Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

December 15, 2013

Scourge of child abuse tarnishes community this holiday season

— — It is the season of twinkling lights and shiny ornaments. Fuzzy stockings and Santa’s laughter. Brightly wrapped gifts and a kiss under a sprig of mistletoe. It’s all things good and magical, recently darkened by a pallor of crimes unimaginable.

We tire of the headlines that cast a shadow of gloom on our A-1 lineups. "Child sexual abuse," "Child pornography," "Distribution and display of obscene matter to a minor." What has our society devolved to that these laws must even be on the books?

Crimes are always worse when the victims are children.

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Last Thursday morning I knew a story was brewing. I bided my time playing catch-up on a variety of mundane tasks. Two days prior reporter Anne Elgin had left a stack of Christmas cards on my desk. They were awaiting my signature before being sent out in the mail.

A quarter-way through the chore, I began to take note of the glittery Santas and happy snowmen. Having been deep in thought about the upcoming story, I found the juxtaposition of good and bad to be quite creepy. A child sex abuse case was on the horizon, and I was signing my name to a sparkly green-and-red card featuring a picture-perfect snowman family.

At our job, weirdness seeps in at unexpected moments.

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Last week a former church youth volunteer was charged with 38 counts of child sexual abuse related crimes. Timothy Probert, 55, was arrested at his home in Bluefield by Sgt. M.D. Clemons, of the Crimes Against Children Unit of the West Virginia State Police.

Having taken a break from the Christmas cards, I was in the newsroom listening to the police scanner when I heard a familiar voice call out "10-15."

Suspect in custody.

I quickly walked back into my office, grabbed a notepad and car keys, and headed out the door toward Princeton.

The arrest was news — big news, breaking news — but not unexpected in the Bluefield community. It was a story that had been rippling in the shallows of small talk for weeks.

In late November I wrote a story about the investigation of this case. At the time, investigators were hoping other victims would step forward. No suspect was named then because no arrest had been made.

That all changed on Thursday.

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The suspect in this case had previously been a youth volunteer at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bluefield and a mentor with the Working to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect (WE CAN) program. His alleged crimes date from 1986 to 2010 — nearly 25 years.

Some have asked how such crimes could have gone on for so long and remained undetected. It’s a valid question. Why is our culture and society structured in such a way that it may be easier for victims to remain silent than to come forward and call out their abuser?

Officials note that victims may be hesitant to testify due to fear of shame and embarrassment. And one can only imagine how hard it would be to testify to such crimes on a witness stand in front of a jury and packed courtroom.

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During Probert’s arraignment Thursday afternoon, his flight risk became a topic of discussion.

Defense attorney William Flanigan said his client "voluntarily disclosed" his actions to his pastor and elders at the church, and was "anticipating the arrest." Although not a guilty plea, that statement certainly seemed close to an admission of guilt.

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During the investigation and in the wake of Probert’s arrest, I had conversations with Jonathan Rockness, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian. While he was careful to reserve judgment on Probert’s guilt or innocence, I was impressed with his openness and willingness to speak on the issue of sexual abuse.

In a statement last week, Rockness thanked the "courageous survivors" who have come forward, noting, "Your voices have carried light into darkness and have empowered others to step forward. Every one of you is a hero who has brought much hope to many others. We pray for healing, comfort, renewal, hope and wholeness for each of you.

"Mr. Probert is entitled to a fair trial, and must be presumed innocent at this point in time. Therefore I want to share some personal thoughts on sexual abuse – not in regard to this particular case – but in general. I have learned quite a bit about the horrors of sexual abuse over the past several months. In particular, I have discovered the many ways perpetrators deceive and betray the trust of victims and their families. These offenders do not simply prey on the sexuality of their victims — they prey on their youth and their naiveté. Perpetrators are experts in using shame, embarrassment, intimidation and causing feelings of helplessness to keep victims silent. What I have learned has propelled me to advocate for victims of sexual abuse. I hope to see a day in which more sexual abuse victims are loved and protected, while those who offend are caught and punished. I hope to see a day when victims realize the shame is not on them, but on the offender. I hope to see a day when more churches become places of safety for children and places of refuge for abuse survivors. I am hopeful and prayerful that this will happen in our lifetime. We have much work to do. "

Amen.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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