Well, you families have made your bed and now you are going to have to sleep in it.”
Pleas Beyond the Diocese
The families sent a joint plea for help to the National Hierarch in August of that year. That letter read:
Margaret Carlson spoke to Fr. John last week about the spiritual crisis at St. Mary’s Church.
Our children were molested (in the church) by a three time convicted child molester. These horrible events have sent families with children fleeing the Church. The crisis has divided the Parish and also raised other spiritual issues which have plagued the parish for years.
We feel our pleas for help have been ignored. People are hurting! The children need help. The ship is sinking, and we hope and pray that you can come out to help us.
Please respond soon — this situation has been going on for months. You may write or fax to us.”
He has never directly responded to our letter, although his chancellor has entered into correspondence with some of the families, when it is, apparently, politically necessary. Catch-22 style communication continues to this day. Phone calls were not returned, questions were not answered, but Federal Express letters to meet with him (the Chancellor) started arriving when rumors of a lawsuit surfaced.
Christ has not deserted us, but the actions of His church has made it difficult, sometimes, not to desert Him.
There is so much to tell, and we have only scratched the surface. We have a few more thoughts and observations that we wish to make, and these are presented in no particular order. It would take many hours to hash out each and every nuance of the events we have experienced.
1. It is almost embarrassing to observe that we cannot rid from our thoughts that there could be a conspiracy surrounding our experience. Concerning this, we even asked the investigating police officer if we were nuts. The officer replied, “The whole thing stinks.”
2. We cannot dismiss the incredible coincidence that Fr. Gregory and the Lewis’ left the state within weeks of the crisis breaking. Was there a conspiracy of one molester and accomplices? A conspiracy of one molester, accomplices, and a cast of cult characters?
3. How can we explain the letter in court documents from a monastery in Mid-West inviting the molester to visit them — a monastery that has a “ministry” to young orphaned boys and houses them with the monks.
4. A Sam Schwartz (the Holy Order of MANS leader that “turned” Joseph over to Fr. Gregory) became involved in his life once again after the arrest. Schwartz pleaded in court on Joseph’s behalf and requested that he be paroled to a monastery. Court documents note that Fr. Gregory was his priest and he states in those same documents that Schwartz is his godfather.
5. When Joseph was chrismated at St. Mary’s, his only godparent was a woman known as Mother Paula, an apparently bogus Orthodox nun who previously knew our parish priest Father Gregory in a pseudo Orthodox group. She disappeared from our church after the arrest. We were even told that Fr. Gregory suggested she not return to the Church after the molestation disclosure.
6. The couple that housed Joseph are now living in an apartment of an Orthodox Church in our area, an unsettling arrangement considering the poor judgment used by them in the past.
7. The tremendous involvement of the Holy Order of MANS in all aspects surrounding our experience is frightening –and this same group is in discussion with the canonical Orthodox Churches while parading around as Orthodox clergy. Court records show letters from the group urging leniency for Joseph.
8. We asked our bishop if Joseph was a communicant in good standing in the Orthodox Church, and we were told that it was a hierarchical matter and none of our business.
We have files and documents that support our observations and fears, and we would be happy to share these with any who wish to pursue these matters.
Where Are We Today?
We are a family of seven and one way of looking at our experience is to picture seven intertwined emotional roller coasters all speeding about and going on their own rides, crashing against each other, never ever quite in sync with dealing with the experience.
We do all go to church together, but purposefully are members of a parish outside of our old Diocese. We now have found a wonderful priest and a wonderful bishop. Two of our daughters turned into the legal age of adulthood during this crisis. Another entered her teenage years during the crisis. Our daughter and her younger brother have absolutely no entries or photos in their baby books for the two years following disclosure. There were huge disagreements about moving out of the area where we had all been born and raised — largely fantasies for escaping the situation. We finally did move from the home that we had lived in since Margaret was pregnant with our oldest child– a home that we had been in for nearly twenty years. Our youngest daughter is still in therapy and doing well. David and Margaret are still in therapy, and (miracle of miracles) still married, but there were some close calls for the first time in the twenty plus year marriage. Our oldest daughter is still in therapy. Therapy bills are the second largest expense in our family budget, only exceeded by the mortgage payment on our home. Total therapy bills for our family to date are over twenty-thousand dollars. The parish once agreed to pay for therapy for victims and families, but very quickly announced that there was no more money left in the budget item approved the prior year for charity expense; we believe the budget item had originally contained about two-thousand dollars. The State has been more concerned and generous than the Church through its victims of crime program in assisting both our family and other families in meeting the expense of obtaining needed help.
When the Patriarch visited recently, our little girl (now age six) heard that he was to visit St. Mary’s Church, she looked shocked and said, “Mom, didn’t anyone tell him that there are bad guys there?”