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PC(USA) asks court to dismiss alleged abuse lawsuit

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is asking a Kentucky court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a man who alleges that he was a teenage victim of sexual abuse at a Presbyterian-run hostel in Africa in 1988, contending that the man did not file the lawsuit before the statute of limitations expired.

But a major investigative report that the church released in October substantiating incidents of sexual abuse involving the children of Presbyterian missionaries – including the case of the man who filed this lawsuit – includes a recommendation that the PC(USA) support changes in state laws to suspend the statute of limitations involving such cases.

“This is an area of advocacy where the PC(USA) can speak authoritatively from their own experience, over the last 10 years, of investigating and responding to reports of past abuse,” the investigative report states. “The secular world needs to hear and understand this experience.”

The General Assembly Mission Council has yet to vote on that recommendation. In October the council created a work group to consider the “next steps” it should take in response to the investigative report – including action on the recommendations. Following a closed discussion during a conference call on Jan. 20, the council’s executive committee voted to postpone a report from the work group from the council’s next meeting, in March, to September 2011.

Also, “neither the Presbyterian Church nor anyone acting on its behalf violated any law requiring it to make reports” involving the alleged abuse at the Kinshasa hostel, a brief filed by lawyers for the church states. That wording does not make it clear whether the church did report the alleged abuse to authorities – or whether there was no law in effect in the Congo at the time requiring it to do so.

The PC(USA)’s Independent Abuse Review Panel report released in October, providing details of 29 instance in which it said it determined that sexual abuse had taken place from 1950 to 1990 in church boarding schools in Cameroon, Congo, Ethiopia and Thailand, along with one incident of physical abuse in Pakistan.

Sean Coppedge of California filed the lawsuit in Jefferson Circuit Court in Louisville in December 2010, claiming he was the victim in one of those cases and that he was sexually abused at the Methodist-Presbyterian Hostel in Kinshasa in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Coppedge alleges that an older teenage boy, also the son of missionaries, abused him during the middle of the night on Dec. 15, 1988, and that he immediately reported the abuse to the hostel’s house parents.

Coppedge contends in the lawsuit that the church should have done more to prevent the abuse, because those running the hostel knew that the alleged perpetrator had earlier been accused of sexually abusing another boy and had been removed for a time from the hostel, but then allowed to return.

The alleged perpetrator – Samuel Shamba Warlick – was recently arrested by the FBI in Florida and charged with possessing and distributing child pornography.

The Independent Abuse Review Panel’s report describes both incidents of abuse at the Kinshasa hostel, and states that it determined that sexual abuse had occurred in both cases. The review panel report names Warlick as the abuser in those two cases, and states that the house parents drove Warlick home to his parents across Kinshasa in the middle of the night after the first incident, even though such a late-night trip would have been considered dangerous, but that Warlick later was permitted to return to the hostel.

The panel concluded that two governing boards of the hostel had failed to protect children from Warlick, because some of the adults who knew of at least one of the incidents at the hostel were members of the board.

“It is tragic,” the report states, that adults from the mission community did not do more to protect the hostel residents. The governing boards “had the role and the authority to keep Shamba Warlick out of the Hostel, and they failed to do this, resulting in further abuse.”

In a motion to dismiss Coppedge’s lawsuit, the PC(USA) contends that under the statute of limitations Coppedge had one year after he turned 18 to file a lawsuit, and that year has long ago expired. A memo in support of that motion, written by Jon Fleischaker, a lawyer representing the PC(USA), states that “there is no question” Coppedge was aware of the alleged abuse in 1988 and that his argument that he did not realize until the abuse panel released its report in October that other missionary children also were being abused at other schools is “wholly irrelevant.”

Kentucky law does allow for some exceptions to the statute of limitations, such as when a victim was not aware of attempts to cover up the abuse, but the PC(USA) lawyers argue that no exceptions apply to Coppedge’s case.

The church’s brief points out that Coppedge cooperated with the review panel’s investigation, referring to an August 2006 letter that Coppedge sent to the review panel telling of what he knew of the abuse incidents at the hostel involving Warlick.

Reports of the boarding school abuse outlined in the Independent Abuse Review Panel’s report began surfacing during an earlier investigation – the findings of which were detailed in a report the PC(USA) issued in 2002 – of sexual abuse involving a Presbyterian minister who served as a missionary in Africa.

The Independent Abuse Review Panel’s report states that after Warlick returned to the United States, the PC(USA) appointed him as a volunteer in mission, serving at a YMCA program in Scotland. It says that he also worked with a Boy Scout troop in Orlando and at a Christian camp for children in Georgia, and that he spent time at Presbyterian College in South Carolina and has been involved with two Presbyterian churches in Florida.

In an interview with the Outlook in October, Warlick denied the conclusions the review panel reached involving the incidents at the Kinshasa hostel and said the panel’s process was flawed.

On Jan. 14, federal agents arrested Warlick – now an adult – at his home in Oneida, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, and charged him with both distributing and possessing child pornography. An affidavit filed in the case by Rod Hyre, a special agent with the FBI, states that the FBI had begun an investigation of Warlick in December 2010, after an undercover agent made contact via computer with an online user who shared files found to include child pornography.

On Jan. 14, law enforcement agents executed a search warrant at Warlick’s home and found a computer, “which Warlick identified as belonging to him,” containing videos and pictures depicting naked children involved sexual acts, according to Hyre’s affidavit.

Hyre stated that, during an interview at the home, “Warlick admitted to distributing and possessing child pornography” online for two and a half years. “He admitted that he had possessed child pornography for at least 10 years, and he estimated that he possessed between 50 and 100 gigabytes of child pornography,” the affidavit states.

“Warlick stated that he received sexual gratification from looking at the images and that he preferred images of child pornography depicting boys 13-16 years old,” the affidavit states, although some of the images found on his computer were of much younger boys.

“Warlick also admitted that he posed online as a 16-year-old boy and befriended other minor teenage boys,” the affidavit states.