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.
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.