I had the great pleasure of meeting Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian in person last year in Virginia at the Courage Conference. Boz has been a shining light of inspiration for myself and my husband for several years now. A one-time prosecutor, and founder of the justice-seeking organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment), Boz has a boundless zeal for the protection of children, for pursuing legal reform, and for calling the church to higher standards of both justice and mercy. I personally know him to be that rare thing — a very busy, very sought after expert in his field, who is nonetheless always personable, always compassionate, and always available to serve as a resource on the topics he is so zealous for. In Part Two of this interview, Boz will talk about applications of Best Practices principles to real world situations, and will introduce GRACE’s Child Safety Certification Initiative. Today, I’ve asked Boz to share his thoughts on some of the obstacles to justice abuse victims routinely face, and on how the church should interact with the civil authorities on issues relating to Child Sexual Abuse.
“We as a church have to stop looking at the civil authorities as the enemy, and therefore taking it upon ourselves to carry out the responsibilities that God has specifically given to them.”
Boz, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. I’m really looking forward to talking with you and learning a little more about where you got your passion. I’m sure as a prosecutor you must have dealt with a lot of abuse cases. Was that formative for where you are today with GRACE?
Extremely formative. I really didn’t have a lot of knowledge about abuse cases prior to becoming a prosecutor. I had some, I had a family member who had been victimized, so I was aware of abuse issues, but nothing like I learned as a prosecutor. When you are a prosecutor you spend a lot of time meeting with families of victims and you begin to hear their stories first hand as they sit across the office from you. It’s hard to put into words, the impact it has when a nine year old is in a room disclosing what happened to him or her because of dad’s best friend. You can read all you can in books, and you can learn what you can in the classroom, but there’s nothing quite like that to really move you in a monumental way. The very unique position of a prosecutor is, you’re not just meeting with survivors of abuse twenty years later, but with survivors of abuse two weeks, a month later; and at the same time, you’re also prosecuting offenders, which means you have a front row seat in learning how perpetrators are thinking and acting, some common behavioral patterns. You’re learning sort of from both sides some very, very unique lessons and information. Eventually, as a prosecutor who was handling all types of felony cases, I asked that we start a unit that would just focus on sexual crimes. They were more than happy to do that, because, unfortunately, a lot of prosecutors don’t like handling those types of cases. I think the subject matter is oftentimes too difficult or uncomfortable, so they either don’t file on a case, or they file on it and plea it out to a lesser charge. So they gave me those cases and we began to hire people who had a similar interest, and that weren’t going to just plea out the case because they were uncomfortable with it. And so, you know, by the time I left the State Attorney’s Office in 2001 or thereabouts, I had overseen thousands of sexual abuse cases, and personally prosecuted hundreds. Whether you like it or not, when you’re on the front lines prosecuting these cases, you learn an amazing amount about this dark offense. And so, yes, that really was a pivotal point in my life as it relates to focusing on issues of abuse.
Tell me more about prosecutors encouraging a plea bargain early in a case they’re uncomfortable with. That sounds pretty unethical.
That’s a general statement, but I think that yeah, if we were honest…let’s focus on Child Sexual Abuse cases…I find a lot of prosecutors very reluctant to move those cases in the direction I think they need to be moved. This is probably one of the most serious criminal offenses being committed today and I’ve heard over and over again prosecutors who either won’t file it because they say it’s just a child’s word against the adult’s and we don’t have enough, or we’ll file it but we’re not going to take this case to trial. Often they never even consider taking it to trial, and opt instead to plea it out as a lesser charge, sometimes even to a non-sexual abuse crime. Oftentimes these types of plea deals don’t even require prison time. And it’s because, yeah, these are complex, tough cases. You have to do a lot of leg work on these cases to put a case together. Oftentimes, a child sexual abuse case is much more difficult to prosecute than a homicide case.
“Oftentimes, the gossip threat is just another way of church leadership silencing those around so they can handle it in their own way. It’s really all about control.
I find this really startling. How is a Child Sexual Abuse case more difficult to prosecute than a homicide case?
In most homicide cases, the prosecutor has access to the best investigators in the jurisdiction. You’ve got just about every resource available to focus on and prosecute that case. Usually those same resources are not available in child sexual abuse investigations, and so as a result, it is oftentimes left up to the prosecutor to do the additional legwork needed to put together a solid case.
Kind of sounds like you’re saying we need some changes to happen in the legal sphere.
Yeah, one of the biggest things for me is, I wish more District Attorney offices would focus on setting up sexual crime divisions. We have drug divisions, homicide divisions; and some larger urban areas have sexual crime divisions, but most don’t. If I was a DA, I would make sure my office had a sexual crime division, and we would scour the state, and perhaps the country, for the best prosecutors who are the most passionate about these cases — you know, the type of prosecutor who when they hit a brick wall, they’re not going to go, “Oh well, we can’t do anything about it.” They’re going to find an ethical, legal way to get over that brick wall. Sometimes that just takes creativity, commitment, and a lot of hard work. If you’re not passionate about the type of work you’re doing, you’re not going to do it.
So, this ties into a question I have about the church’s role in all of this. I’ve done enough poking around and looking into stuff at this point to find that there are these sort of stone walls that pop up when people are either ignorant of their legal responsibilities, or have concluded, sometimes in error, that they’ve fulfilled them. Most people know there’s some kind of legal responsibility to report crimes, but not everyone is a mandatory reporter, and some people (pastors, priests) would claim an exempted status. Would you say that at times our moral responsibility exceeds what is required of us legally?
Absolutely. As it relates to child abuse, for instance, it’s always good to know what the law says, but mandated reporting is the most basic responsibility — that’s the ground floor. As Christians we shouldn’t be saying, “Oh good, I’m not a mandated reporter, I don’t have to report.” We have a much higher responsibility than those who aren’t within the faith community, and that is our responsibility to Jesus, who was, in my opinion, the greatest child advocate in human history. So even if I’m not a mandated reporter but I have a suspicion, the question becomes, “What’s my duty before God as it relates to this vulnerable child?” Our responsibility in the face of a suspected crime against a child is simple: it’s to contact the civil authorities to allow the ones who have been trained and equipped to investigate. We don’t investigate ourselves, because we’re not trained or equipped for that. We don’t NOT make the call, because not making the call is making a decision…..making a decision based on very little data. We should always allow those who are trained to collect the data to make a full assessment, especially when we’re dealing with the safety and well being of a child.
Ok, but here’s the problem. Often people feel that calling a suspicion in to the authorities is needlessly smearing someone’s character, and there seems to be this huge concern in Christian communities about the danger of gossiping.
Unfortunately, you’re right. It’s strange, but about the only time we hear people express those types of concerns is with respect to alleged child maltreatment. If we had a suspicion that someone in our church was a serial killer we wouldn’t refrain from making the call. We would welcome law enforcement’s involvement and investigation. And something people don’t understand is that when you make a call — for example when somebody calls a mandated reporting hotline — the authorities don’t show up at the alleged offender’s house with sirens and the news and people video taping and putting it on Facebook. It’s usually one or two people from CPS showing up at the house or the school to speak with the child. If need be, they’ll also speak with the alleged perpetrator, and then they make a decision about whether anything needs to be pursued or substantiated. And so I always say, if you’ve got to err, err for the safety of the child. The worst case scenario is that you were wrong, your suspicion wasn’t founded, and perhaps you might have somebody a little irritated with you – in most cases they won’t know who you are, since most jurisdictions allow the reporter to remain anonymous. The best case scenario is maybe you saved the life of a child. To me that’s not even a comparison.
Oftentimes, the gossip threat is just another way of church leadership silencing those around so they can handle it in their own way. It’s usually all about control. If I can control you by saying if you speak you’re gossiping and that’s sinful, well… that works with many people. I often give the example of investigation we were involved with a number of years ago where a missionary doctor had been sexually victimizing a number of the missionary children. When one of his victims came forward and disclosed the abuse, the leaders of the mission field brought the other families together, and informed them that this doctor had admitted to sexually abusing a child and had been sent home. Unfortunately, the mission leaders also proceeded to tell the families, “We’re going to take care of this, we’re handling it, and any discussion of the matter will be considered gossip.” Most of the parents heeded that directive, and as a result never asked their own children whether they had been abused by this man. Tragically, a handful of the other children had been, but it wasn’t until 15-20 years later that this information surfaced. The children, who by then were young adults, could not understand, in all of their grief, in all of their trauma, why mom and dad had never asked them about it, had never broached the topic with them. They could have had twenty years of counseling behind them, and a lot of trauma and self-medication could have been avoided had the parents made the inquiry, but because they were following this ridiculous directive not to gossip, they never did. And that wounded the lives of many young people.
That is such a sad story. Does the church as an institution have influence that it could use to support legal processes?
I think we as a church have to stop looking at the civil authorities as the enemy, and therefore taking it upon ourselves to carry out the responsibilities that God has specifically given to them. Not all churches are like this, but there are a lot who mistrust anything related to the government. And so when there’s a legitimate need for the involvement of the governing authorities, these churches often fail to cooperate and sometimes even stand in the way of the investigation. Churches need to consider how we can begin building bridges with those in law enforcement and child protective services. One of the things GRACE does as an organization is to connect the church with resources such as local law enforcement. Another practical thing the church could do to help effectuate legal change would be to actually advocate for waiving the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases. Can you imagine if some of the leading denominations in this country came forward and said, “We don’t think there should be a statute of limitations on child sexual abuse offenses”? And not just in the criminal realm, but what if we advocated for doing away with the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits against churches that had been negligent in relation to child abusers — what kind of a message would that send to the victims of abuse? To the broader world? The reality is that churches have been some of the most vocal opponents to changes to the statute of limitations in these types of cases. And you have to ask yourself why. Well, I think it has a lot to do with self protection.
“Both inside and outside churches, we prefer to embrace the easier narratives.”
Tell me more about that. In what venues do churches advocate for keeping the statute of limitations in place?
Oh, in the state capitols around the country. So, as you know, a statute of limitations is the time period by which the government can bring a criminal charge or an individual can bring a civil lawsuit — and yet many victims don’t even begin to come to terms with the fact that they were victimized, let alone want to take some type of legal recourse, until sometimes decades after the abuse. Oftentimes, by the time somebody realizes what’s happened to them and actually makes a brave decision to do something about it, the statute of limitations has expired and they’re prohibited from seeking any kind of legal recourse. So you’ll see victims’ rights groups come to lobby for getting the statute of limitations waived or increased in these types of offenses, but some of the strongest lobbyists in opposition to these groups are religious organizations, because they’re concerned this will open the door to lawsuits against their churches in an area where they have been protected for generations.
Do you have any comments on the passage that says Christians shouldn’t go to law before unbelievers?
Well, I’m certainly no trained theologian but I’m not sure how one would reconcile that with Romans 13. I have a few other thoughts — nothing overly theological. Number one, it’s important to distinguish between public wrongs and private wrongs. When I commit a crime against somebody, it’s not just a wrong against that person, it’s a wrong committed against the public. And a public wrong means that the government, under Romans 13, has the God-given responsibility to wield the sword. So I think we have to keep that in mind. So what about private wrongs — is it wrong for a Christian to sue a church, based on negligence related to child sexual abuse? Well, I think if one approaches the church and attempts to resolve the matter, and the church refuses to acknowledge its failure and makes no reasonable attempt to resolve the claim, I think at that point in time the God ordained civil legal system is available to be utilized. I believe that God often uses the civil court system to sanctify his church. My reading in the passage you mentioned is that it should be a last resort, and we shouldn’t run to law with every little dispute, but I also don’t think it’s a blanket prohibition. The reality is that the failure to protect a child from abuse is not merely a “dispute.” Think about it this way, I think we can all agree that without the civil court system, the Catholic Church would never have been forced to confront the systemic abuse of children by priests. This all happened because abuse survivors — some who still profess faith, some who don’t — stepped forward in front of the church, but the church refused to listen, the church refused to address it, the church refused to provide any form of restitution, so many of these survivors had no other choice but to seek legal help through the courts. Because of these brave heroes making use of the civil court system, I believe we’re seeing some significant reforms within the Catholic church with regard to child safeguarding…though it still has a long way to go. In my opinion, that is the sanctification of the Church by means of the civil court system.
In Part Two of this interview, Boz will address some sexual abuse scenarios that churches commonly navigate, and will also introduce GRACE’s Child Safety Certification Initiative, which, in my opinion, is one of the most promising advances in the Christian world today toward making our churches safer for children. Stay tuned!