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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

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?

Part-2

At 5:15 p.m., his desk almost cleared for the day, Warden Biggie Biggins picked up the incoming alphabetical prisoner transfer list and scanned down stopping at ‘Richard Sandell.’ Warden Biggie Biggins phoned the West Shoreline Correctional Facility and asked the shift commander to bring Sandell’s prison file across the street to the warden’s office at the Brooks Correctional Facility. Warden Biggins ran both prisons.

“You wanted this file?” said Shift Commander Linda Talmage. A legitimate question since Biggie Biggins was not in the habit of having prisoner files delivered by shift commanders.

“Yes. Please sit,” said Warden Biggins motioning to an empty chair. “Give me a minute.”

Warden Biggins read the first couple of file pages, placed the file on his desk, and said, “Repack prisoner Sandell’s property, make sure he’s in state transfer blues, and park his ass outside the Control Center. I’m arranging an immediate transfer.”

“What’s up?” asked Linda Talmage.

Warden Biggins told the shift commander who Sandell was and how he, the warden, was associated with Sandell’s case.

“I don’t want him in any of my prisons. He’s got to go. If anything happens to him, he can blame me for retaliation. I’ll arrange the transfer myself. If anyone questions the transfer, have them call me.”

Warden Biggie Biggins then called Central Office, explained the situation, and got the transfer approved, though it didn’t matter one way or another what Central office said. The son-of-a-bitch was leaving. He then told Linda Talmage to have the transfer order cut and “get Sandell the hell out of here.”

“One more thing,” said Warden Biggie Biggins. “Please have a complete copy of Sandell’s file made and hand-delivered to me.”

About a year had passed since the Sandell news broke. Warden Biggins thought about John’s family moving out of state; about the therapy some families underwent if they could afford it; about the one family’s divorce; about shattered trust in previously venerable institutions such as BSA, and the Catholic Church.

The warden had a dozen ways to make Sandell’s life miserable: constant cell searches; lost personal property; cancelled visits; lousy work assignments; oh, there were ways alright. For the first time Warden Biggie Biggins felt victim anger. The need to strike. The sweet shudder of revenge.

Easy Biggie, easy.

First, get rid of the motherfucker. Then do what you always do: Put the whole thing at an academic arm’s length; find out all you can about these organizations that allow… indeed cause — -this shit to happen. Use what you learn to inform people, and shame and cripple these organizations. Every opportunity. Year after year. There’s no forgetting.

§§§

Every prisoner file contains a PSI, an extensive pre-sentence investigation that describes the instant crime using reports from police, witnesses, victims, and an interview with the offender. As far as the justice system in Michigan is concerned, if it’s not in the PSI, it didn’t happen. The PSI is bible.

Sandell maneuvered to isolate his victims. He arranged to be alone with his targets when driving them to and from BSA activities. He targeted single-mother families relieved to have another adult give them a respite from child care.

Sandell lived in the community all his life, graduated from its high school, attended its only Catholic church. He was an Eagle Scout, honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy where he was a corpsman, the equivalent of an Army medic. He was single and living a quiet unassuming church-centered life with his parents in a bland middle-class, overwhelmingly white church-centered community. He was in his mid-twenties and attended local university classes off and on. There was nothing in his history that a vetting process would red-flag.

On camping trips Sandell would have victims visit the Scout Master’s sleeping quarters, sometimes as a “reward” for achieving merit badges, other times to assist a boy in searching his body for ticks, or to administer “first-aid.” Sandell held and dispensed any medication boys had to take while on BSA trips, thus establishing himself as a helping friend, and responsible medical authority to “examine” and touch boys’ bodies.

Sandell worked slowly, methodically identifying vulnerable targets, building friendship trust, developing time and space in which to isolate victims. He gave his favorite victims little BSA related gifts such bandannas and insignia.

But Sandell did not do these things in isolation, he was not some lone trenchcoated creep flashing outside an elementary school. He committed his crimes within an organizational context.

Warden Biggie Biggins asked himself: “What organizational culture best permits, is blind to, or even supports, child sexual abuse?”

Part 3

Warden Biggins continued attending sex offender group therapy meetings and talking to sex offender staff therapists, but his focus was not on sex offender pathologies. He no longer cared about why a sex offender offended; he now cared about the how, when, and where. When a sex offender spoke of abusing children (which was often, since 80% of the sex offenders in the warden’s prison were convicted of child sexual abuses), Warden Biggie Biggins would press them for how, when, and where. By excluding sex offenders operating within families, and concentrated on offenders operating within an organizational context, Warden Biggie Biggins slowly constructing an image of the ideal sex offender enabling organization.

“I wanted to be important, I wanted to be a man,” said Todd, repeating a sex offender refrain. “When I became a boy scout leader my church and scouting gave me acceptance and encouragement. I was teaching boys how to be men.”

Todd exemplified the BSA worldview that men are manly; they embrace the virtues of self-sacrifice, fortitude, bravery, integrity, and skillfulness. They support and sustain the patriarchy where men are decision-making leaders that hold high positions, and women are selfless servants who maintain the lower positions. The same patriarchal structure seen in conservative religions such as Catholic, Baptist, Amish faiths, and youth-serving organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America. Warden Biggie Biggins identified patriarchy as the first characteristic of a sex Offender enabling organization.

John, another sex offender, said he occasionally had to weaponize “manliness” to keep a victim quiet, threatening to accuse the victim of being gay, knowing that such an accusation coming from a scout leader would wreck the kid’s scouting life. After all, “who do you think they believed,” John said.

Multiple sex offenders admitted to targeting single mothers, which was a function of the lack of support mothers get from patriarchal organizations, and the opportunities these organizations give predators to avoid detection.

“I knew single mothers welcomed the help with childcare. I got friendly with the kid, but the key was making the mother comfortable with me spending time with their kid,” said Dave. “I became a father replacement, a big brother, a guy who the kid knew his mom liked and trusted. That way the kid was less likely to rat on me ’cause he didn’t want to upset his mom.”

Bill said, “I would angle to drive a kid to a function. My goal was to be alone with him, nobody else in the car. Church camps really gave me plenty of opportunity to isolate my victims. Long walks, visits to the counselor’s cabin, running errands…that sort of thing lessen chances of being caught.”

Warden Biggins identified opportunities for abuse as the second characteristic of sex abuse supporting organization.

Todd said, “Rarely would there be parents around to monitor going on, and never were women involved as parental chaperons. Parents were hesitant to give the impression they didn’t trust a scout leader, a deacon, a minister. I played on that. Nobody outside checked on those kids.”

Lack of external constrains was Warden Biggie Biggins third characteristic of sex abuse supporting organizations.

Mike, another sex offender, said, “It was easy to get a kid used to your touching him. Showing him how to swim, to throw a ball, to swing a bat, all involve some physical touch. I would start with incidental contact like an arm around a shoulder, then go on to heavier stuff like brushing against a kid’s behind, or holding him under the belly and upper legs when teaching swimming. Most parents consider touching to be a sign of friendship. Hell, they encouraged it!”

Mike went on: “I tried to gauge how much a kid new about sex. Most kids have no sex education, we were never allowed to talk about it in my church.”

“Same thing with scouts,” said Tod. “You want to hit on a boy who knows little or nothing about sex. When you touch him, he might get confused and wonder what he did to cause it. I turned out to be a sex education teacher, convincing boys that what we were doing was okay.”

Warden Biggins identified Lack of Sex Education as the fourth sex abusing organization feature.

§§§

Warden Biggie Biggins shared his notes with Terry Hudson, the psychologist who ran the day-to-day operations of the sex offender treatment program.

“Do you think these characteristics are valid?” asked the warden.

Terry said, “They seem to be to. At least they’re a good start at defining a sex offending organizational culture. There is a problem though. Of the three characteristics, I see the last two as the only ones most organizations are willing to change. The other thing is I don’t see any acknowledgement of lack of a vetting process to identify sex offenders being included.”

“I didn’t include anything on vetting because many of the sex offenders I spoke with had no priors…a vetting process wouldn’t have come up with anything,” said Warden Biggie Biggins. Another reason I excluded it is some organizations involved in scandel had vetting processes but didn’t use them.”

“I agree that opportunities for abuse, lack of external constrains, and lack of sex education are the only characteristics that can be changed. But they have the same problem as vetting. An organization can have all the policies in the world against sexual abuse, and all the procedures to investigate identify, and eliminate abuse, but if they aren’t followed and enforced, they’re worthless.”

Terry said, “It is kinda ridiculous to say your church needs a policy against sex abuse. I mean what kind of religion needs such a policy? Doesn’t your religion already tell you sex abuse is wrong? Isn’t this in some way already communicated through the church? Isn’t this an indictment of particular religions?”

“It’s an indictment of patriarchy,” said Warden Biggie Biggins, “which is so imbedded in an organization’s culture that to change it would be to destroy the organization as it is known. I read a book by Emily Joy Allison, entitled #ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing, where she said: “They (Southern Baptists) need to undergo a transformation so radical they would be unrecognizable at the end. And that will not happen. You have to ask yourself: What would the Catholic Church, the Amish and Mennonites, Southern Baptists, or any other conservative denomination, look like if it replaced its patriarchal structure with one that gave woman a great deal more power? Or the BSA, if they had predominantly women in leadership positions?”

“So, what are these groups to do?” asked Terry. “I mean, if they aren’t going to address the patriarchy issue in any serious way.”

“The only thing left for them is to adopt policies and procedures, form complaint review boards, conduct background checks, those sorts of things. The problem is all those actions depend on people to implement them, and that means these “reforms” are at the mercy of the same patriarchal organizational structures that are the problem. That, and over time people forget why the changes were made and go back to old habits. Frankley, I see no way for these abuse sustaining organizations to maintain any reforms that do not address patriarchy.”

“On another note,” said Terry, “I understand the BSA is now accepting girls.”

“Yep,” said Warden Biggie Biggins, “They did such a great job with our sons, why not let them have a crack at our daughters too.”

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