Sex abuse becomes an epidemic

LGBT people no more likely than heterosexuals to be perpetrators, but all organizations should take precautions to protect youth

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HELPING THE VICTIMS | David Clohessy, right, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, appears at a press conference in Vermont in 2007 alongside a victim who didn't want to be identified. Clohessy said the St. Louis-based SNAP, which began 23 years ago, now has 10,000 members around the globe. (Associated Press)

 

Webb-DavidThe seemingly never-ending reports of lawsuits and criminal complaints being filed by people alleging they were sexually molested by members of the clergy might make one wonder if directing worship is, or ever was, the main objective of those seeking ordainment.

Since my youth I’ve heard people grumble that the pastors, priests, rabbis and others calling the faithful to their churches on Sunday mornings were interested primarily in personal glory and how much cash they could raise from their flocks, but I never heard anything about them expecting a donation of flesh as well.

That is, I never heard about it until the mid-1980s when the scandals involving Catholic priests sexually abusing male youths began surfacing.

When the media first began covering the scandal I imagine the reaction of most people was that a few cases would surface, and that would be the end of it. Who would have ever dreamed that 25 years later the scandal would have grown to epidemic proportions and spread worldwide to other religions and institutions as well?

Just recently after reporting about a pastor who was the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a church member, I heard from the executive director of an organization of which I knew nothing. The organization, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP (snapnetwork.org), was founded 23 years ago, and it now boasts 10,000 members around the globe.

David Clohessy, who has led the St. Louis, Mo.-based group for more than two decades, said it has expanded far beyond its original mission of providing support to people who were sexually abused by Catholic priests.

“Despite the word priest in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops  and Protestant ministers,” Clohessy said in his e-mail to me. “And in recent years, we’ve heard from and helped many who were hurt in other institutional settings such as athletic programs, schools, camps, day care centers, etc.”

The scope of what he is talking about is mind-boggling, but a quick review of the news headlines covering only the past year or so confirms what he is saying. There is an epidemic of sexual abuse of young people under way in almost every walk of life they might encounter.

Male-on-male sexual abuse seems to stand out more in my mind in connection with the problem, but another scan of the headlines reminds me of the many cases of female high school teachers accused of seducing male students and male teachers seducing female students.

Obviously, the problem is universal. SNAP notes on its website that half of its members are women.

The SNAP literature maintains that “homosexuals are no more likely to be pedophiles than are heterosexuals.” It explains that reports of boys being molested are more prevalent because men tend to express their anger outwardly as in litigation, whereas women are more likely to direct it inward. It adds that women are more likely to resolve their pain through therapy and support groups, and that male-on-male sex is more salacious and more likely to attract attention.

Whatever the nature of the revelations, it is clear that all young people are at risk of being sexually abused in some area of their lives.

Unfortunately, their relationships with members of the clergy, school teachers, caregivers and all other people with whom they come into contact must be closely monitored by parents.

It’s a world of worry that is hard to fathom based on my own childhood experiences. I never had a teacher, a Sunday School instructor or anyone else charged with my care ever make any sort of inappropriate move on me, but it’s been 50 years since I was a child. A friend of mine with whom I grew up assures me that neither he nor his brother ever experienced anything inappropriate at his Catholic Church. It was just unheard of at the time, but that could be attributed to a reluctance of victims to come forward.

A pastor I spoke with recently told me that his church had already taken steps to ensure that no employee or volunteer of the church has private access to children or other church members. All of the offices will have windows in the future, he said. Other steps will also be taken to make sure everyone behaves as they should, he said.

Those are pretty drastic steps, but it would probably be a good idea for all organizations to implement such precautions in light of what we now know about sexual abuse and harassment. It appears this unfortunately is the way all organizations need to be run today.

David Webb is a veteran journalist who has covered LGBT issues for the mainstream and alternative media for three decades. He can be e-mailed at davidwaynewebb@hotmail.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

 

—  Kevin Thomas

Megachurch pastor keeps mum on sex allegations

ERRIN HAINES | Associated Press

ATLANTA — On Sunday mornings, accused megachurch Bishop Eddie Long is usually draped in regal robes and dripping with diamonds and platinum — the kind of material rewards he often says are in God’s plan for those listening.

His message expected this Sunday, Sept. 26 will be the first in public since three young men accused him in lawsuits of having sexual relationships with them, which he has vehemently denied only through his lawyer and a Twitter posting.

Long built his congregation into a megachurch empire, telling his followers God wanted them to be wealthy and delivering fiery sermons with a secular swagger. He hangs with celebrities like rapper T.I. and donates money to charities and candidates. Even the county sheriff is among his followers.

Long spent more than 20 years building all that up, but his empire hangs in the balance. And his 25,000 followers aren’t about to let it all come tumbling down after the three men’s claims that the bishop abused his spiritual authority.

“I’ve always thought he was a very powerful man of God,” said Anshay Tull, a 27-year-old attendee of Long’s church, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. “I’m just praying, trying to stay hopeful that it’s not true. If it is true, he has to take that up with God. But that can’t take away from the Word that he gives. I think he’s very gifted.”

He’s preached against gay marriage, and his church has counseled gay members to become straight — even though the men claim in their lawsuits that Long used money, cars, international trips, jewelry and other objects to lure them into sexual relationships when they were 17 or 18 years old.

Long came to New Birth in 1987, when it had just a few hundred members. He had a flock of 8,000 just four years later and moved the church into a $2 million building. By 1995, the church’s weekly television broadcast was airing in more than 170 countries. By Long’s 10th anniversary, New Birth paid off its debts and for 240 acres of land to build a multi-million dollar church complex.

The church grew alongside its home of DeKalb County, now the second-largest in the state. It has one of the most affluent populations of African-Americans in the country, many of whom attend New Birth. Long’s message of prosperity has dovetailed with their goals and dreams, as is evidenced by the many luxury cars in the parking lot on Sundays.

Long himself is a product of his message. His home was bought for $1.1 million in 2005.

`”He has a kind of celebrity status, given his megachurch leadership,” said Emory University religion professor Theophus H. Smith. “And Bishop Long has been especially noteworthy in terms of making a place for men’s spirituality and black male manhood in the church.”

Despite the church’s economic and political power, though, it faces a somewhat uncertain future.

“People who are members at that church probably felt better about themselves because they are members,” said Lester Spence, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. “Now, there are a whole bunch of people trying to figure out what their place is, what’s going to happen to the church and what’s going to happen to them.”

Today, New Birth operates more than 40 ministries. The centerpiece of its campus is the $50-million New Birth Cathedral, which opened in 2001 and seats 10,000. Membership stands at more than 25,000, and New Birth flags flying from car windows are a common sight around metro Atlanta.

Long is married to Vanessa — referred to as “The First Lady” of New Birth — and the couple has three sons and a daughter.

There are those turned off by the church’s size and its message, including former member Zack Hosley, 31, who criticized Long’s rich lifestyle.

“If you see (Long) out and about in Atlanta, he rubs elbows with celebrities and I just wouldn’t think a man of God would be hanging out with T.I,” he said, referring to the Atlanta-based rapper who served time on federal weapons charges and recently was arrested on drug charges.

He is beloved by his congregation, though, which has dismissed the accusations as a test from God. After he canceled both an interview on a popular syndicated radio show and a scheduled news conference, Long is expected to address New Birth members Sunday during church.

His lone remarks have been a statement read by his attorney and a Twitter posting: “Thanks for all the prayers and support! Love you all.”

“I wish the bishop would come out and make a comment and speak to us,” said Lance Robertson, a longtime church member. “We want to hear from him. I think the world wants to hear from him. Right now, in the court of public opinion, it does not look good.”

—  John Wright

Partner denied sick leave by AT&T

Bryan Dickenson, left, and Bill Sugg hold hands in Sugg’s room at a rehabilitation facility in Richardson on Wednesday, Jan. 27. (Source:John Wright/Dallas Voice)

Despite 100% rating from HRC, company won’t allow gay man time off to care for ailing spouse

JOHN WRIGHT  |  News Editor
wright@dallasvoice.com

Bryan Dickenson and Bill Sugg have been together for 30 years.

For the last 12 of those years, Dickenson has worked as a communications technician for Dallas-based AT&T.

After Sugg suffered a debilitating stroke in September, Dickinson requested time off under the federal Family Medical Leave Act to care for his partner.

But AT&T is refusing to grant Dickenson the 12 weeks of leave that would be afforded to a heterosexual spouse under the act.

As a result, Dickenson is using vacation time so he can spend one afternoon a week at Sugg’s bedside at a rehabilitation facility in Richardson. But Dickenson fears that when his vacation runs out, he’ll end up being fired for requesting additional time off to care for Sugg. Dickenson’s attorney, Rob Wiley of Dallas, said he initially thought AT&T’s refusal to grant his client leave under FMLA was just a mistake on the part of the company. Wiley said he expected AT&T to quickly rectify the situation after he sent the company a friendly letter.

After all, AT&T maintains the highest score of 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which ranks companies according to their treatment of LGBT employees. And just this week, HRC listed AT&T as one of its “Best Places to Work.”

But AT&T has stood its ground, confirming in a statement to Dallas Voice this week that the company isn’t granting Dickenson leave under FMLA because neither federal nor state law recognizes Sugg as his domestic partner.

“I really couldn’t be more disappointed with AT&T’s response,” Wiley said. “When you scratch the surface, they clearly don’t value diversity. I just think it’s an outright lie for AT&T to claim they’re a good place for gays and lesbians to work.”

Wiley added that he’s disappointed in HRC for giving AT&T its highest score. Eric Bloem, deputy director of HRC’s workplace project, said Thursday, Jan. 28 that he was looking into the matter. Bloem said a survey for the Corporate Equality Index asks companies whether they grant FMLA leave to same-sex couples, and AT&T replied affirmatively.

“I’m not exactly sure what’s going on, so I don’t really want to make an official comment on it,” Bloem said.

Walt Sharp, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company has “a long history of inclusiveness in the workplace.”

“There are circumstances under which our administration of our benefits plans must conform with state law, and this is one of those circumstances,” Sharp said in a written statement. “In this case, neither federal nor state law recognizes Mr. Dickenson’s domestic partner with legal status as a qualifying family member for a federal benefit program. There is no basis for this lawsuit or the allegations contained in it and we will seek its dismissal.”

Sharp didn’t respond to a request for further comment.

Wiley said Sharp’s statement doesn’t make sense. No law prohibits the company from granting Dickenson an unpaid leave of absence, which is what he’s requesting. Wiley also noted that no lawsuit has been filed, because there isn’t grounds for one.

The federal FMLA applies only to heterosexual married couples, Wiley said. Some states have enacted their own versions of the FMLA, requiring companies to grant leave to gay and lesbian couples, but Texas isn’t one of them.

Wiley said the couple’s only hope is to somehow convince the company to do the right thing, which is why he contacted the media.

“At some point in time this just becomes really hateful that they wouldn’t have any compassion,” Wiley said of the company. “I think the recourse is to tell their story and let people know how AT&T really treats their employees.”

Through thick and thin

This isn’t the first time Dickenson and Sugg have endured a medical crisis.

Sugg, who’s 69 and suffers from congenital heart problems, nearly died from cardiac arrest shortly after the couple met in 1980.

At the time, Dickenson was a full-time student and didn’t have car. So he rode his bicycle from Garland to Parkland Hospital in Dallas every day to visit Sugg in the intensive care unit.

In an interview this week at the rehab facility, Sugg’s eyes welled up with tears as he recalled what a Parkland nurse said at the time – “If that isn’t love, then I don’t know what the hell love is.”

“And sure enough, it was,” Sugg said over the whirr of his oxygen machine, turning to Dickenson. “As long as I have you, I can get through anything.”

Dickenson said in addition to visiting Sugg each Wednesday afternoon, he wakes up at 7:30 on Saturday and Sunday mornings so he can spend the day with Sugg at the rehab facility.

This past Christmas, Dickenson spent the night on the floor of Sugg’s room.
“That would have been our first Christmas separated, and I just couldn’t bear that, him being alone on Christmas,” Dickenson said.

The worst part of the whole ordeal was when he had to return to work after taking 13 days off following Sugg’s stroke, Dickenson said. Sugg didn’t understand and thought his partner had abandoned him for good.

“He called me over and over every night, begging me to please come see him,” Dickenson said. “And I said, ’Honey, you don’t understand, I had to go back to work to save my job.’

“That’s what really hurts about what they’ve put me through, not my pain and anguish, but his,” Dickenson said.

Dickenson said it was 3 a.m. on Sept. 22 when he rushed Sugg to the hospital. Doctors initially said it was “the worst sinus infection they’d ever seen,” but within 48 hours Sugg had suffered a stroke affecting his cerebellum.

Sugg lost the ability to swallow and his sense of balance. He’s still unable to walk and suffers from double vision.

Because he wasn’t out as gay at work, Dickenson initially told supervisors that his father was sick.

When he returned to work after 13 days at the hospital, Dickenson explained that his domestic partner was ill and he needed more time off. His supervisor managed to get him an additional 30 days of unpaid leave.

In the meantime, Dickenson phoned the company’s human resources department and asked whether he’d be eligible for leave under FMLA, which allows 12 weeks (or about 90 days) per year. Dickenson said he was told that since he lives in Texas, he wouldn’t be eligible.

Dickenson filled out the FMLA forms anyway and sent them to the company, but he never got any response.

When Dickenson returned to work, he asked to be reclassified as part-time employee, so he could spend more time with Sugg. His supervisor refused and told him his best bet was FMLA leave, even though he’d already been denied.

That’s when Dickenson contacted Wiley.

Sugg is scheduled return to the couple’s Garland home from rehab in about a week, but he’s still on a feeding tube and will require nursing care. With any luck, he’ll someday be able to walk again.

Sugg bragged that he was able to drink his first cup of coffee last week, and he’s looking forward to getting back to his hobby of raising African violets.

Dickenson said he knows of at least seven medical appointments he’ll have to arrange for Sugg once he returns home. He said his vacation time likely will run out by April, and he fears that if he loses his job, the medical expenses will eventually cause him to go broke.

But Dickenson, who’s 51, said he’s committed to taking care of Sugg, even if it means living on the street someday.

“When it runs out, I’ll be fired, and it really hurts to be in a situation like that, because I’ve worked very hard for AT&T,” Dickenson said. “We suffer now, but maybe other people in our shoes in the future, if they work for AT&T, they won’t suffer like we do.”

—  John Wright