PC(USA) Members Discuss Clergy Sex Abuse, Consider Child Abuse Safeguards

“How will the church respond to others who have experienced this abuse? We can't erase what happened to us, but this is our gift to other children.”
( [email protected] ) Jun 29, 2004 10:26 PM EDT

In recent years, the Catholic Church has floundered to rebound from its massive clergy sex-abuse scandal that cost the church millions of dollars and priceless trust from parishioners nationwide. Sadly, upon further investigation, Christians found the same traits of abuse in nearly all the other protestant denominations in the U.S. Included in this list is the Presbyterian Church USA - the largest presbyterian group in the States and the ninth largest denomination in North America.

Last week, the General Assembly Committee of the Presbyterian Church (USA) released a formal letter of apology to such victims of sexual abuse in their church. The letter was addressed specifically to the victims of one minister, F.S. Dick Wichman, who worked at the ministry to Chinese residents in San Francisco’s Cameron House from 1947-77.

According to Pat Hendrix, a sexual-molestation counselor employed by the Worldwide Ministry Division, there were at least 18 counts of abuse during Wichman’s service.

“Wichman sexually abused at least 18 children during his long tenure as executive director of Cameron House,” Hendrix wrote in his final report.

Last week’s letter, much of which was penned by Hendrix himself, expressed a deep sorrow for the happenings of the past, and gratitude “for the voices that have broken the bonds of silence that immobilized us in the past …"

"At baptism, the Church promises to guide and nurture God's children in both word and deed. Through the terrible abuse perpetrated by Dick Wichman, we have failed in this promise. We pray for God's mercy on the church and ask the forgiveness of those who suffered."

"We feel great sorrow particularly because it was the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America's Board of National Missions, a General Assembly Agency, that brought F.S. Dick Wichman to Cameron House,” the letter continued. “We, as the successor to the ministry to the Board, charged Wichman with 'a ministry dedicated to the extension of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all of its fullness and His service in all of its implications.' In return, we promised '… to do our utmost to sustain (him) in this ministry...'"

"The stories, repeated again and again, from many sources, clearly tell the story of Wichman's abuse at Cameron House. Repeatedly, trust was broken with participants in Cameron House programs, and with Cameron House supporters. Reading the stories now, we are overwhelmed with remorse for what happened to God's children, entrusted to Wichman's care. We express our humble apology for the abuse that continued there for years."

The letter was revisited on Monday, June 28, 2004, at the PC(USA)’s General Assembly in Richmond, VA. The Assembly also recounted the case in the central Congo of Africa, where a PCUS missionary, the Rev. William Pruitt, molested dozens of young girls that were under his tutelage.

Pamela P. Pritchard, one of the survivors of Pruitt’s chronic attacks, gave an account of her childhood experience, as one filled with confusion and shame.

“The impact of clergy sexual abuse is doubly difficult,” Pritchard says. “A child often thinks a clergy member is God, not a representative of God. Therefore, it is hard to discern why God is doing this terrible thing.”

Pritchard then encouraged Assembly members to pass the 11 recommended changes to the denomination’s Book of Order, which call for the enactment of child sex-abuse safeguards.

“How will the church respond to others who have experienced this abuse?” asked Pritchard. “We can't erase what happened to us, but this is our gift to other children.”

The members will vote on the 11 resolutions throughout the rest of the General Assembly, which is set to last through July 3, 2004.