A Little Case of Child Molestation

His name was Rusty Pettis, he was the associate pastor at the United Methodist Church where my father was pastor, and he sexually molested me.

I don’t feel scarred by the experience; there are no lasting effects so far as I can see. Sure, I’m not fond of pedophiles, but as a subset of the sex offender population I think they’re pretty unpopular generally, so I feel my revulsion is not unusual or unduly harsh, not skewed or swayed by personal experience.

Here’s what happened.

I was maybe nine or ten years old. There was a Christian summer camp called Wanakee in Meredith New Hampshire, and for younger kids like myself we’d go on a kind of trial weekend before we’d commit to a full week, just to kind of feel the place out. So to speak. See if it was the kind of place for us.

(Don’t think I’m being glib about this – it is a deadly serious subject – but being molested at a summer camp called Wanakee by a man named Rusty Pettis strikes me as ridiculous. I mean the man was called Rusty Pettis. Really. The only way this guy could have been more suspect was if he had been named something like Dick Liccum or Fealum Young.)

So I go to this camp for the weekend, accompanied by the trusted and presumably much-beloved and respected associate pastor of my father’s church, one Rusty Pettis. After dinner on the first night I’m not feeling particularly well, and I decide to go up to my room early. I take off all but my tighty whitie underwear and climb into bed, feeling tummy-achy and probably a touch homesick.

A few minutes later Rusty Pettis comes into my room, sits on the edge of my bed, and asks how I’m feeling. I’m reassured by his familiar and (kind of) fatherly presence. He begins to give me a back massage. If alarms bells are going off for you right now, they weren’t going off for me then. My father routinely gave me a back rub when I was feeling ill or couldn’t sleep, often staying with me for long periods until I fell asleep. My dad gave great back rubs. So it was a comfortable and comforting thing to have Rusty do the same.

Until his hands went south. Rusty started, rather insistently, massaging my buttocks. Dad didn’t massage my bum, and now I’m feeling weird. He’s, well, I can’t describe it any other way, digging. His hand touches my scrotum, then my penis, and he says, rather huskily, “Turn over.”

“Uh, uh,” I demur.

“Come on,” Rusty says. He’s got a fever grip on my tiny dick, and he’s trying, physically, to flip me onto my back. I work very hard to stay on my stomach, and, to the best of my memory, am just repeating, “No, no, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

Finally Rusty Pettis decides there’s nothing doing here, and he leaves my room, leaves me alone. And that’s the end of it, right?

Not quite. A few months later I’m skateboarding down the hallways of my father’s church. That’s right, skateboarding in the church. Believe me, it’s not the most sacrilegious thing that’s ever happened within the walls of a religious institution. Anyway, as I pass Rusty Pettis’ office he calls me in. I enter, reluctantly, and he immediately positions himself between me and the door. I’m uncomfortable but torn. Here’s an adult, a man in a position of relative power and prestige. I’m a little kid who’s been taught to be respectful to adults. But I know I want out of there, and now. I make my excuses and head for the door. He “playfully” grabs me around the waist and says he wants to wrestle. I’d wrestle with my brothers, I’d wrestle with my father, but there’s no way I’m wrestling with Rusty Pettis.

So, being a wiry and agile boy and amidst a flurry of assgrabbing and groping, I slip from his grasp, grab my skateboard, and flee.

Looking back, you’d think that I would have skateboarded directly to my father’s office and told him everything. (In retrospect I’m rather glad I didn’t – my father was a big man with a short temper, and I hate to think what he might have done to Rusty Pettis.) But I didn’t tell anyone about either encounter, not at that moment or any time in the ensuing years. Until.

Fast forward a few years and Rusty Pettis had become pastor of his own church, somewhere in northern New Hampshire. Apparently, he’d arranged a Youth Group sleepover at his house. You know what’s coming. Yes, good ol’ Rusty tried out his moves on someone who did report him to an adult, and Rusty Pettis was forced to leave the church in disgrace. My dad told me about the incident, and I finally recounted my own adventures in molestation with Rusty Pettis. I think he was shocked and dismayed, but nothing much came of it and that was the last time I heard anything about RP. And I mean anything. He disappeared.

A Google search revealed that he disappeared to ultimately become pastor at First Baptist Church in Laramie, Wyoming in June of 2001. Which brings me to my first point.

Why in the world was this man, after being caught sexually abusing children, allowed to become pastor of another church? A church where, according to their website, he “worked well with children.”  That’s actually an easy question to answer. It’s because the New Hampshire United Methodist Church hushed the scandal up, didn’t report the accusations of sexual assault to the police, and essentially brushed the whole thing under the carpet. This seems to be something that religious organizations routinely do (see for reference pretty much the entire history of the Roman Catholic Church). I can find no reference to Rusty Pettis on any Methodist Church website. He’s been expunged from their databases, and as far as they’re concerned he never existed.

I believe that people can change, and I have no doubt the Rusty Pettis has done a lot of positive work in the communities he has served. But the man has, or at least had, a serious problem that could have tremendous deleterious effects on the lives of his victims. The fact is, he should never have been allowed to be within sniffing distance of another pastoral position. Yet he was, because the church authorities in New Hampshire were afraid of scandal.

We’ve seen this in the Church of England, the Catholic Church, and others. And while the innumerable scandals and subsequent cover-ups have forced these churches to take action, it would seem that not enough is being done. Pope Francis announced in 2013 the creation of a committee to fight sexual abuse in the church, but according to Marie Collins, an abuse survivor who was appointed by Francis to the committee, progress has been extremely limited. In fact, Collins resigned from the committee in disgust this year, saying that “it is devastating in 2017 to see that these men still can put other concerns before the safety of children and vulnerable adults.” Abuse continues, as do the cover-ups. Churches of all denominations need to do much, much better.

The other feature of this story that interests me is the fact that I never went to an adult to report the abuse. The fact is that most child sexual abuse goes unreported – a recent study in the UK revealed that 50,000 cases of sexual abuse had been reported over a two-year period, while the actual number of abuse cases was estimated to be between 400,000 and 450,000. In other words, only one in eight cases are identified to or by authorities.

I reckon my own reasons for not informing anyone are much the same as most kids – some combination of:

  • Embarrassment or shame
  • Fear no one will believe them
  • Attachment or loyalty to the offender
  • Incomprehension – not sure exactly what is going on
  • Fear of being blamed

I knew that what Rusty Pettis had done was wrong, and that it was of a sexual nature. But what if I was mistaken? He was my father’s colleague and a pastor to boot. Which brings me to my final point.

Forget the stranger-in-the-park-with-candy scenario. Truth is, 80 – 95 percent of children who are sexually abused know their abuser. Family members, family friends, neighbors, babysitters, even other children are much more of a threat than Lester the Molester hanging around the school playground in his windowless van. Parents need to be aware of that fact so that they can make the right decisions about protecting their kids.

Child molesters don’t look like this, 

they look like your Uncle Harv. Or in my case, they look like this. 

If you’re interested in reading more, here’s a short article with some surprising statistics. And if you’ve had your own experience with sexual abuse, please feel free to share, even if it’s a little painful or embarrassing. The more light we shed  on the subject means less opportunity for abusers to hide in the dark.

17 thoughts on “A Little Case of Child Molestation

  1. Pingback: I Think I May Have Kind of Killed a Man | Field Notes From Fatherhood

  2. Dear Matt,

    I am the pastor of Laramie First Baptist Church. I’ve been the pastor of this beautiful group of people for the past four and a half years. Yes, indeed, Rusty Pettis was the pastor of this church from June of 2001 to December of 2004. His tenure with the church was short and full of petty conflicts, but from what I’ve been able to discover none would be considered serious and most of the conflicts were probably not entirely his fault.

    On January 21st, Rusty took his own life. One can only imagine what was going through his mind. But, I do know that I would never have known your story if Rusty had not taken his life. The man whom you describe is in many ways inconsistent with the gentle and gracious man that I had infrequent contact with, yet this is so often the case. It seems that friends and neighbors are always surprised in these circumstances. Yet the fullness of who we are is far greater than a few moments, whether it be our best or worst moments. I believe I can honestly say that as a part of the Laramie community, Rusty helped a lot of people deal with the reality of their lives in a more positive way. I am heartbroken and horrified to know that his past self could do those things to you!

    On behalf of our church, please know how sorry we are that you experienced these terrible things! Oh how we wish it had been handled differently by the authorities in New Hampshire. I pray that God continues to bring you healing from these experiences! Know that we will do our diligence here to determine if any children were harmed under his leadership. If so, we’ll do our best to ensure that they get the counseling they need.

    I would like you to know that we are very serious about protecting all the children we interact with. Our child protection policies are posted on our website if you would like to review them and make suggestions. We even moved them to the main header of our page in order to make them easy to find. As part of protecting our children, we require that all who work with kids complete annual training on our child protection policy. In addition, as a member of our camp board and the camp pastor of our 5th and 6th grade camping program, I work to ensure that no child is ever left alone with a single adult, EVER! We practice what the Boy Scouts of America call 2 Deep Leadership. If an adult is ever found to be alone with a student, they are immediately sent packing after a report has been filed. I don’t know whether these initiatives were in place when Rusty came to FBC, but they are an essential part of our culture now.

    As we here deal with the local repercussions of your story, I would ask that you pray for us. I would also encourage you to call out the churches who failed you and other children by not taking your claims seriously. In your blog post, you call us out by name and link to our website, as if to imply that we are part of the problem. But Laramie FBC was failed by the same systems and churches that failed you and the other person you mention. Meanwhile you protect the names and reputations of those who didn’t do their Christian duty to truth and justice. As a pastor, parent and a healing adult, I am committed to making the global Christian church a place of safety and refuge for all who are weak. I hope you are too!

    May God bring you healing, peace and blessed travels!

    Rev. Jeffrey Lundblad
    Laramie First Baptist Church
    https://www.laramiefbc.org/

    PS If you’d like to chat, my contact information is fairly easy to find on our website.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m completely in shock and I’m so sorry this has happened to you, I’m from Laramie and just found out Rusty Pettis died on Sunday. Hopefully this brings some peace to you knowing he can never harm anyone again. I didn’t know him well but my husband knew him from a First Baptist Church and I’m disgusted that person could do such a thing. Again, I’m sorry for what happened to you and thank you for the courage for speaking up not only for yourself but other victims that they may been impacted by your story.

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  4. well written with a touch of humor about a dark subject. I’m glad you didn’t suffer negative effects, but did you say you’re a subset of sexual offender yourself?
    In any case, molesting a child can ruin that child’s whole life. Shameful. Thanks for the write

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    • Thank you, and uhmm, no, I didn’t say I’m “a subset of a sexual offender,” I said that pedophiles are a subset of the sex offender population. Just want to get that straight. Anyway, thanks for visiting and leaving your thoughts. I appreciate it.

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  5. Thanks for sharing your experience Matthew. So, it seems to hold true that very sadly, the religious organizations are less concerned about the well-being and safety of the children in the community, than they are in other matters.
    I would also like to add to your reasons why most children don’t report the molestation incident. I don’t believe that children realize that by reporting it, they could be protecting another child from being victimized. When I was perhaps 8 or 9 years old, I can remember a man in the family whose hands would try to wander to where they shouldn’t go on me. I would quickly squirm away if it happened and not embarrass him. I, in my young mind, thought he was only doing it with me, and I was clever and agile enough to avoid anything which may have been on his mind. With my now 72-year-old mind, I would have handled it differently. By the way, many years later, I found out that I wasn’t the only one he tried it on.

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    • Your own experiences sound pretty awful, Susan. And I think you’re absolutely right, that a child that age is confused and conflicted and completely incapable of making the cognitive leap to thinking that exposing an abuser may prevent others from being abused. You just don’t think that way as a kid. You try to protect yourself (and often, ironically, the perpetrator) because you’re embarrassed, bewildered, and, often, ashamed.
      It isn’t just religious institutions, of course, that draw a veil over this kind of behaviour. Political institutions, corporations, media outlets – as we’ve seen recently in the US, all of them tend to ignore and obfuscate sexual abuse and harassment. Hell, the president of the US is a self-confessed sexual predator, and his popularity ratings among his own party have hardly taken a hit. Sad.

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  6. I was 12, attanding a sailing camp for many years every summer with the same mates.
    The guy that worked there, renovating the boats was a new man in his 40th. Was jocking and was very kind to the girls so to me. Then one day he said he will touch my breasts under my T-shirt. I was shocked and couldn’t say anything and was sticked with my legs to the ground. But after he was touching me I ran out to tell my friends, the boys what had happened. They didn’t believe me as he was nice and funny with everyone. Couple of years ago I met one of mychild hood friends after a while and I told him about it that I was shocked that they didn’t believe me. He said sorry and that after a while other girls said the same that they were molested by this man but long time ago he died in a heart attack. I had never told about it to my parents. I still feel sick of it when I think of it. I know I have to forgive him as he was probably sick and u never know, why he became an abuser, what had happened with him in his childhood. Try to use this not quite good experience for the final purpose. Forgive, respect and use the force and power of the anger for something good.

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    • Hey Mermaid. Presumably this happened at a summer camp at Lake Balaton. I take three main things away from your story.
      One, your friends didn’t believe you because he was ‘funny’ and a nice guy. In the minds of many people a child molester is some sicko you would recognize from a distance, as though they had ‘pervert’ tattooed on their foreheads or looked like some drooling lunatic. Sexual predators, like serial killers, generally look like everybody else. They might be very good looking, charming, eager to please.
      Two, you never told your parents, which is common in these cases. You were probably embarrassed, unsure, felt partly responsible. A 12 year-old kid is never responsible for the actions of an adult, no matter what.
      Three, you have taken a horrific experience and learned to be empathetic with someone who did a terrible thing to you. That shows a remarkable level of maturity and kindness. I think it’s wrong to judge someone for the worst thing they ever did – because we’ve all done some reprehensible shit – and your ability to forgive and channel the experience into something positive is admirable.
      Oh, and I guess one more. Four: What an asshole, and I’m glad he had a heart attack. Fuck him.

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      • Well, It made me shocked reading your story too.
        I wonder nowadays why people start to talk about it so much… finally. It’s very good. Hope and believe that our kids don’t have to have such a horrible experience as it was so commun in our generation. We might be cleverer and unfortunately bad experiences for being able to protect them.

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  7. It’s easier for people to believe that molesters are some nasty looking sub-group that everyone knows not to trust. Most of the really good predators look and act trustworthy as part of their grooming routine. And churches have been too good of a hunting ground for too long. Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

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