Precautions can help prevent abuse

Published 2:14 am Saturday, October 31, 2009

Communication and parental involvement are two key factors that can protect children from sexual abuse like that recently suffered by the victims of a pastor accused of more than 150 sexual offenses against young boys.

Tuesday, Ralph Lee Aaron was charged with committing the sexual offenses against multiple boys ranging in age from 8 to 12. The encounters all occurred during church-related camping trips and activities. Aaron was the boys’ pastor at the time of the alleged offenses.

“The thing about child abuse is that it is so dependent upon secrecy,” said Grace Jeter, who has prosecuted many sex offenders. “Parents need to talk to their kids. Keep very open lines of communication with them.”

Child sex predators groom victims and their parents, she said.

“That way, if a child does tell, the parents are less likely to believe the allegations,” Jeter said.

When parents hear allegations like those against Aaron, they often become wary of letting their children participate in trips and other activities. That means those responsible for youth activities have to be more vigilant. The city’s department of leisure services does background checks on professionals and volunteers who work with youth. Christ the King Catholic Church requires adults who lead youth activities to participate in training classes first.

Parental involvement is key, Dwight Mikel, director of Andalusia’s department of leisure services, said.

“I think we all have grown too comfortable,” Mikel said “We’re comfortable enough to send kids off somewhere and trust they will be safe while there.”

“But it still goes to being mindful of your children and what’s happening around you and them,” he said.

“Don’t take your kids somewhere and just leave them, whether it’s to the movies to the ballpark or wherever,” he said. “Be there with them and have a relationship with them so that they know they can come and talk with you about anything.”

David Paher, pastor of Cedar Grove Church of Christ, said the allegations against Aaron should remind parents to be vigilant.

“Strong boundaries must be in place for moral purity, to keep ministry above reproach and to protect the welfare of children,” he said.

He said his church is now in the process of reevaluating its policies for volunteers.

“Ministry must not be hampered by sin, and parents need to be reassured that their children are safe when they participate in church-sponsored activities,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean that church officials aren’t now more cautious when dealing with children.

“I’d say (the incident) makes me both nervous and not nervous if that makes sense,” said Jerry Tyson, Bethany Baptist Church’s youth pastor, in regards to taking responsibility for the church’s 65 youth participants. “But we have had as many as 70-80 youth participating at one time. You never know what someone will accuse you of, but with that said, we do have safeguards in place so the opportunity doesn’t present itself.”

He said the key to making that happen is parental involvement.

“We keep our parents informed, and I would never take a bunch of kids camping by myself,” he said. “The biggest thing is it’s our job as ministers to help them become what God wants them to be. Being a minister is a privilege; having them love you in a godly type is a privilege and there are those that abuse it.”

The Rev. Tim Trent of Andalusia’s First United Methodist Church agreed with Tyson.

“It doesn’t make me nervous, but I feel for that church and my heart goes out to them. It’s unfortunate that this goes on in any church, but where do you find groups of people where they’re trusting, and what kid doesn’t want to trust their pastor? It’s just so sad.”

Trent said Methodist churches have “safe sanctuary” guidelines in place that set safety parameters for church events.

Jeter pointed out that there are “plenty of good people out there” who volunteer to work with youth. Those good people should take steps to protect themselves, she said, encouraging parental participation and always involving more than one adult.

She said anyone who suspects child abuse should call the police immediately.

“We hear about a lot of cases here,” she said. “It’s because our law enforcement officers work so hard to make these cases and to protect our kids. The reason it seems there are so many is that they are so vigilant in investigating.”

Jeter, who piloted a “good touch, bad touch” program when she was a prosecutor, said she’s had several requests in recent days to work with caregivers and with children.

“We are reviving the program,” she said. “I’ll happy to talk to children, or to adults, about preventing this abuse.”

She can be reached at Merrell and Bryan, 222-8220.