Last week, a Lowndes County jury found Columbus businessman Benny Shelton guilty of sexual assault of a minor. The details of the case are — quite naturally — disturbing. And so was the conduct of Junior Eads, pastor of Eastview Baptist Church.
The crime happened during the church’s summer retreat. A few hours after the early-morning assault, the victim told Eads what had happened, identifying Shelton as his molester. Shelton, a Sunday School teacher and camp volunteer, wasn’t approached by Eads until the following afternoon when Eads told Shelton to talk to the victim’s family about the “rumors” the boy was spreading about Shelton.
This event happened in 2008, more than three years before the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal that rocked the university and forever sullied the reputation of its revered football coach, Joe Paterno. Paterno was told that Sandusky had had assaulted a boy in the showers on the Penn State campus. It took 10 more years before law enforcement was able to put an end to Sandusky’s campaign of sexual terror. It was clear that Paterno’s actions, along with those of the school’s athletic director and president, should have been more forceful when that first allegation was made. Their timid response permitted Sandusky to victimize many more children over a 10-year period.
The Sandusky tragedy has certainly raised awareness of the responsibility that authority figures have in such cases. One can only wonder if Eads’ reaction to the victim’s story might have been different if the incident had happened after the Sandusky tragedy had unfolded.
The lesson of the Sandusky case and the Shelton case are the same: When a child approaches an adult with allegations that he/she has been sexually assaulted, the adult must report it to law enforcement officials. In the wake of such scandals, the idea that organizations need policies, plans and protocols always emerge. But there is only one policy necessary: When a child makes an allegation of sexual abuse, inform law enforcement immediately.
What is decidedly not wise policy is to weigh the evidence or make a judgment about the truth of the allegation. A state law that requires clergy to report allegations of sexual assault is on the books, but there is some ambiguity as to whether it applies to the Shelton case.
It seems likely, based on the undisputed testimony in the trial, that Eads did not believe the story the child told. A jury weighed the evidence and reached a far different conclusion, based on a thorough examination of the evidence.
We do not know the full implications of Eads’ inaction. But we do know that a youth was twice victimized, first by Shelton and second by an authority figure he trusted.
The victim trusted his pastor. That trust was misplaced, it turned out.
It should never have happened.
It should never happen again.