Pastors at First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California, told local authorities ten years ago that they suspected prominent church elder James Truxton, then 76, of molesting a child. A young woman said in a premarital counseling session that Truxton had molested her as a child. Other women came forward later with similar allegations.

Truxton, a member of the church since 1958, eventually confessed to committing the sexual acts. He wrote letters of regret to victims and church members, and set up a $30,000 trust fund to help pay the counseling costs of victims. The church, led at the time by Charles Swindoll, removed Truxton as an elder and revoked his membership.

That year Swindoll preached a strong sermon against church-related sexual abuse, "In Defense of the Helpless," which aired on his radio program, Insight for Living. But because the cases dated back more than six years, the state's statute of limitations applied, and the window for authorities to prosecute had closed.

Last summer, however, Insight for Living rebroadcast Swindoll's sermon. A woman listener called Fullerton police to find out what had happened to Truxton. After hearing he had never faced criminal charges, the woman, 29, told police that Truxton had molested her at his home from 1978 (when she was 7) to 1981.

In the interim, California law had changed. The statute of limitations no longer applied to new claims, and the police reopened the case, with the full cooperation of the Fullerton church.

Authorities filed charges in March that Truxton, now 86, had performed oral sex on a child. Now living in San Diego, Truxton faces a possible eight-year prison term if convicted. He was released from the Orange County jail after posting a $25,000 bond.

Prosecutor Randy Payne was surprised that an evangelical church had turned in one of its own. Payne, a deputy district attorney in Orange County, says the Fullerton church's willingness to investigate claims against Truxton and report the case to local police is not typical.

"It's unusual in the sense that when this came to light in 1992, they gathered enough information to take action against Truxton," Payne says. "I wouldn't have expected that 10 years ago. A lot of times, a church will go into [a] coverup. From our experience, people just don't want to believe this happens."

Heightened awareness

The clergy sexual abuse scandal generating headlines across the country is changing all that. Boston's Roman Catholic archdiocese is under heavy fire for covering up for homosexual priests who engaged in sexual relations with children.

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The archdiocese may have to pay as much as $100 million in settlements, according to some estimates. More than 200 people in the archdiocese are filing clergy sexual abuse claims this year. Dioceses in New York, Ohio, Florida, Maine, and Pennsylvania are also facing cases.

While no definitive figures exist, the frequency of reporting church-related sexual abuse has increased. A 1995 survey of 1,700 congregations by Church Law and Tax Report found that 0.8 percent reported allegations of molestation. By 1996, 2 percent did.

As in the case of the Fullerton church, the publication notes that church volunteers commit 50 percent of all incidents of sexual abuse. Paid staff commit 30 percent, and other children commit 20 percent.

In all, authorities suspect that Truxton may have abused as many as 25 girls, starting in the 1950s while he was with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). Truxton and pilot Betty Greene founded MAF in 1945 to provide air transportation to missionaries working in remote areas. Victims were girls between the ages of 7 and 13.

At least one similar charge had been made against Truxton while he worked at Redlands, California-based MAF, but the matter was handled privately. "It was dealt with as being inappropriate and unwise," says current MAF President Gary Bishop. "Leaders at the time felt that counseling was the appropriate response."

Swindoll's sermon was more direct. "It was very intense," says Dave Carder, assistant pastor of counseling ministries at the Fullerton church. "[Chuck] was very strong about practicing what you said you believed and living a pure life. Chuck's always been forthright."

Payne says that First Evangelical Free has set an important benchmark for other churches when handling molestation charges. "It could be painful in the beginning, but churches need to realize they must watch out for victims," he says.

Jim Henderson, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, says that churches should be aware of members who have a history of molestation charges.

"Churches could be havens for pedophiles structurally because they have little [in the way of] procedures," Carder says.

After handling the situation with Truxton, Carder says, his church enforced stricter screening requirements for all members and staff who work with children. Churches and religious groups should also understand that molestation is rarely a one-time event. "The church has got to be painfully aware that this [misconduct] is a pattern," he says.

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Legal fallout

Colorado Springs attorney Martin Nussbaum says there is no court precedent requiring churches to screen all potential employees for past sex assaults. But he says churches could be held accountable for negligent hiring if behavioral problems evident during the hiring process later result in sexual misconduct.

Nussbaum, cochairman of the Religious Institutions Group of the Gerber, Johnson, and Lyons law firm, says he fears the current controversy might invite constitutionally suspect government oversight of church hiring practices: "It encourages legislators to say, 'We've got to fix the church.'"

Nussbaum, who has represented religious institutions for 15 years, says there are more sexual abuse cases in government agencies and foster care homes than in churches. "I would disagree with someone who says there's a bigger problem in churches than in other institutions," he says.

Truxton has had no involvement with MAF since his retirement in 1985. Leaders removed him from prominent roles with the organization in the 1960s, when questionable cases from the 1950s came to light. Truxton mainly raised funds for MAF in his last two decades there.

While MAF's Bishop says that former leaders at his organization did not consider early claims of "exuberant hugging and kissing" by Truxton as acts of molestation, he adds that MAF would respond differently now. "Today, the ministry would have reported anything like that to the authorities," he says.

While the situation was difficult for the Fullerton church to handle, the congregation fully supports Payne and his current prosecution of Truxton, says Jenni Key, director of communications.

"Our concern is still for the victims," Key says. "I believe in a God of both justice and mercy. This seems to be a time of justice."

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:

Coverups Prompt Demands for ResignationNew evidence suggests Boston archbishop protected known pedophile priests.

Related news coverage includes:

Former church elder charged with sexual assault on girlThe Orange County Register (March 21, 2002)

Yahoo's full coverage area on clergy abuse offers links to news stories and opinion pieces from media around the world.

Both The Boston Globe and Boston Herald have special areas of their Web sites devoted to covering the clergy abuse scandals.

In March, a Christianity Today online exclusive looked at how the clergy sexual abuse scandal affects evangelical churches. Sin and secrecy aren't limited to Roman Catholics, say pastors and scholars.

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According to The Christian Science Monitor, at least 75 clergymen have been convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, criminal child-sexual-abuse charges since 1985.

The Linkup, a group for survivors of clergy abuse, keeps a close eye on "black collar crimes" around the country.

Christianity Today articles on church sexual abuse include:

A Preventable TragedyEvangelicals must not pretend to be immune to sexual sin by clergy or volunteers. (April 16, 2002)
Campaigner Says Churches Ignore Child AbusePresident of ECPAT accuses clergy and church workers of perpetrating child abuse.
Pain ReliefThe Christian & Missionary Alliance apologizes to adults abused as missionary kids in Africa. (July 12, 1999)
Church Nearly Closed After Lawsuit (July 13, 1998)
From Trauma to TruthOnce-abused children demand accountability. (Apr. 27, 1998)
Sexual Abuse in Churches Not Limited to Clergy (Oct. 6, 1997)
Molestation Damages Total $119 Million (Sept. 1, 1997)

Christianity Today sister publication Leadership Journal's "Safe at Church" recommendations provide important practical steps to minimize the risk of sexual misconduct and to keep children safe. Last summer, Leadership Journal published "Confronted with the ShamefulHow you should respond—legally and responsibly—when a staff member is accused of child molestation."

Mike Woodruff, a coauthor of the Leadership article, wrote a similar article for the journal Youthworker. "Youth workers are at greater risk for sexual improprieties than most," he wrote. He gives many very helpful tips for staying above reproach.

Richard Hammar and the Institute for Christian Leadership have several tools for teaching churches how to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse.

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