Allegations pose dilemma for churches

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK)
March 16, 2002, Saturday CITY EDITION
Allegations pose dilemma for churches

BYLINE: Bobby Ross Jr., Religion Editor


LENGTH: 1139 words

CLOSE to home, a well-known Jewish rabbi in Oklahoma City and a
longtime Methodist youth minister in Edmond stand accused of
lewd acts against young girls.

In Boston, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese this week reached an
up-to-$ 30 million settlement with 86 people who accused a
now-defrocked priest of child molestation.

The local and national headlines have rocked Oklahoma’s faithful
in recent weeks.

The first reaction: shock.

“Unfortunately, many churches find it so hard to believe of
someone they have trusted, that they either do nothing… or they
keep it quiet thinking that will somehow help,” said Lynn McMillon,
a licensed professional counselor and dean of the Bible college at
Oklahoma Christian University.

“At other times,” McMillon said, “the church or its leaders
really have no idea of the private problems that a minister or
other leaders have.”

Leaders of several Oklahoma denominations – including the United
Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Christian Church
(Disciples of Christ) and the Episcopal Church – say they require
pastors to attend seminars on the prevention of sexual abuse.

For example, the daylong seminar mandated by the Christian
Church covers appropriate sexual ethics for clergy members and
teaches how congregations can protect themselves from sexual
predators, said the Rev. Thomas Jewell, Oklahoma regional pastor.

“An example of that would be, we encourage congregations to have
two teachers in every classroom that involves children or youth,”
Jewell said. “If you have a single teacher in a classroom, that
puts both the teacher and the students at risk.”

In the nine years that Jewell has served Oklahoma’s 175
Disciples of Christ congregations, he said he knows of about six
sexual molestation cases involving pastors.

That’s roughly one every 18 months.

“I don’t think this problem is strictly a problem of the Roman
Catholic Church,” he said.

“I think everyone is very sensitive to the very serious problem,
and no one in today’s climate – I would hope – would try to conceal

Along with mandatory seminars, some denominations – including
the Episcopal Church – tackle the problem by requiring criminal
background checks of potential clergy members and lay people who
work with children.

The Episcopal Church also conducts psychological/psychiatric
assessments of would-be priests, said Charles Woltz, assistant to
Oklahoma Bishop Robert Moody.

“I think we have taken every precaution we can possibility take
to prevent it,” Woltz said. “Should it ever happen, I know the
bishop would act immediately.”

However, Southern Baptists, the state’s largest religious group,
have no formal policies for preventing sexual abuse by pastors.

Leaders of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, an
association of 1,700 Southern Baptist churches, say each
congregation is autonomous.

But Sam Vinall said the state Baptist convention would help any
minister or congregation work through such issues – be it with
free, anonymous counseling or by assigning an interim pastor.

“Though it seems like there have been several cases recently, I
hardly think this constitutes a trend just among ministers,” said
Vinall, the association’s ministerial and planning services director.

“It seems to be a trend in our society, and ministers are not
immune. That fact that many of these cases went unreported for many
years indicates that the change is in an increased knowledge and
reporting of these crimes, and that’s good.”

But a frequent critic of Southern Baptists – the Rev. Jeffry
Zurheide of First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City – said his former
denomination could take a more active approach.

“While a Baptist association or state convention could not
mandate such education/training, it could certainly be strongly
encouraged,” Zurheide wrote in an e-mail.

“Roman Catholics don’t exactly have ‘the corner on’ sins of the
clergy. Keeping all of this hush/hush is a
Baptist/interdenominational issue.”

Oklahoma cases

In the case of Richard Marcovitz, officials at the Oklahoma City
Jewish Community Day School filed a police report when the
Emanuel Synagogue rabbi was accused of inappropriately touching
the buttock and breast areas of two girls, ages 9 and 12.

“The school has been very helpful with the investigation,”
police spokeswoman Sgt. Cris Cunningham said last month. “The
synagogue has not cooperated at all.”

But Robert Epstein, president of the 200-family synagogue, said
that was not the case.

“As soon as I heard there was a child involved in an alleged
situation, I started looking into it,” Epstein said.

Marcovitz, charged in Oklahoma County District Court with 11
counts of sexual misconduct with two women and two children, has
maintained his innocence. He is on paid administrative leave
pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings.

“It’s not for us to make this judgment,” Epstein said. “This was
shocking to us. There are allegations, and we have to wait and see
what the police and the courts determine.”

Janiece Gratch, principal of the Jewish day school, formerly
known as the Solomon Schechter Academy, declined to comment on how
the synagogue handled the matter.

“As the principal of the school… my job is to report anything
that’s even suspicious,” Gratch said. “That’s what I did. That’s
the law… I just did whatever I had to do to protect the children.”

Also, John “Cooper” Ames was accused of molesting two girls,
ages 8 and 9, while he was working as a minister and director of
the Wesley Foundation Campus Ministry at the University of Central
Oklahoma, 311 E Hurd. The ministry is sponsored by the Oklahoma
Conference of the United Methodist Church and North Oklahoma
District of the conference.

“Nobody can believe that happened… but we’re keeping an open
mind,” said Boyce Bowdon, communications director for Oklahoma’s
550 United Methodist churches.

“We’re just trying our best to be accountable and responsible.”

Ames had served for 11 years as a minister and director of the
Wesley Foundation Campus Ministry.

When molestation allegations are made, state Methodist leaders
try to support all involved parties, from the victims to the
accused, Bowdon said.

In mandatory annual training, the denomination teaches clergy
members how to avoid “not just evil, but even the appearance of
evil,” he said.

“Then, when a case does arise – like in this case with Cooper
Ames – we really don’t jump to conclusions. We don’t assume that
just because a person is clergy that they did not do something

“At the same time,” Bowdon said, “we don’t assume that just
because it’s been alleged that it’s grounded in fact.”