SACRAMENTO — He was a Presbyterian minister. He was, for many boys from Chinese immigrant families, a sort of surrogate father figure. He was charismatic, he was powerful — and he is said to have sexually abused dozens of young boys over 30 years at the Cameron House ministry program in San Francisco.
His name is Dick Wichman and he is now in his 90s, living in a retirement home in Oregon. In the late 1980s, faced with allegations of sexual abuse pending in San Francisco presbytery, Wichman denied the charges and renounced his ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) rather than face the action the presbytery was preparing to bring against him.
But that has not stopped the survivors of the abuse from speaking out plainly of how the betrayal of trust perpetrated by one minister has fractured their self-esteem, their ability to form close, caring relationships as adults and in some cases has driven them far from the church and any sense of God’s caring.
Survivor Noel Chun, an elder, told the General Assembly Council’s executive committee that Wichman began abusing him when he was 16 and the abuse continued for 15 years. Cameron House “became my second home” and Wichman was “my moral compass and religious leader,” Chun said, adding that he couldn’t stress enough how much control the minister had over the kind of person he became and what he believed.
When Wichman first asked Chun to join him in bed, at a cabin used for youth retreats, Chun said he came willingly because “I trusted and worshipped this pastor,” and had no idea that Wichman would do anything wrong.
Chun said that in 1987, when he finally told the congregation at the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown (San Francisco) what Wichman had done to him — he was the first to publicly identify himself as a victim — “no one, not one person supported me that day.
There were many who thought I was lying.”
He said he lost his first marriage, because the repercussions of the abuse led him into destructive behavior.
And “I lost my belief in the institutional church.”
The victims also are insisting that the PC(USA) accept some responsibility for what happened, because Wichman, who served as Cameron House director from 1947 to 1977, was supervised by the Presbyterian church’s Board of National Missions. The General Assembly Council already has sent a letter of apology, and the survivors also have developed a proposed, three-year “healing budget” of nearly $580,000, part of which they’re hoping the council will fund.
That would include $187,500 for counseling for 25 survivors, funding for retreats for survivors and their families, educational programs at Cameron House and workshops on child molestation and child abuse.
Linda Regan, moderator of San Francisco presbytery, said the survivors hope for “a significant amount” from the national church, although the presbytery had involvement in the Cameron House ministry too and bears some responsibility as well. The presbytery has written a letter to the survivors which says, in part: “The Presbytery of San Francisco acknowledges that youth and young adults, trusting in the ministry of the Rev. F. S. Dick Wichman as pastor and Executive Director of Cameron House, were the victims of sexual abuse, exploitation, broken trust, abuse of authority and neglect for thirty years and even after his retirement.”
And it says the presbytery tried to bring criminal charges against Wichman, but was prevented by the statute of limitations.
Bill Ng, who’s a minister and of the survivors, asked the council to support “the slow and deliberate journey of healing” and said, “some of us have waited a long, long time and have not left the church,” even though “we have paid a heavy price” and often have not felt supported.
“Help us to find the funds,” Ng told the executive committee. “We need it, we need it now. And we do not believe we are unreasonable. We have waited a long time.”
Satsuki Ina, a therapist who has worked with victims of trauma and sexual abuse, said Wichman repeatedly asked boys to pray before and after he sexually abused them. Often the impact of abuse echoes for years, she said — producing guilt, shame, anger, depression, mistrust, and “a chronic sense of anxiety.”
In the Asian community, such abuse is often not discussed openly, Ina said. “The people who are here are the survivors,” she said, but some did not survive.
Cameron House was established in 1874 in San Francisco’s Chinatown by Presbyterian women, to help girls and young women from China who were essentially being sold into sexual slavery to the men building the railroads. It later initiated a wide range of programs for families and children in the Asian community — and it was through those programs that Wichman met many of the boys who became his victims. Cameron House also has long had connections with the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, where many of those who were abused once worshipped.
Elaine Chan-Scherer is a psychotherapist who first reported the abuse to the interim pastor at Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, and whose doing so gave Noel Chun the courage to come forward. She said when she did so, “I felt like Judas,” and when she saw what happened to Chun, “I left too.”
Her children have not been baptized. “I don’t trust any ministers,” Chan-Scherer said.
Those scarred by the abuse at Cameron House need to hear from the PC(USA) now, Ng said. They need to hear the church say, “Welcome home. Welcome to your own true self, made in the image of God. … You are not alone. This will never, ever happen again.”