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Safeguards against sexual abuse: Atlanta Presbytery to send two overtures to General Assembly

Caution to readers: This story contains details of sexual abuse allegations taken from an administrative commission’s report.


194-24-4Five men’s accusations against a former Presbyterian pastor have prompted the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta to seek tighter rules from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regarding ministers and sexual abuse.


Four men who formerly attended churches where Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis had worked in California and in Atlanta had filed complaints in the church system accusing him of sexual abuse. A fifth accuser was identified in the settlement of a civil suit filed against Peterson-Davis in California.


All the complainants were minors at the time of the alleged abusive incidents – one was only 8. Their complaints against Peterson-Davis describe incidents over an 11-year span, beginning in 1984. 


In October 2012, facing judicial proceedings in a church court in the Presbytery of Western Reserve in Ohio, where he was then working as a minister, Peterson-Davis renounced the jurisdiction of the PC(USA)  rather than stand trial. Not wanting the inquiry to end there, Greater Atlanta Presbytery created an administrative commission in February 2013 to determine whether there was truth to the charges brought against him.


This case raises questions both about the way church leaders who learned of the alleged abuse through the years handled those reports, and about whether the trust they continued to place in Peterson-Davis may have endangered more children.


“In too many instances, the church chose ignorance, denial or secrecy,” the commission found. “Fears of liability or reputational damage prompted the church to agree to broad confidentiality provisions and to silence that imperiled the well-being of the children of God.”


Giving a voice.  Based on the commission’s work, the Atlanta Presbytery has voted to send two overtures to the 2014 General Assembly to tighten the rules regarding teaching elders and sexual abuse.


The commission was appointed in February 2013 to determine whether there was truth to the charges against Peterson-Davis – though by that point his standing as a PC(USA) teaching elder was no longer an issue.


The session of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta – where Peterson-Davis had worked, and where some of his accusers had belonged to the youth group – requested that an administrative commission determine whether there was truth to the allegations, not wanting his renunciation of jurisdiction to simply end the investigation. The purpose was pastoral, rather than judicial, the commission’s report states – “to provide the accusers an opportunity to share their side of the story.”


Pam Driesell, senior pastor of Trinity church, said she was “extraordinarily troubled” when Peterson-Davis renounced jurisdiction – particularly when he then sent an email to some members of her congregation, giving his side of the story and accusing the system of being unfair.


“The victims absolutely should have a voice and they should be heard in the church,” Driesell said in an interview. “By Jeff’s renunciation, once again they had been silenced. I couldn’t live with that.”


At her request, the session of Trinity voted unanimously to ask for the commission, “as a pastoral investigation into the truth on behalf of the young people who had come forward to share their stories,” she said. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”


Overtures. One of the proposed overtures resulting from the commission’s work would affect the hiring process for new pastors. It would require pastor nominating committees to receive both a complete criminal background check and a check of any civil judgments against a candidate before offering a call to a teaching elder.


The rationale for the overture states that “background checks are commonplace at every level of our society: volunteer coaches, teachers, church custodians, etc. Almost every other mainline denomination requires background checks for its pastors. It is time for the Presbyterian Church to take the simple but effective step to strengthen our requirements to protect those under our care.”


A second proposed overture addresses situations in which a teaching elder accused of wrongdoing renounces the denomination’s jurisdiction. The overture states that when a former minister has renounced jurisdiction in the midst of a judicial proceeding, “no PC(USA) congregation shall be permitted to employ that former teaching elder in any capacity, nor shall it permit that former teaching elder to perform any volunteer work.”


On Aug. 17, the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta voted to send both overtures to the 2014 General Assembly for consideration. The rules now require a presbytery to gain concurrences from at least one other presbytery for an overture to be considered by the General Assembly. That has already happened for the overture proposing a background check – with the concurrence coming from the Presbytery of Western Reserve, where Peterson-Davis had been facing charges. The overture involving renunciation will also go to the assembly if at least one other presbytery concurs.


At the August meeting of Greater Atlanta Presbytery, according to the minutes, Executive Presbyter Penny Hill offered a public apology for the ways in which the church and the presbytery had failed in this situation. Ed Albright, a former executive presbyter, offered a personal apology as well.


Driesell describes that meeting as “extraordinarily healing and redemptive.” And she says “the ripple effects of public truth-telling around this in terms of healing and integrity for the church are still happening.”


Charges against Peterson-Davis. The administrative commission made its report (see pages 10-11 and 48-80) to Greater Atlanta Presbytery in August 2013. It found the charges against Peterson-Davis to be credible.


In interviews with the commission, “each of the five young men spoke of the abuse with clarity and detail,” the commission’s report states. Even when the men could not recall exact dates, “the nature of the abuse was specific.” Equally compelling, the commission wrote, “was the clear pattern of behaviors and experiences” that took place over a long period of time, and “were described by young men who had not met each other” or shared their stories with one another.

            The young men described:

  • Back or stomach rubs that turned into sexual abuse;
  • Abuse of trust – including grooming behavior that made the young men feel “special” or singled out as a favorite.
  • Abuse of family issues that were sometimes known because of the pastoral relationship. The mother of two victims counted on the pastor to be a male “father figure” in her sons’ lives; the family of another victim was going through a difficult time because of a relative’s illness.
  • A dynamic in which Peterson-Davis held positions of authority and power as a youth intern, associate pastor and youth director. Some of the abuse allegedly occurred at church camps and on overnight youth group trips.


The young men who brought the complaints were involved in two Presbyterian congregations. Two were from First Church of Oxnard, Calif., and two from Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.


The commission’s report says that, when confronted with the allegations, Peterson-Davis denied doing anything inappropriate; called the investigations a “witch hunt;” described the accounts as a “misunderstanding,” in part because he was a massage therapist; and said that at least one of the alleged victims wanted money.


The young men reported that what had happened to them caused serious damage in their families, to their self-esteem and in their relationship with the church. One victim “had great difficulty in his high school years,” dropping all his earlier friendships, the report states. The young man said the abuse “destroyed” his mother, who felt guilty for encouraging her sons to spend time with Peterson-Davis, and “the abuse also destroyed the family’s trust in the church,” the report states.


Another of the men reported rage, depression and self-hatred. A fourth considered suicide.


The report says that in 2011, the young man who had felt suicidal took action, prompted by news reports of charges against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the university’s failure to put a stop to Sandusky’s sexual predation.


The young man contacted the pastor at Trinity Church in Atlanta to tell his story. That disclosure led to the formation of an investigating committee and later to the commencement of a judicial case against Peterson-Davis.


After the first man came forward, another man who six years earlier had filed an anonymous report of abuse at Trinity agreed, in early 2012, to file a formal complaint as well, He said Peterson-Davis sexually abused him in 1993.


In July 2012, an investigating committee filed two charges of abuse against Peterson-Davis, based on those two men’s reports. In October 2012, the Permanent Judicial Commission of Western Reserve allowed the investigating committee to add two additional charges, based on the allegations of abuse in California. Not long after that, Peterson-Davis renounced jurisdiction.


The church’s response.  In its report, the administrative commission also considered how the church had responded when reports of possible abuse by Peterson-Davis began to circulate.


“Truth telling about any past failures of the larger church is designed to heal wounds and restore trust,” the report states. “Victims repeatedly expressed their sense that the larger church had betrayed their trust. This sense of betrayal is long-lasting and, for many, has eroded their ability to trust any religious authority and even God.”


The commission wrote that its review “highlights how critical it is for the church to treat each and every allegation of abuse seriously and with openness to believing a child’s story. Our children cannot afford our choice to live in denial or darkness.”


The report also states that “Peterson-Davis continued in ministry for decades in positions where he had access to children and youth in spite of a history of allegations of abuse involving multiple victims.”


The report says the “larger story” emerging from the narrative of Peterson-Davis’s decades in ministry is “a pattern of allegations that does not get shared with church authorities or others choosing to place Peterson-Davis in positions of access to children.” And it asks: “Did we as a church enable the victimization of children?”


Missed opportunities. The administrative commission’s report includes a “timeline of church opportunities” to address the allegations against Peterson-Davis – opportunities too often missed.


Among the key points:


First Presbyterian, Santa Barbara: In 1984, the mother of a youth told the then-pastor of First Presbyterian in Santa Barbara that Peterson-Davis “molested her son during a mission trip,” the report states. The pastor did not speak with the boy at all, but asked Peterson-Davis to leave, without disclosing the reason to the staff, the congregation or the executive presbyter. The Santa Barbara pastor, whom the report does not name, then recommended Peterson-Davis for a job at the Oxnard church, where he allegedly molested at least two other boys.


First Presbyterian, Oxnard, Calif.: One of the two boys from Oxnard disclosed the abuse at the time to a Presbyterian camp leader. When Peterson-Davis denied that he had abused the boy, the 24-year-old camp leader suggested they “agree to disagree” and did not tell either the boy’s parents or other church officials, the report states.


The two boys from Oxnard, who were brothers, also told their pastor in the fall of 1984 about the abuse, and told the pastor there was a third victim as well. The pastor “disinvites” Peterson-Davis from preaching, the report states, but there is no evidence the pastor reported the allegations to other church authorities, to local civil authorities or law enforcement, or to the boys’ mother, and the abuse allegedly continued for years afterward. 

In 1995, one of the Oxnard victims, who said Peterson-Davis abused him multiple times over six years – from 1984 to 1990 – filed a civil suit against Peterson-Davis, also naming two congregations and the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii among the defendants.


Trinity Presbyterian, Atlanta: In the spring of 1995, Joanna Adams, the pastor of Trinity church in Atlanta – where Peterson-Davis then was an associate pastor – learned from him about the allegations in California (the report says he told her he feared he was about to be arrested).  Peterson-Davis was immediately placed on administrative leave.


In March 1995 the Trinity congregation was told that Peterson-Davis had asked to dissolve the pastoral relationship to resolve allegations of “inappropriate behavior,” but was not told that those allegations involved the sexual abuse of minors. Peterson-Davis later signed a severance agreement with the church that included a confidentiality provision requiring Trinity “not to disclose (the) nature of any allegations of misconduct” by him at any church he ever served, and to refer any inquiries about that from prospective employers to the presbytery.


The commission’s report states that “the many expressions of praise for Jeff and his ministry both by church leaders and the victim’s peers” inhibited one victim at Trinity church from coming forward for more than a decade. “Peterson-Davis was a well-regarded, charismatic leader, and many within Trinity were unwilling to entertain the possibility that the California allegations could be true,” the report states.  Also, Trinity’s decision not to reveal the specifics of the allegations “allowed Peterson-Davis to control the narrative by disparaging the accusers as ‘troubled boys from broken homes.’”           


The report also states that the confidentiality agreement Trinity signed convinced the two victims from Trinity who later came forward “that the church was more concerned with its potential liability than with the well-being of victims.”


California lawsuit: In 1997, the civil suit against Peterson-Davis in California was settled. As part of that mediation process, the executive presbyter of Greater Atlanta at the time asked Dave Fry, a pastor who then served as the chair of the Committee on Ministry, to attend mediation on behalf of the presbytery. Fry also was pastor of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian in Duluth, Ga., a congregation where Peterson-Davis’ wife Kerri then was on staff, working with middle school students.  Kerri Peterson-Davis had previously worked as the presbytery’s part-time consultant on youth ministries.


The report states that the executive presbyter at the time, who is not named, gave Fry “no guidance” on his role in the settlement negotiations. It states that Fry did not know or try to find out any of the details of the California allegations, and did not know that the abuse allegations involved multiple victims and multiple incidents.


Despite that, Fry was “proactive” in trying to ease restrictions on Jeff Peterson-Davis’s future ministry, the report states, and agreed in the mediation discussions that the presbytery, with limited exceptions, would hold details of the settlement and the allegations confidential. The settlement made the presbytery responsible for monitoring Peterson-Davis’s compliance with the California settlement agreement, with Peterson-Davis self-reporting his own employment and volunteer activities to the presbytery.


After returning from the negotiations in California, Fry then suggested that his own church, Pleasant Hill, ease restrictions on Jeff Peterson-Davis’s ministry work with youth, which in 1997 the session agreed to do.


The administrative commission wrote that it was “deeply disturbed” by the way the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta handled its involvement with the settlement agreement in the California.  


In 1998, Albright became the executive presbyter and found the California settlement in a sealed file. Albright turned to Fry as his “go-to” guy, since Fry had been involved in the settlement negotiations, and spoke to Jeff Peterson-Davis as well. The report states that Albright was “biased” in favor of believing Jeff Peterson-Davis’ explanations, because he had a positive working relationship with Kerri Peterson-Davis when she served on the presbytery staff. Albright’s “tight rein on sensitive information about ministers concentrated too much responsibility and control in one person,” the report states.


Atlanta Interfaith AIDS Network: The report states that in 2000, Jeff Peterson-Davis was asked to resign as executive director of the Atlanta Interfaith AIDS Network, “in the face of alleged financial impropriety” and the discovery of pornography involving young boys on his work computer. Albright was advised of the situation – at the insistence of Presbyterian elders on the network’s board, the report states – but “no discipline is pursued.”


From 2000 to 2004, Jeff Peterson-Davis assumed increasing responsibility at the Pleasant Hill congregation, becoming associate pastor under Fry. Fry’s “continued willingness to credit the explanation offered by Peterson-Davis without verifying those explanations” formed part of a continuing pattern of church officials allowing personal relations to “close their ears” to stories of concern, the report states.


In 2003, a minister from Greater Atlanta informed Albright that Jeff Peterson-Davis was working with youth in ways that might violate the requirements of the California court settlement. In response, the presbytery began requiring annual reports from Peterson-Davis stating that his work for the year complied with the requirements of the settlement agreement.


First Trinity allegation: In November 2005, a young man told Joanna Adams, Trinity’s former pastor, that Peterson-Davis had molested him during a Trinity youth group rafting trip in 1993. According to the report, Adams responded that “this is the day I have dreaded for ten years.”


The victim wanted to remain anonymous. Adams notified Albright of the allegation, noting that the pattern of the alleged incident was similar to what had been reported in California, the report states.  It says Albright urged Adams to try to convince the accuser to cooperate with investigators, but the accuser was not told he had the option of filing charges in the church judicial system with his identity kept confidential on a “need to know” basis.


In May 2006, almost six months after Adams contacted him, Albright forwarded the allegation so an investigating committee could be created. In July 2006, Jeff Peterson-Davis was told the committee had decided not to bring charges, in part because the accuser had asked to remain anonymous. At the same time, both Kerri and Jeff Peterson-Davis were looking for new jobs.


Move to Ohio: In August 2006, the pastor nominating committee of Pioneer Memorial Presbyterian in Solon, Ohio, near Cleveland, was prepared to call Jeff and Kerri Peterson-Davis as co-pastors. Catherine “Kitty” Borchert, the acting general presbyter of the Presbytery of Western Reserve at the time, contacted Albright to do an executive reference check.


Albright informed Borchert of the California lawsuit, but their recollection of exactly what was said differs, according to the report. Borchert said Albright made light of the settlement “and even described the California suit as ‘false charges.’” Albright said he made fuller disclosure.


Just minutes before the Committee on Ministry of Western Reserve was to conduct its interview with Jeff Peterson-Davis, Borchert told the committee’s chair about the California lawsuit and suggested that the committee ask him about it, the report states. Not having a copy of the settlement agreement, the committee relied on Peterson-Davis to tell what had happened in California.


According to the report, Peterson-Davis described it as a “misunderstanding” and said “the case was bogus.”  The report says that in the fall of 2006, Albright also told Liza Hendricks, Western Reserve’s executive presbyter, that the California lawsuit was a “false accusation.”


In September 2006, Western Reserve approved the call, and in November 2006, Kerri and Jeff Peterson-Davis began working at Pioneer Memorial. On Dec. 1, 2006, after the couple had been hired, Greater Atlanta forwarded to Western Reserve the paperwork regarding the California settlement and the compliance reports from Peterson-Davis.


Second Trinity allegation: In November 2011, as the news involving sexual abuse at Penn State was breaking, another man filed a complaint alleging that Jeff Peterson-Davis had abused him when the man was a teenager at Trinity Presbyterian. When informed of that, “Western Reserve officials were stunned to learn . . . that Greater Atlanta had considered a complaint of sexual abuse” involving a minor against Peterson-Davis just before he was hired at Pioneer Memorial, the report states.


“When the 2011 disciplinary proceedings began, Western Reserve acted promptly to place Peterson-Davis on paid administrative leave and directed him to resign from a contract to serve as keynote speaker at a 2012 Montreat Youth Conference,” the report states. It says Jeff Peterson-Davis had often led workshops and conferences at Montreat.


The report states that each of the young men who came forward with accusations did so “to prevent future victims and to prevent Jeff from being in a position to abuse young children going forward.” It also says it has received testimony “that raises real concerns that there may be other victims of Jeff Peterson-Davis who have not come forward.”


Learnings. Some of those who interacted with Peterson-Davis over the years now express deep regret for what happened, and for not doing more to protect the children. “In no way was there a deliberate cover-up,” Joanna Adams said in an interview. But “we didn’t have the systems in place” to respond when allegations of abuse were made, and to effectively report potential problems from one jurisdiction to another.


Part of the problem was that “nobody had all of the information at the same time,” Driesell said. “He isolated people. And when someone is convincing you they have been wrongly accused,” it’s tempting to believe, “particularly if it’s someone you trust and someone whose ministry has been effective.”


Among the lessons Driesell says she’s learned: “Always ask the next question. If the person is innocent, then what you’ll learn is more about their innocence . . . If anybody brings an accusation, we have to take it seriously.”


Driesell also sees the value of educating congregations about the patterns of sexual abuse. Her congregation now requires all who work with children and youth to complete several hours of mandatory training. This is part of the message: a sexual predator isn’t necessarily an outcast, but can be charismatic; married and with a family; effective and skilled at many aspects of ministry.


At Trinity church, Jeff and Kerri Peterson-Davis “were well-known and well-loved,” Adams said. “Jeff especially was an extremely gifted guy.  Young people and their families responded to Jeff and Kerri’s ministry with great enthusiasm and love and affection.”


When Jeff Peterson-Davis called her from California to say an accusation of abuse had been made and that he feared he might be arrested, Adams was shocked. He told her the accusation was false and he feared it might ruin his life, she said. At the end of their conversation, just before hanging up, she asked him one last question – and says now that “only the Holy Spirit would have given me the good sense to say this.”


Adams asked Peterson-Davis if there had ever been any other accusations. She said when he responded yes – maybe one or two – “my brain and my heart just flipped at that point.” Adams hung up, called the clerk of session and some key leaders for an emergency meeting, “and from that day on made sure and our leadership made sure that he was never alone with young people again” at Trinity. “We didn’t know that he was guilty. But I knew very deeply in my heart that we had a responsibility to keep our young people safe.”


When it was announced that Peterson-Davis was leaving, “I can’t tell you how mad those people were – the parents of those kids,” Adams said. “I was vilified. Really, it was the darkest time in my whole ministry – just rage. Jeff says he’s innocent, he didn’t do anything, there’s a crazy family out there in California that’s trying to ruin him. That’s the way the church felt.”


She watched, through the years, as Peterson-Davis remained active in the presbytery and had the trust of leaders such as Albright and Fry.


“I just think they never believed he was guilty,” she said. “I have people to this day who don’t speak to me because they think I crucified Jeff . . . If I had a learning from all of this it is that it doesn’t matter what individuals think. You’ve got to have the right protocols and procedures in place. There were just huge blank spaces here.”


Confession.  The August presbytery meeting, where the commission’s finding were discussed, was “profound in its authenticity” and with “a real deep sense of remorse and repentance and regret; and of deep, deep, deep respect for these now-adults who have fought back their own demons and who were brave enough to come forward,” Adams said.


Driesell said that for the victims, “it’s profoundly meaningful to them that the church was willing to be public truth-tellers and willing to take responsibility.” The meeting had a spirit of “genuine contrition for the fact that young people had been harmed when in the care of the church. . . I’m so grateful to the commission.”


Adams said she doesn’t know all the victims, “but my strong sense is that they are not after retribution or motivated by a desire to destroy or injure anybody. They are motivated themselves by what should motivate the whole church. That from now on, through this great tragedy, there will be fewer vulnerable people who have to go through what they did. They have been motivated honestly by compassion for people they don’t even know . . .


“It really took their courage to wake up a whole bunch of people to what needs to be done.”