Cover Story

The high cost of negligence

"The high cost of negligence" Continued...

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

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.”

Jeremy Bicha
Manatee Sheriffs Department
Jeremy Bicha
‘When nobody dealt with it, it shattered my faith.’  —Jennifer Bicha
Natasha Schmale/Genesis Photos
‘When nobody dealt with it, it shattered my faith.’ —Jennifer Bicha
Nathaniel Morales
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department/AP
Nathaniel Morales
HELP FOR VICTIMS: Shauna Galloway-Williams at the Julie Valentine Center.
Sam Cranston/Genesis Photos
HELP FOR VICTIMS: Shauna Galloway-Williams at the Julie Valentine Center.
SENTENCED: Jeremy Bicha is escorted out of the courtroom on his way to prison.
Barb Fisher
SENTENCED: Jeremy Bicha is escorted out of the courtroom on his way to prison.

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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.”

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