There's No Statute of Limitations on Trauma | Sojourners

There's No Statute of Limitations on Trauma

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

No one ever wants to talk about abuse — as it exposes the darkest parts of the human heart — let alone abuse that happened decades ago. Forgetting, though, ensures that the voices of survivors will be papered over by the louder, more consistent voices of those whose lives continue as normal.

On January 12, 2007, Shawn Davies was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing youth at the church where he was a music minister — First Baptist Church of Greenwood, Mo., a small suburb of Kansas City. Davies arrived at First Baptist Greenwood in August 2003, two years after police in Kentucky began investigating him for sexual abuse. In December 2005, Davies pleaded guilty to charges stemming from that investigation. Note the timeline here: Davies was under investigation in Kentucky in 2001, he was hired and began sexually abusing minors at Greenwood during the summer of 2003, he was indicted in Kentucky in May 2005, a victim at Greenwood came forward in July 2005, and Davies was fired from Greenwood in October 2005.

In July 2005, the first Greenwood victim, a 14-year-old boy told his mom — who in turn relayed the information to police — that about a year earlier, Davies had “asked if he could jack off in front of him” but “not to laugh at the size of his penis.” According to police records, Davies then masturbated in front of the boy, who turned away so he did not have to witness the act. Davies also asked the boy — and at least six other boys at Greenwood — to watch pornography with him. According to Baptist News Global, Davies stayed on at the church for several months after allegations surfaced.

He was eventually convicted of 25 crimes.

Prioritizing the Perpetrator

In cases of church abuse, trauma can often be compounded by church leadership’s desire to keep things quiet or to trust the word of the spiritual leader over the victim.

In the Davies case, the victim’s mother reported that within 10 minutes of her son’s revelation, she called the church’s pastor, Mike Roy, and arranged to meet with him the next day. The mother reported that at that meeting, Roy refused to believe her because, “Shawn was a good friend of his and had worked at the church for two years.” 

Roy's reaction is not unique. As Judith Herman points out in her book Trauma and Recovery, in such cases, "it is morally impossible to remain neutral." She adds:

It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.

According to police records, at Roy’s request, the victim’s mother attended a second meeting — except this time, she was met with the church’s insurance company. When questioned about Roy’s refusal to speak with the victim’s mother, Roy said “his obligation was to the church” and that the attorney had not given him permission to speak to the family.

Roy has repeatedly said that he and the church acted appropriately and legally. In an email to me, Roy said, “The church notified authorities and initiated an independent investigation. The only independently verifiable fact was indicated to be false by an independent computer examination. An independent investigator closed its investigation and advised that it believed the allegation was not credible.”

While it is true that an initial computer examination — which was completed without the knowledge or approval of law enforcement — indicated that Davies had not viewed pornography, a second check did reveal pornography on the computer.

Roy also says that he reported the crime as required by Missouri’s mandated reporting laws. Lou Jackson of the Missouri Children’s Division tells a different story: “Nobody who called the child abuse hotline about this incident identified themselves as acting on behalf of the Greenwood, Mo., First Baptist Church or … calling on behalf of another mandatory reporter.” However, the church’s attorney said via a letter that he reported the child abuse on behalf of Roy.

In addition to Roy’s insistence that he followed mandatory reporting laws, Roy told me, “My church and I fully cooperated and provided all information to the police. We fully reported and investigated the allegation with both outside investigators and the police.”

Again, police records from the time indicate otherwise. Roy repeatedly rescheduled interviews with police, and he refused to come to the police station to give an interview, insisting instead that any interview with police be conducted at his own attorney’s office. Further, when police sent Roy a certified letter requesting his presence for an interview in regards to allegations of failure to report child abuse, concealing an offense, hindering prosecution, and tampering evidence, Roy’s attorney responded with his own letter stating that police “defamed and slandered Pastor Roy.”

While Roy corresponded with police in writing, Roy never did sit down for an interview with police, and I’ve found no evidence that charges were ever filed against him.  

So why drag all this up now?

Davies was sent to prison, Roy was never charged, and the church has now disbanded. All of this has resurfaced because just this year, the Missouri Baptist Convention named Roy a trustee of Southwest Baptist University, a small Southern Baptist institution that the MBC controls, most directly, through its trustee appointment.

Historically, trustee nominations requested by the school’s president would be given preference. This year, however, the MBC — whose president declined to comment for this story — bucked tradition and appointed trustees of its own choosing.

As reported by The Pathway, SBU president Eric Turner said of the matter: “our entire proposed trustee slate was rejected. Since then, we worked with convention leadership to develop a compromise slate, and that slate was rejected. Candidly, I’m disappointed in the process.”

Several months later, upon finding out about the allegations against Roy, Turner, who declined to comment for this article, issued a statement about the revelations and announced a “special board meeting” to “make sure we do the right thing. SBU has called upon the Missouri Baptist Convention leadership to take appropriate action in this matter as well.” Turner also made it clear that SBU was assured the trustees had been “vetted by the Nominating Committee of the MBC.”

Notably, at the same annual meeting when Roy was installed as a trustee, a motion was submitted asking the MBC leadership to publicly take steps to address sexual abuse. The MBC, in keeping with its “common practice,” referred the motion to the convention’s executive board to report on the suggestion the following year.

Given heightened awareness regarding sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention after the yeoman’s work done by the Houston Chronicle, it is unclear why the MBC would nominate Roy, or more pointedly, why many trustees and convention leaders would double down on supporting him.

Alumni and Students Respond

SBU alum Rayden Hollis believes that “Mike Roy should resign his trusteeship,” citing his concern for assault victims at the school.

 “If a trustee were known to have been unhelpful in the reporting/investigating process, then victims will be less likely to come forward,” Hollis said.

When I asked Roy what he had learned from the Shawn Davies crimes at his church, he told me, “As a result of my experience, I have become well versed in how to properly, emphatically receive, respond to, and address sexual abuse victims.” Further, despite the fact that Davies remained on staff for months after Roy first learned Moore had sexually abused boys at the church, Roy stated, “I did not and have no tolerance for the sin of sexual abuse.”

At least one SBU student, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, agrees that Roy should not be charged with overseeing the school she attends.

“I am a survivor of child sexual assault,” she told me. “So when I first heard about this trustee, my heart just fell into my stomach. I was horrified (still am) that someone who (may have) refused to cooperate in an investigation of a child sexual abuse case that occurred at their church genuinely upsets me beyond words.”

This student readily admitted to not knowing whether the allegations against Roy were true, but she still expressed concern that “students will decide to not report because they see someone, a pastor who is supposed to shepherd and care for the flock, has been accused by their (at the time) local police of not cooperating in a sexual assault case.”

In the past few days revelations have surfaced that the president of Cedarville University — another school affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention — hired and promoted an admitted sexual offender. Cedarville’s president, too, vocally opposed sexual abuse in churches, but his actions belied a different view of sexual predation. The question before SBU, then, is whether learning from this experience is enough to instill trust in the people Roy is expected to lead and protect as a trustee.

Institutional Responsibility to Name and Stop Abuse

Rachael Denhollander, a prominent advocate for changing how colleges and universities address sexual abuse, spoke earlier this year at the Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an evangelical organization of colleges and universities. She highlighted the need for Christian schools to be frontrunners in the fight against sexual abuse.

A significant part of fighting against sexual abuse will, Denhollander says, involve “acknowledge[ing] and pursu[ing] the truth when it looks like something might have been handled wrong.” However, the typical response, particularly when the offense occurred long ago, is “to clamp down and protect liability and reputation at the expense of the victim and justice.”

Denhollander, who was the first person to come forward about Larry Nassar’s long history of sexual abuse, has witnessed the continued violence that comes with institutional coverup. Her 2018 memoir, What Is a Girl Worth?, chronicles her journey to bring Nassar to justice and to lift up the voices of his victims. Denhollander speaks forcefully to institutional dynamics that sacrificed hundreds of children on the altar of liability and reputation.

Some states are listening to Denhollander’s urging that there should be no time limit on securing justice for sexual abuse survivors. In 2018, Michigan extended its statute of limitations on sexual abuse crimes, as did New York a year later, and in 2019 Vermont completely removed its statute of limitations. The question before institutions of higher education is whether they will listen to the untold masses of sexual abuse survivors, or if they will continue to turn a blind eye to the sins of the past and therefore endanger untold masses more.

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