BRADENTON, Fla.—From the floor-to-ceiling windows on the sixth floor of the Manatee County Courthouse, a sweeping view extends across the Manatee River as it spills into Tampa Bay. The skies darkened as heavy rains poured down here in Bradenton, Fla., on a September day. In courtroom 6-A, another storm brewed: Jeremy Bicha, 29, seated behind a wide defense table, heard testimony from two women he’d already admitted to sexually abusing when they were young girls.
The women gave shocking details about the abuse. When the district attorney asked the women to describe their relationship to the defendant, each gave equally shocking answers: “He is my brother.”
The tragedy of sexual abuse in a family once involved in local churches and stationed on a foreign mission field only deepens: Adults also connected to their community knew about the abuse while the girls were minors but didn’t report it to authorities. Those adults include a Christian schoolteacher, a longtime pastor—and the parents of Bicha and his sisters.
As adults, two of Bicha’s sisters he abused reported the abuse to police in 2010. Bicha pleaded no contest to charges of sexual battery. When Circuit Court Judge Thomas Krug sentenced him on Sept. 27 for crimes committed as a youth, he also castigated the adults who failed to report those crimes: “Frankly, they deserve to be in prison.”
Krug’s statement carries legal weight. Florida state law mandates any adult who suspects or knows about a case of child sexual abuse to report it to authorities. Failure to report carries a maximum penalty of $5,000 or five years in prison.
Florida isn’t alone: Eighteen states require adults who suspect child abuse or neglect to report it to authorities. Twenty-seven states specifically mandate pastors to report suspected abuse. In other states, schoolteachers, childcare workers, physicians, and other adults who interact with children are required to report child abuse.
In Bicha’s case, the statute of limitations has expired to prosecute adults who failed to report the abuse when the children were minors. But the consequences of that failure persist.
Jennifer Bicha—one of the sisters who testified in September—spoke extensively with me about her experience and agreed to WORLD’s reporting it. At 26, she hopes her story will help other abuse survivors. She also hopes it will motivate adults—especially those in churches—to understand the critical importance of reporting abuse when they suspect it.
High-profile sex-abuse scandals of the Catholic Church and at Penn State University disturbed many over the last decade, but a slate of churches and Christian organizations also face questions about confronting—or sweeping away—sexual abuse.
How those groups handle sexual-abuse cases has more than legal implications. For Jennifer, the failure of professing Christians to intervene inflicted spiritual damage common among other abuse survivors: It confounded her thoughts about God and damaged her trust in the church that should have protected her.
“When nobody dealt with it, it shattered my faith,” she said. “When you have so many secrets, it shatters everything.”
DEALING WITH CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE isn’t a new challenge, but it’s a massive one: The U.S. Department of Justice estimates an average of one child molester per square mile in the United States.
Statistics vary widely, but some estimates say as many as one out of four girls and one out of six boys endure sexual abuse by age 18. With 75 million children in the United States, that means nearly 15 million children could face sexual abuse in the next 18 years.
For Jennifer Bicha, abuse began early. She grew up with her brother and two sisters in several different states. Their father was a Christian schoolteacher, and the family regularly attended church, but home life was severe: During the September hearing, several family members testified that the siblings’ father was physically and emotionally abusive. Fear ruled the home.
By the time she was 9, Jennifer’s brother Jeremy, then 12, began a pattern of regular sexual abuse that grew aggressive, then violent, and escalated into rape.
She feared telling her father, but when Jennifer was 11 he discovered the abuse: Jeremy and Jennifer both testified their father walked in on an incident of serious sexual abuse in Jennifer’s bedroom. Instead of intervening, her father punished both children. Neither parent reported the abuse to authorities.
Jennifer says her abuse spanned at least three years, but she first told a Christian schoolteacher about it when she was 15. The teacher told the family’s longtime pastor in Florida. The pastor spoke with Jennifer’s father and trusted him to respond. No one reported the abuse to authorities.
Jeremy joined the Navy, and Jennifer enrolled at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. She sought counseling from a university staff member for her trauma, but didn’t find it helpful. Her symptoms, common among abuse survivors, grew worse: She had nightmares, flashbacks, and depression. “I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I was just crashing.”
By her junior year, Jennifer learned her brother had married, and he talked about having children. The possibility of him harming another child terrified Jennifer: “I couldn’t live with that.”
For the first time, Jennifer spoke with her sisters about Jeremy’s abuse. Her younger sister acknowledged similar abuse and agreed to file a police report in Florida in 2010.
Jennifer says most of her family shunned her for reporting, but the authorities in Florida took it seriously. She remembers a prosecutor telling her: “Every adult in your life has failed you.”
But even as her faith began to crack, Jennifer held onto hope. “The Bible talks about God being a father to the fatherless,” she says. “I clung to that passage, even though I didn’t know how it applied to me.”
ADULTS MAY NOT INTEND TO FAIL victims of sexual abuse, but experts say churches make a common mistake of trying to handle abuse allegations on their own.
Sometimes that’s because church leaders don’t realize many states mandate they report suspected or known child sexual abuse. Even in cases where the law might not mandate a report, Victor Vieth of the National Child Protection Training Center says every adult should ask: “Even if I’m not mandated to report, is someone else going to be in danger if I don’t?”
The question is relevant to current cases in some evangelical churches. Nathaniel Morales faces a November trial in Maryland for charges of molesting four teenage boys while a member of Covenant Life Church (CLC) in Gaithersburg, Md., in the late 1980s.
CLC was part of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) until it withdrew from the association of churches last year. In May, a Maryland judge dismissed a civil lawsuit against SGM that accused some church leaders of covering up rampant child sexual abuse. The case is on appeal.
The charges Morales faces this month in Maryland comprise a separate, criminal case. That case began in 2009 when a former member of CLC reported to police Morales sexually abused him as a teenager in the late 1980s.
The police report says the alleged victim first disclosed his abuse to his parents when he was 22 or 23 years old—about five years after he says the abuse ended.
The report says Grant Layman, a pastor at CLC, said he had “vague recollections” from 15 to 20 years ago of speaking with the alleged victim’s father about the abuse. The report also states Layman and another CLC pastor, Ernest Boisvert, confronted Morales about the allegations, though it’s unclear when those conversations took place.
If the conversations occurred after the victim was 18, it’s likely church leaders weren’t mandated by law to report the abuse. But apart from legal questions, it’s unclear if the church attempted to advise other church members or other congregations about Morales’ history.
When police arrested Morales in February on abuse charges that included 10 counts of molesting four boys, he was living in Nevada and working as a pastor. According to the police report, he had married a woman with five sons from a previous marriage.
A statement on the CLC website in February said the church didn’t know about abuse allegations against Morales until “many years after the abuse when an adult who had been victimized as a child came forward.” CLC spokesman Don Nalle said he couldn’t comment on questions about Morales because of the civil lawsuit against the church.
The Affirming Pentecostal Church (APC), a small association of Pentecostal churches that affirms homosexuality among its members, listed Nate Morales as an associate bishop in 2011. The group’s website included a blog post and photo of Morales during the same year.
Earlier this year Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation of about 15,000 in Plano, Texas, faced questions about how it handled a past allegation of abuse. Its former youth worker, John Langworthy, pleaded guilty in Mississippi to five of eight counts of molestation involving five boys in the early 1980s. A judge gave Langworthy a 50-year suspended sentence.
Mike Buster, an executive pastor at Prestonwood, told a local news station in 2011 the church received an allegation in 1989 that Langworthy had “acted inappropriately with a teenage student.” The pastor said the church dismissed Langworthy, and that “the elected officers dealt with the matter firmly and forthrightly.” Buster didn’t say whether church officers filed a police report. WORLD requested further comment, and Buster replied in an email, saying nothing had changed from the church’s original statement.
Langworthy went on to work as a music minister at Morrison Heights Baptist Church and a high school choir director in Clinton Public Schools. He resigned both positions in 2011.
CHILD-SAFETY ADVOCATES say it’s not uncommon for church leaders to try to handle abuse allegations themselves.
During a panel discussion at a recent conference on childhood sexual abuse at North Hills Community Church in Taylors, S.C., abuse experts said churches often worry about false allegations. But false accusations comprise a small percentage of reports on child sexual abuse.
The panel also addressed church leaders’ concerns about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 to confront Christians about their sins first. North Hills pastor Peter Hubbard noted if a church member committed murder or robbery, pastors likely wouldn’t feel angst about approaching the offender before reporting him to the police.
Hubbard also noted the command in Romans 13 to submit to civil authorities as those God appoints to inflict punishment on evildoers: “When we refuse to report abuse we are really hindering God’s divine institution of carrying out His wrath against criminals.”
According to Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center, when church leaders conduct their own investigations before reporting abuse to authorities, they also may give offenders the opportunity to destroy evidence or threaten a victim into silence.
Experts say churches should develop robust child-protection policies (see sidebar below), but they should also prepare plans for how to respond to allegations.
To that end, Ryan Ferguson, an associate pastor at North Hills, has begun visiting the Julie Valentine Center (JVC), a local organization combating sexual assault and child abuse. On a recent afternoon visit, JVC director Shauna Galloway-Williams gave a tour of the facilities, including counseling rooms filled with toys and poster board, and an exam room where two forensic pediatricians conduct more than 200 medical exams each year on children dealing with abuse.
Galloway-Williams says she’s encouraged to see churches reaching out to the organization, and says it helps her group point clients with spiritual needs in the right direction.
Ferguson says learning more about JVC’s resources has helped the church better prepare and respond to cases of abuse. He encourages other church leaders to connect with local authorities before a crisis hits.
“We don’t put our faith in the organizations themselves but in a sovereign God who has established government for the good of His people,” said Ferguson. “As soon as we feel like circling the wagons, we need to do the exact opposite.”
BACK IN FLORIDA, Jennifer Bicha was trying to move past adults who had circled the wagons. After she reported her brother’s abuse to police in 2010, naval investigators questioned Jeremy, who was stationed overseas. He admitted everything.
In a statement to naval lawyers, Jeremy detailed the abuse of his sisters and admitted to inappropriately touching his third sister and two other non-family members when he was a teenager. He told investigators, “I have mostly dealt with this by putting it behind me and forgetting.”
Florida prosecutors weren’t forgetting: The U.S. Navy discharged Jeremy, and when he reached U.S. soil, authorities arrested him. He eventually pleaded no contest to two counts of sexual battery on a child under 12 while he was under 18. His defense attorney asked for less than a year in the county jail. The prosecutor asked for 15 years in state prison.
By the morning of the sentencing hearing, Jennifer gathered in a local hotel with a small group of friends who traveled to Florida to support her. One was John O’Malley, the director of her father’s former mission board. The board dismissed Jennifer’s father from the ministry around the time of her police report, and O’Malley came to Florida to offer personal support.
Jennifer asked for prayer for family members, including her estranged mother, who supported her brother’s hopes for a light sentence. She also asked for prayers for peace: “I need to walk away knowing I did the right thing.”
O’Malley reminded her of the passage in Mark 7 when Jesus astonished a community by healing a man who was mute. “For years you’ve had no voice,” O’Malley told her. “For years no one listened to you. I believe that will change today. I believe the community will hear.”
By 1:30 p.m., a small community was listening. A handful of family members arrived to support Jeremy, including his wife, who brought their 1-month-old son—a sight that shook Jennifer.
Jennifer’s younger sister testified via Skype from another state about the damage her brother’s abuse caused. She used words like “sullied, impure, and worthless” to describe how she had felt: “You took away my innocence.”
Jennifer gave similar testimony. She used words like “terror, dread, panic … So many words, yet none can scratch the surface of fear that suffocates my life.”
The two sisters would prove the only witnesses on their behalf. Over the next six hours, an aunt, an uncle, Jeremy’s wife, and his mother all testified on Jeremy’s behalf for a lighter sentence. They didn’t dispute his guilt, but they blamed a repressive upbringing and an abusive father.
When the sibling’s mother took the stand, she admitted she knew about Jeremy’s abuse: “I kept silent when I shouldn’t have. I should have done more to protect my children.”
She also said she didn’t want Jeremy to suffer for a difficult upbringing, and said he had not expressed anger at his sisters for pressing charges: “I’ve never heard him blame them.” She worried about his fate in prison and said, “He will never be free from this.”
As he took the stand late in the day, Jeremy made a similar defense. He admitted what he had done, but cited his difficult home life. He asked to avoid time in state prison and having his name placed on the sex-offender registry: “I believe punishment should have an end, and the sex-offender registry has no end.”
By the end of the day, Jennifer was absorbing her family testifying on her brother’s behalf. “No matter what the sentence is, it’s going to be hard,” she said. “I wonder: Have I made any kind of difference?”
TWO DAYS LATER, Jeremy arrived at court in jeans and a T-shirt—prepared to leave the courtroom for a jail cell.
After closing arguments, the judge acknowledged the gravity of the case: “It was almost unbearable for this court to hear that a mother and father exist who would raise children in this manner.”
The judge sentenced Jeremy to three years in state prison on each count of abuse, and ordered him to serve the sentences concurrently. He could be out on parole in two years. The judge also sentenced him to five years’ probation and said Jeremy would be designated a sex predator.
The court remained tense and silent as bailiffs surrounded Jeremy and handcuffed him. He stood a few feet away from Jennifer as court officers fingerprinted him near an exit. Jennifer wiped away tears. A door opened, and her brother was gone.
A few minutes later, Jennifer sat in a small room processing the events. “Honestly I’m just trying to hold myself together right now. … But I know I fought as hard as I could to do what needed to be done.” She hopes her experience will help other survivors and the adults who could protect them from sexual abuse.
One person who’s already persuaded is Wayne Golson, the childhood pastor who didn’t report Jennifer’s abuse when he learned about it years earlier. Now an interim pastor at a church in North Carolina, Golson says he realizes he was wrong.
Jennifer encouraged Golson to attend the conference in Greenville and hopes the experience will help bring positive change. Golson says he didn’t know the laws and the procedures about reporting abuse, and assumed Jennifer’s father would take care of it: “I didn’t do enough. … I look back and I just think, I should have helped her more.”
The pastor says he spent a recent Sunday school hour outlining what he had learned at the conference about abuse and would recommend a policy manual to his church’s advisory board for child-safety protections. If any other pastors wonder what they should do if they suspect abuse, Golson says his counsel would be clear: “Without a doubt, go to the authorities.”
For now, Jennifer plans to continue a career she enjoys as a hospital nurse. She hopes in time to find a church where she feels safe and can ask the questions that continue to haunt her. But she says she’s still convinced: “I know my God is good and that He can heal. If there’s a way He can bring beauty out of my story, then it’s worth telling.”
The Christian organization GRACE—an acronym for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment—offers several common-sense suggestions for developing child-protection policies at local churches:
• Consult child-abuse experts or local authorities when developing policies
• Make connections with local authorities and child-abuse organizations before a crisis strikes, and develop a strategy for how your congregation would respond to abuse allegations
• Consider background screening for adults regularly volunteering with youth or children
• Require at least two adults (from two different households) at functions for children or youth
• Offer safety education training in youth group settings
• Keep your antennas up: A reasonable eye for suspicious behavior isn’t judgmental, it’s protective
For more resources on child protection and mandatory reporting laws, consider:
• GRACE: netgrace.org
• National Child Protection Training Center: ncptc.org
• U.S Department of Health and Human Services for mandatory reporting laws at childwelfare.gov