Experts: Allegations often untold in black churches

Boston Herald/May 15, 2007
By Jessica Heslam

Clergy abuse in black churches of all denominations is vastly underreported, experts said, with young victims too terrified to come forward for fear of being blamed and banned from their close-knit, family-oriented houses of worship.

Indeed, P. Edward Harrison’s accusation against the Rev. Lawrence Brown of Mount Calvary Baptist Church is believed to be the first reported case in Boston of purported clergy abuse involving an alleged victim who is black, according to Department of Social Services officials.

“It is much more widespread than any of us want to believe,” said David Clohessy, the national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “All sexual abuse is underreported. We believe clergy sex abuse more than most and clergy sex abuse in the minority communities is even less reported.”

Clohessy said minority abuse victims have even fewer resources, more distrust and greater vulnerability. “If you’re a young African-American kid brought up in a family or neighborhood that has a considerable fear and skepticism toward the police - you’re not apt to speak up,” Clohessy said.

Many don’t come forward for fear of the “practical” consequences and harm that can surface, said Clohessy, who cited one black sexual abuse victim in the Midwest whose family depended on the church’s food bank. “He thought, ‘If I disclose, my family, literally, will go hungry,”’ he said.

Clohessy, who spent two years working in minority communities and churches in Boston, said it’s much harder for minority victims to grasp that they will be believed and supported - and not blamed. “While it’s very tough for anyone to speak up, if you are African American or Hispanic or Vietnamese, ministers are often held in minority cultures in even higher esteem,” Clohessy said.

Phillip Aaron is a Seattle-based attorney who represents about 100 black victims allegedly abused by Catholic clergy. But Aaron estimates that less than 10 percent of sexual abuse victims in black, non-Catholic churches nationwide have gone to authorities.

“The tendency of the church community is to gather around the minister and to protect the minister, almost to the point of blindness,” Aaron said. “That comes out of this realization that the church is basically all we’ve got.”

Aaron said these churches are largely closed, protective communities, and victims are “just loath” to say anything for fear of being ostracized.

“The black church is about the only strong and lasting black institution that we have, and for that reason it’s revered by members of the church,” Aaron said.

Minnesota attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents a black victim in a case against a Baptist preacher, said black ministers exercise so much power and influence over parents and children it’s extremely difficult for victims to speak up.

“That’s the dynamic that’s at play,” Anderson said.

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