Cover Story
Natasha Schmale/Genesis

The high cost of negligence

Sexual Abuse | When pastors, churches, and other caregivers fail to report sexual abuse, they may aid and abet crime–and in some states are subject to prosecution themselves–along with subjecting abuse victims to lifelong trauma

Issue: "Going it alone," Nov. 2, 2013

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.

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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.

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