September 1, 2012 7:50:03 PM
In the days and months following the Penn State sex abuse scandal, people across the country seemed to be asking the same question: "How can something like this go unreported for so long?" Jerry Sandusky was allowed unfettered access to his young victims while reports of the abuse were quickly and quietly silenced, never reaching authorities.
In the state of Mississippi, there are laws that hold those in a position of authority or trust to a higher standard, requiring they report any suspected abuse to the Department of Human Services.
Section 43-21-353 of the Mississippi Code states: "Any attorney, physician, dentist, intern, resident, nurse, psychologist, social worker, child care-giver, minister, law enforcement officer, public or private school employee, or any other person having reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a neglected child or an abused child, shall cause an oral report to be made immediately by telephone or otherwise and followed as soon thereafter as possible by a report in writing to the Department of Human Services."
During the recent trial of local businessman and Sunday school teacher Benny Shelton, a pastor testified that he was aware of the allegation of sexual abuse. Eastview Baptist Church Pastor Junior Eads told both prosecutors and defense attorneys that he had a conversation with Shelton's young victim during which the boy stated that Shelton had fondled him.
Eads testified that he did not believe the teen and approached Shelton, telling the Sunday school teacher the boy was making "allegations" against Shelton. He then instructed Shelton to talk to the boy's parents. The pastor did not contact DHS, law enforcement or the boy's mother. Shelton continued to have a relationship with his victim for months after the boy first spoke with Eads.
A jury found Shelton guilty of sexual assault against a minor on Aug. 23. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison with five suspended.
Charges have not been filed against Junior Eads, however.
Lowndes County Sheriff's Department Detective Tony Cooper said he does not plan to pursue charges against Eads.
"I do not believe he was in violation of the law,'' said Cooper, who declined to elaborate.
As clearly outlined in Mississippi law, if a person in a position of trust fails to report any form of abuse of a child, sexual or otherwise, it is a crime. However, to the chagrin of District Attorney Forrest Allgood, it is a misdemeanor, not a felony.
Allgood encouraged citizens to contact their legislators to increase the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.
"Until the legislature makes that choice, it will remain a misdemeanor. It's a legislative decision. If people want the law changed, they need to call their legislator."
In the state of Mississippi, the charge generally matches the crime. For example, conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor is a misdemeanor. Conspiracy to commit a felony is a felony. Furthermore, certain cases of child neglect are a misdemeanor. Failure to report child neglect is also a misdemeanor.
However, in the case of sexual assault, that is not the case. Sexual assault against a minor is a felony, yet failure to report sexual assault against a minor is a misdemeanor.
Senator Terry Brown (R-Columbus) said changing failure to report sexual assault from a misdemeanor to a felony would be a matter for the state's judicial committee.
"The prosecutor should file some bills and get it before the legislature and judicial committee," Brown said. "They'll plead their case and we'll hear both sides."
While the senator could not say if he would support making failure to reports sexual assault a felony, he did say he was disturbed by the case.
"I don't want them (ministers) covering up anything," Brown said.
In light of the Shelton trial, where Shelton was allowed to continue to teach Sunday school for years after he was accused of abuse, local churches are tightening their rules and regulation on volunteers.
First Baptist Church Pastor Shawn Parker said his church is looking into requiring background checks on all their volunteers. Parker added that to be a volunteer, you must be a member of the church for at least a year. He also said that in any program dealing with children, an adult is never alone with a child.
"We know (our volunteers) and we trust them, but you can't take any chances,'' Parker said. "You can't take a risk at all."
Parker said if faced with a similar situation, he has a clear idea of the procedures he would follow.
"If it should happen, I would take that very seriously and would immediately speak with the child's parents and obviously take the necessary steps from that point,'' he said. "We would also want to handle the situation holistically. We wouldn't want to jump to a conclusion without talking to the parents."
Parker said any allegation deserves careful handling.
"If that statement is made, it has to be taken seriously," he said.
Breck Ladd, pastor at Fairview Baptist Church, said not only are all of his volunteers required to have a background check, the church takes extra precautions to ensure the safety of the children. Ladd said every door to every classroom has a glass window and there are people constantly stationed in the hallways to monitor activity. They also have a security team that performs routine checks.
Like Parker, Ladd stated that no adult is allowed to be alone with a child.
Additionally, Ladd said the church is looking into installing cameras around the exterior of the expansive building.
"We want to provide a safe, loving environment to ensure kids are safe here,'' Ladd said. "I'm a dad. I want my kids to be safe here. There are predators out there and Fairview is taking steps and precautions to ensure those predators don't come here. And, Lord forbid, if they do, we will do everything possible to see they are brought to justice."
Community organizations like the Boy Scouts not only perform extensive background checks on their leaders, they educate both the boys and parents on how to protect themselves from sexual abuse. In both the Cub Scout and Boy Scout handbooks, there are leaflets specifically designed to educate parents and children on the definitions and warning signs of abuse.
The Cub Scout handbook states children may show few, if any, outward signs of sexual abuse, although most abused children demonstrate signs of stress.
"For many children, stress causes unexplained behavioral changes such as unhappiness, bed-wetting, clinging behavior, acting out or aggressive behavior, crying for no apparent reason, inability to concentrate, changes in school performance, self-inflicted harm and symptoms of illness,'' the manual states.
If a child suddenly refuses to go to a friend's or relative's home for no apparent reason, that can be a warning sign. Another sign of sexual abuse is a child acting out adult sexual behavior or sexually explicit language that a child of that age would be unlikely to know.
"Any good faith suspicion of abuse is immediately reported to law enforcement and the accused removed from scouting," said Jeremy Whitmore, the director of the Columbus chapter of the Boy Scouts of America.
As with any suspected abuse, reporting is critical step. Many who support Eads have argued that since he did not believe the boy, he did not have to report it.
During closing arguments, Shelton's defense attorney, Rod Ray, told the jury that all too often if a man is accused of sexual assault against a boy, he is automatically assumed guilty, regardless of the facts.
However, a study released by the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati found that child sex abuse allegations should be taken seriously and found children's testimonials more reliable than physical exams in the case of sexual abuse.
According to the report, researchers reviewed the records of 31 pedophiles who confessed between 1994 and 1999. They confessed to a total of 101 acts of sexual abuse, some of which were committed multiple times. The perpetrators abused 47 children. The 45 victims who were old enough to provide a history described 111 acts of sexual abuse.
"Physical exams are an unreliable indicator of sexual abuse," said Dr. Robert Shapiro, who led the study. "We're not saying that children never make things up, but the responsible action is to listen carefully to allegations of abuse so that the abused children will be identified and the false allegations recognized."
In the case of Junior Eads, he testified that he did not contact law enforcement because he did not believe the boy. The jury disagreed and found Shelton guilty of sexual assault against a minor.
City Prosecutor Shane Tompkins said he would prosecute those who fail to report sexual assault to the fullest extent to the law.
"If the evidence presented to me by law enforcement or a private affidavit warranted prosecution, I would prosecute it to the fullest."
Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.
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