When the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta met in August, Ed Albright – who had served as executive presbyter there for eight years – stood before the group, at his own request, and apologized.
Albright had been the keeper of a confidential file outlining accusations that Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis had sexually abused young boys in California. And he let Peterson-Davis stay in ministry in Atlanta and move on to a new church in Ohio – until two more men came forward, from Trinity Church in Atlanta, to file charges saying that he had sexually abused them when they were teenagers as well. In an interview, Albright called his growing understanding of how he had failed “the most painful experience of my life.”
At that August meeting, the presbytery considered the report of an administrative commission which considered the allegations that five young men had made against Peterson-Davis, and which found those allegations to be true. Peterson-Davis no longer is a minister – he renounced the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in late 2012 rather than face charges that four of the men had brought against him in a church court.
Albright, who is just finishing a term as general presbyter of Glacier Presbytery in Montana, says the commission’s lengthy report, (see pages 10-11 and 48-80) which recommends policy changes to better protect children from sexual abuse, can be a valuable teaching tool for all in the PC(USA). “That’s a place that a leader like me can learn firsthand what a pedophile does and how he does it, and what it does to the victim. That’s so important.”
Albright also said “I’m about as experienced an executive presbyter as there is. One of the things I learned is that I took for granted that I understood exactly how to handle this.” He did not, and “it’s scary.”
Albright hopes others can learn from his mistakes.
When he testified before the commission, “I remember walking out of there after about an hour and a half and thinking, ‘Yes, I was able to explain what I did, and why I did it,’” Albright said in an interview. “I felt good about it. Then I read this report, and I was just horrified to see the sequence of everything . . . and to learn so much more about these issues. I have been sorrowful ever since about my role. If I had done a whole different job, Jeff would have been out of the ministry 10 years ago. That’s a hard thought to live with.”
Among the lessons he wants others to learn:
Confidentiality has limits. Albright knew there was a confidential file on Jeff Peterson-Davis, but did not share that information with others or ask for others’ opinions. “Now I’ve learned I have overplayed the need to honor confidentiality no matter what. I felt like it was the only way to build trust.”
Listen. One of Peterson-Davis’s accusers from Trinity Church at first insisted on remaining anonymous. Albright had trained himself to disregard hearsay. “I’ve had so many (ruling) elders go after preachers . . . because they’re too liberal or too conservative or whatever,” he said. So if a complaint was hearsay or made anonymously, “I wouldn’t do a darn thing” – something in this case he now regrets.
Take off the rose-colored glasses. Through the years, “I’ve always seen the best in people, and 99 percent of the time that’s worked well,” Albright said. The PC(USA) is built on a connectional system, and Albright knew and liked both Jeff and his wife, Kerri Peterson-Davis, who is a teaching elder and had worked for the presbytery in youth ministry. “His beautiful wife was on my staff,” Albright said. “Then they had a baby together. You know what that means – you’re drawn right into that . . . Those rose-colored glasses were on from the beginning.”
Churches can learn, Albright said, by educating both ministry leaders and the congregation about the patterns of sexual misconduct – and recognizing that perpetrators can be well-liked and trusted.
“He’s handsome, always good looking, very charming,” Albright said of Peterson-Davis. “When I confronted him about what had happened” – when Peterson-Davis was asked to resign from a job with the Atlanta Interfaith AIDS Network for financial impropriety and having pornography of young boys on his office computer – “he was so smooth about it.”
Albright also relied on reassurances from Dave Fry, who was the pastor of a large church in the presbytery and the chair of the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry; who had helped negotiate the confidential settlement of the California lawsuit; and who “was always an advocate of Jeff,” Albright said.
Peterson-Davis told Albright he’d just given the boys who’d made accusations against him backrubs, “and I always accepted it . . . He schmoozed me. And I was very schmoozable.”
Do reference checks. Albright agrees that thorough reference and background checks are important, even if a minister or staff member is just moving from one Presbyterian congregation to another. For example, Joanna Adams – the former pastor of Trinity Presbyterian, who knew that allegations had been made against Peterson-Davis in California, and who insisted that he resign from her staff when she found out – said in an interview she refused to provide a reference for him for at least one other job. They hired him anyway,
Albright contends that pastor nominating committees, sessions and committees on ministry need to conduct thorough and careful reference and background checks – not viewing those checks as intrusive or unnecessary, and not relying on an informal network of personal friendships as sufficient to vouch for someone’s good character. The approach too often is “he is one of the family,” Albright said. “Why are we checking up on him?” As a result of the Peterson-Davis case, Greater Atlanta is setting up stringent rules, so that “when you move within the presbytery, you will be checked and double-checked.”
His view now: “I’ll never trust again without verifying. It doesn’t matter how good of friends we are. I’m going to verify.”
Ask for feedback. When Jeff Peterson-Davis was being considered for a pastorate in Ohio, Albright did participate in conversations with an executive from the Presbytery of Western Reserve, who asked for a reference check.
Their recollections of exactly what was said in that conversation differ somewhat. If he were asked for such a reference check again, Albright said, he’d involve others from the staff in the process. And at the end of the conversation he would ask: “Tell me what you heard me say before we hang up. Give me a little summary.” That way, differing impressions might be caught early, and corrected.
Bring others in. Albright said if he were confronted with a situation again in which he needed to make a determination about whether there was a problem with a particular person, he would ask for help. And instead of asking for assistance from someone close to him, he would look for someone who had no personal connection to the situation “and who was as different from me as possible.”
For executive presbyters, he said, that can mean going to colleagues from another presbytery, people with different management styles or theological views, and who have no personal ties to any of the people involved.
Albright said he would go to another presbytery and say, “Tell me who’s the opposite of me,” and ask those people to help. “I think I should not have relied on my own judgment (alone), and I never will again if I have to make tough choices about someone’s character.”
No secret outcomes. With Peterson-Davis, agreements were struck to keep the details of the settlement of the lawsuit against him in California and of his departure from Trinity confidential. In hindsight, Albright sees that as a mistake – and another place where the PC(USA) might consider changing its policy. “I had never dealt with a secret file, for my eyes only, from a secular court,” he said. “It was just a scary document to me. I didn’t know what to do with it. It sat in the file. I wouldn’t share it with anybody because I didn’t think I should or could.”
Offer training. Albright seem the importance of educating both church leaders and those in the pews about sexual abuse – about the circumstances in which it typically happens; about the patterns for both abusers and their victims; about the consequences abuse can have for the victims and for an entire congregation; about what can be done to prevent it.
Pam Driesell is senior pastor of Trinity Church in Atlanta, whose session asked the presbytery to create the administrative commission, so the stories of the young men who claimed they’d been abused could be heard. Sexual abuse cases can exact a price not just for the victims and their families, but for an entire congregation, Driesell said.
In some cases, the allegations can split the loyalties of parishioners, with some believing the charges and others outraged. Coming to grips with the possibility that a respected church leader may have committed sexual abuse can undermine people’s faith and trust – especially when the accused has played a pivotal role in their spiritual formation.
They may think “this is a person who was really powerful in my life or my child’s life,” Driesell said. “They taught me about the love of God . . . or maybe they even baptized my child or married me. They were very instrumental in my life.”
Some may refuse to see wrongdoing, despite all the evidence. And for those who feel betrayed, she said, “the crisis of trust in authority or trust in religious leaders is really devastating.”