Victim recounts clergy abuse in Southington

The Herald, New Britain Connecticut/January 15, 2009

Southington - As a 17-year-old, Rebecca Maxfield was sure of three things: the love of her family, of God and of the security she felt as part of her church. By her 18th birthday the betrayal by one would leave her alone, confused and questioning many of the core beliefs that sustained her.

Maxfield, a victim of sexual abuse by a clergyman she trusted, would have her religious convictions and ability to trust others shattered.

"I don't consider myself religious anymore," Maxfield says. "But my faith is strong. It's what got me through the physical and emotional abuse."

Now 27 years old with bachelor's degrees in ministry and psychology, Maxfield is working on a master's degree in marriage and family therapy and hopes to help others faced with abuse.

A member, along with her parents and five siblings, of the town's Central Baptist Church, she also attended the church-owned Central Christian Academy. Founded in 1975 by the Rev. Jim Townsley, the church is an independent Baptist congregation with about 200 members. The school, also started by Townsley, opened in 1984.

In 1996, a young man drove north from Tennessee with his wife, Sarah, and 8-month-old son, for a job interview. James J. McCoy, who would soon become known as Pastor Joe, would return to Connecticut to become the church's volunteer basketball coach and youth group pastor.

An ingratiating and charming man, McCoy soon became close friends with the Maxfield family, often stopping by to visit, or inviting the Maxfield girls to his apartment before school.

"He seemed like a nice person," Maxfield says. "And since he was with the church, everyone trusted and liked him."

But there was another side to McCoy, a side kept hidden from others, a side the 17-year-old senior would come to fear.

Shedding light on abuse

According to statistics kept by the U.S. Department of Justice, there are an estimated 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the United States. Counter to what many people believe, only 10 percent are abused by strangers. Of the remaining incidents, 40 percent of victims are abused by a family member and 50 percent are abused by someone outside of the family they know and trust - such as a clergy member.

Barbara Blaine is president and founder of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the nation's oldest and largest organization for victims of clergy sexual abuse.

"After being hidden for so long, the problem of sexual abuse by someone in the clergy is only beginning to open up," Blaine says. "But the same structure that allows religious people to get away with these actions is still in place."

A victim of repeated sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest, Blaine went on to become a social worker, attorney and an advocate for children's rights.

"A person in a position of authority over a child has so much power that the child is in no position to challenge them," she says.

The statistics show that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. In all, nearly 70 percent of all reported sexual assaults occur to children under 17.

Grooming the victim

For Maxfield, it started with what many considered an innocent instance of tickling by McCoy, a note left in a school locker or a whispered exchange that left her confused.

"I didn't really know what to make of the attention," she says. "Pastor Joe was friendly to everyone, but he spent more time talking and joking with me."

According to social workers who deal with the problem, the attention, or grooming, of the intended victim is used to establish an emotional connection with the child.

Among the methods used during grooming are when an adult takes an undue interest, showing pornography, invading the child's privacy and talking about sexual topics with the child.

"He would comment on how nice I looked, wink at me and look at me with his eyes in a flirtatious manner," Maxfield remembers. "It went on for weeks."

From there the grooming continued with the occasional hug or friendly kiss and progressed to brushing against her or groping.

"The things Pastor Joe was doing to me and the way he was acting were starting to bother me," she says. "I wasn't sure if I should tell somebody, or if I did say anything, would they blame me and say I made him do these things."

By December 1998, the abuse had escalated physically, emotionally and sexually. The only difference being that after every sex act, McCoy began to apologize to her and ask for forgiveness.

"He asked me for forgiveness at least five to eight times," Maxfield said.

Alone in a public place

For many victims of child abuse, a horrible part of the experience is the feeling of isolation and guilt.

Licensed clinical social worker Teresa Works, of Community Mental Health Affiliates of New Britain, says the manipulation and isolation is part of the abuser's plan.

"The victim is made to feel special, then made to be a part of the abuse," Works says. "When it concerns a member of the clergy, it becomes even harder because of the respect for that person and the institution. The fear of not being believed or of retaliation against them or their family increases the isolation of the victim."

Breaking the bond

As her senior year progressed, Maxfield found herself relying on the knowledge she would soon go to college, where McCoy could no longer hurt her. She had been accepted at The Crown College, a small Bible school affiliated with the Baptist Church, where she planned to study to be a missionary.

"I pretty much thought my life was set," Maxfield says. "Instead, my life was completely and horribly interrupted."

In December 2000, she returned home for a visit. McCoy didn't waste any time. He showed up at her house and, when they were alone, began to rub her leg.

"I didn't come out here for you to touch me," Maxfield told him. "I didn't come here to do anything with you."

Confronted with her newfound strength, McCoy left the house.

In May, the head of Central Baptist Church, Senior Pastor Jim Townsley, visited The Crown College for his son's graduation. As her pastor, and most trusted religious leader, Maxfield decided to break her silence.

The nightmare continues

What should have been a vindication of all she had gone through turned out to be only further damaging to her psyche and beliefs.

Like many victims of the clergy, Maxfield found herself suspected of having done something wrong. When Townsley returned to Connecticut, he questioned McCoy on May 16, and McCoy admitted to inappropriate behavior but denied having done anything more than kissing and fondling. According to a police statement given by Townsley, McCoy suggested that the fault was with Maxfield.

"He related a particular incident to me that caused him to think, and led him to believe, that Rebecca had feelings towards him," Townsley told police.

McCoy was terminated, but on May 20 he was allowed to read a letter of resignation before about 200 people at the church. He admitted having a relationship with a young female church member and, as he had with Maxfield, apologized and asked for forgiveness.

As it became apparent Maxfield was involved, one church member accused her of lying and a family reportedly left the church because she was not reprimanded enough.

Townsley told police that the church membership attempted to deal with the problem in a Biblical and caring but firm procedure. He also had meetings with Maxfield's parents to try to ensure there were no further incidents.

"We the church tried to recover from the incident," he told police, but whether he gave the same attention to the victim was not made clear.

Is there an end?

"It hurt to be betrayed," Maxfield says during a meeting at her attorney's office in Hartford. "Then the feeling of betrayal by the church hurt, too."

The feeling of being ostracized by her community is not uncommon, experts say.

"It becomes a type of secondary trauma," says Works, who counsels many victims. "In congregations, where trust is essential, people often just want the problem, or anyone who reminds them of it, to go away."

And go away it almost did. Although Connecticut statutes mandate that most school authorities or member of the clergy report any information on child abuse to Connecticut's Department of Children, Families and Learning, no report was made by the officials of Central Baptist Church, the school or Townsley.

The abuse may have remained secret but for an anonymous call made to Southington Police Detective Louis Palmieri and his ensuing investigation. In November 2002, Palmieri found McCoy living in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Based on the evidence, an arrest warrant was obtained and McCoy went on trial for sexual assault.

On Sept. 1, 2005, after nearly seven years, McCoy was convicted on two counts of fourth-degree sexual assault. He was sentenced to two years in jail, suspended after 60 days with probation for three years.

He could not be found for comment.

Scott Matney, an attorney for the church, issued a statement Jan. 15 saying it "complied with all of its legal and moral obligations in this matter ... Any claim of wrongdoing by the church in this matter is entirely unfounded."

In December, attorney John Clifford of Gerston, Clifford & Rome, settled Maxfield's case with the church's insurance company for for an undisclosed sum.

The journey back

Today, Maxfield, a graduate student at Central Connecticut State University, continues to put her life back together.

Therapy has helped, and to the casual observer she comes across as a person of confidence, ability and intelligence.

But beneath that, a young woman whose faith and trust were shaken continues to hurt.

"I still have nightmares," she says. "I'll never be able to forget what happened to me and how I was treated."

Maxfield is still an intensely spiritual woman, but is hesitant to call herself religious.

"Religious is a word I don't use anymore," she says. "My faith is between me and God, not a church or community of people who judge."

Most of all, Maxfield wants to get out the message to other people being abused that there is help and people who care. As she sits with her attorney in the safety of his office, she reaches down to pull a small Bible from her purse. She turns to a favorite verse - Hebrews, Chapter 13, verses 15-16 - and reads.

"Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased."

"He was with me through it all," she says, closing the book. "None of us are really ever alone, and my relationship with him is stronger for it."

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