A Retired Prison Warden’s Reflections on Child Sexual Abuse:
Lessons Learned Managing a Large Sex Offender Treatment Program
Q: What Do Conservative Religions and Many Youth-Serving Organizations Have in Common?
A: They Permit, Are Blind To, or Even Support Child Sexual Abuse.
Part 1 of 3
Warden Biggie Biggins noticed a few things after observing many sex offender treatment group therapy sessions: The vast majority of male sex offenders who abused children were white; were members of conservative/fundamentalist/orthodox religions; or were active in youth service organizations and programs.
Although Warden Biggie Biggins had known child sexual abuse often happens within families, he hadn’t made the family-church connection beyond his former Roman Catholic faith until he heard sex offenders describe their lives. He also hadn’t coupled sex offending with religious orthodoxy, and with youth-service organizations, until he heard sex offenders describe the contexts of their crimes.
Warden Biggins knew there were many theories about what motivates sex offenders, but he never thought much about the organizational contexts that support child sex abuse.
Then came the headlines and documentaries: Roman Catholic Sex Abuse Scandals; Southern Baptist Sex Abuse Scandals; Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Sex Abuse Scandals; Amish Sex Abuse Scandals; Boy Scouts of America Sex Abuse Scandals; Junior ROTC.
And then the first telephone call:
“Biggie, this is John, Mark’s dad. Can we meet?”
Mark and Biggie’s son, Tom, were school friends and boy scouts. The two families were also members of the local Roman Catholic Church parish, which hosted the local Boy Scouts of America troop.
“Sure, come on over,” said Biggie.
John sat with Warden Biggie Biggins at Biggie’s patio table. Anita, Biggie’s wife brought glasses of cold beer and sat between John and Biggie. They watched a deer munch on windfall apples from the old apple tree at the end of a grassy path at the forest edge. A warm sun.
“Did you hear about Rick Sandell?” John said.
“The Boy Scout assistant troop leader?” Anita asked.
“Yep,” said John. “He’s been accused of sexually molesting some of the boys.”
“What!” blurted Anita. Rick? Really?”
“Has Tom said anything to you?” asked John.
“No, nothing,” said Biggie.
“Well,” said John, “Mark has told us Sandell assaulted him. Best I can get out is that Sandell groped him…other parents are saying Sandell had sex with their boys.”
Warden Biggins thought, ‘What do you say about such an admission?’ then said, “John, we’re so sorry. Is Mark okay?”
“I don’t know. He’s pretty upset. I don’t know what to think.”
“Motherfucker!” said Warden Biggie Biggins. “How’s Betty?”
“She’s pretty pissed…as you might expect. Nobody thinks this can happen to their kid.”
“What led up to Mark telling you?”
“He was moody,” said John, “not his normal self. He cried at the smallest thing. Didn’t seem to be interested in anything. So Betty and I confronted him and he broke down and told us.”
They were wrong. Confusion is not a dark tunnel. It is a bright light dragging things from the shadows. It is standing naked, stripped of prejudices and learned notions. It is a destruction of trust.
“No, no! It’s not true,” said Tom. “I love the boy scouts! How can this be true?”
Anita took the lead to tell their son Tom about the accusations against Rick Sandell. She was gentler than Biggie, more soothing, more quietly supportive and gently insistent.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “It is true. I wanted you to hear it from us before you heard it from others.” Anita hesitated a moment, hugging Tom, saying, “I have to ask. Did Sandell do anything to you?”
Tom insisted he was never bothered by Sandell, which didn’t surprise Warden Biggie Biggins. Tom, though only in the sixth grade, was already six foot two. A big kid. That, and Warden Biggins and Anita had always been open with Tom about sex and candid about Tom’s right to physical privacy. Tom was not sexually ignorant like so many kids.
Anita asked, “Did any other boys say anything about Rick molesting them?”
Tom said no.
Tom was shaken, he wept, he shook his head no, no.
Tom was growing up.
There would be no trial.
Rick Sandell plead guilty to multiple counts of Criminal Sexual Conduct and received a fifteen-year prison sentence.
After a while Warden Biggie Biggins only thought about Rick Sandell on some nights when sleep was allusive and personal demons held sway. How many times had he thought “If only more parents went on those Scout camping trips. If only I…if only…” How many times has he lamented the intrusion of other people on his life, those same people who define his life?