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Hunting predators

Religion | A lot has happened since WORLD's March report on Protestant clergy sexual abuse

Issue: "The 2002 vote," Nov. 2, 2002

FORMER PASTOR WILLIAM Michael Altman is serving time in a Pennsylvania state prison. Former pastor Mervin Kelley already served his jail time, and now owns a floor-covering business in Fargo, N.D. And Pastor Haman Cross Jr. is sponsoring a biblical counseling conference in Southland, Mich. All three men were accused of sexually abusing female pastoral counseling clients.

In March, as the pedophile-Catholic-priest scandals boiled in the headlines, WORLD reported on a different kind of pastoral sexual misconduct: some Protestant ministers manipulating counseling clients into "therapeutic" sexual relationships. Such contact can be classified biblically as "adultery" or "fornication," but often is not the same as a "consensual affair." Because of the power pastors hold over parishioners, many professional counseling associations deem such contact abusive and unethical; 23 states make it a crime.

A lot has happened since March-and experts say some things that ought to have happened, didn't.

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Minnesota psychologist Gary Schoener said there has been more exposure this year of clergy sexual abuse (CSA) than at any time since he began handling such cases during the 1980s. That has "resulted in large numbers of victims getting some measure of justice ... [and] some faith groups have at least begun addressing this and noting that it is not just a Catholic problem."

In addition, he said more local churches and governing bodies are writing or strengthening policies on clergy sexual misconduct. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention this year passed a resolution that specifically encourages churches to rid their ranks of predatory ministers, calls on civil authorities to punish offenders, and encourages churches to treat CSA victims and their families with compassion.

Still, Mr. Schoener said, "mainly bad models [of how churches treat CSA] are shown and discussed-not positive solutions," such as prevention and proper handling of abuse allegations when they occur.

The case involving Haman Cross Jr. was not properly handled, according to Donna Scott, the woman who brought a civil suit against Mr. Cross in 1997. Mr. Cross was and is pastor of Rosedale Park Baptist Church in Detroit. He also was a nationally known speaker for such ministries as Campus Crusade for Christ ("Breaking faith," March 30).

When contacted this month, Campus Crusade would not comment on the progress or nature of its investigation, but issued the following statement: "While any discussions we have had or will continue to have about this matter would be considered to be of a private nature between Mr. Cross and us, we continue to believe it would be inappropriate for him to be a speaker for anything associated with our ministry."

Meanwhile, Mr. Cross has continued to build Rosedale Park's "biblical counseling" program. Next month, he is sponsoring, and will speak at, the "Midwest Biblical Counseling Conference" at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Southland, Mich. Speakers will present such topics as breaking free of sex addiction, submitting to the authority of leadership, and overcoming lack of self-control.

Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court Judge Raymond Novak cited William Michael Altman's lack of self-control at a sentencing hearing in June. Mr. Altman is the charismatic former pastor of Grace Christian Ministries in Homestead, Pa. He offered pastoral counseling to Marcia Bezak, a childhood sexual abuse survivor with a history of depression and attempted suicide, and during that counseling relationship engaged in sex with her. In 2000, Mrs. Bezak filed a civil suit against Mr. Altman alleging sexual harassment. Mr. Altman claimed the relationship was a consensual affair. In April 2001, before the suit could come to trial, Mrs. Bezak hanged herself.

In June, Judge Novak sentenced Mr. Altman to four to eight years in state prison-but not for sexual abuse. The sentence was part of a plea bargain for more than 100 counts of defrauding former church members of money. Since Mrs. Bezak is dead, attorneys may be forced to drop her sexual harassment suit.

In Fergus Falls, Minn., attorneys reached a "breakthrough settlement" in September in the case of a former Nazarene church member and Mervin Kelley, her former pastor. Mr. Kelley had engaged the woman in a sexual relationship after she came to him suffering from clinical depression related to childhood incest. In 2001, a jury convicted Mr. Kelley on related criminal charges; he served eight months in jail and was released in February 2002.

The woman last year filed a civil suit against Mr. Kelley, the local church, and district and national levels of the Nazarene church. Last month, the local congregation issued a written apology to the woman, and the church's insurance company paid a financial settlement of an undisclosed amount.

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