Cover Story

The high cost of negligence

"The high cost of negligence" Continued...

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

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.”

Reporting abuse

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Guarding the lambs

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

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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