HUGHESVILLE, Md. (BP) – Derek Yelton, pastor of Hughesville Baptist Church, and his wife Joy expected the mountaintop celebrations and heart-rending challenges of a life of ministry. But nothing prepared them for the discovery that their 13-year-old daughter had been sexually abused by a chaperone on a mission trip. That pushed them to the very edge.
Joy shared the story, sometimes tearfully. “It happened when our daughter had just completed the eighth grade and was going on a summer youth mission trip,” she said. Adding to the pain, they discovered that the perpetrator had been grooming their daughter over time, building up trust and encouraging her to become attracted to him. Gradually, he began pinning her against walls in vacant church hallways and kissing her. That process continued until the molestation on the trip.
The Yeltons discovered the abuse after their daughter shared the incident with a friend. That friend told her mother, and the mother approached Derek and Joy.
“Our reactions to this were overwhelming,” Joy said. “It’s one of those moments in time that is just hard to describe.” There were mixed stories – some entirely false – and it was very frustrating to try to sift through all the reports to get to the truth, she said.
At first, there was doubt and hope that the story was untrue. Maybe it didn’t really happen – perhaps it wasn’t as bad as it sounded, a drama people had built up or just teenage rumors.
And then the truth emerged – it had occurred. Their daughter had been sexually abused.
“We were in total shock that this could happen to our family when we tried so hard to raise our children in a Christian home, tried to give them the morals and direction, and encouraged them to talk to us about anything,” Joy said.
There was also blame – a lot of self-blame and blaming others. “Eventually, all the emotions explode over time, and there’s just a numbness. You can’t feel anymore. You’re just going through the process,” she said softly.
Reporting the abuse and facing church leadership
Derek reported the incident. “I knew the police would have to be involved. I contacted the chairman of the deacons and youth minister and told them I would be taking steps to contact the authorities,” he said. “I spoke to leaders at the state convention, and they agreed. They said, ‘You’re legally obligated to report this, but you will be forced to resign and probably never pastor another church in the state if you go to the police.’” Derek sighed and said, “It was very confusing.”
It was complicated just to figure out where to report. Derek contacted the police precincts responsible for the church he pastored, the location where the incident occurred and the perpetrator’s residence. “We had to take our daughter to be interviewed by a detective, and she had to have a physical exam,” he said.
As stressful as the process was, the family then had to deal with angry church leadership. Returning home after the ordeal of the interview and examination, the chairman of the deacons and several others arrived and insisted that Derek not report the abuse.
“When I told them I already reported it, they said to get the charges dropped against the perpetrator,” he said. Derek refused.
The young man was charged with second-degree sexual misconduct involving a minor.
“They (church leaders) began to attack our daughter, and attack me, with all kinds of accusations,” Derek said. “The perpetrator had grown up and had family in the church. It is surprising that many times the victim is the one who is attacked. They questioned her (their daughter’s) morals and almost tried to blame her, a 13-year-old kid, for seducing an adult. It was a trying situation. It took a long time to get through it all.”
Once the perpetrator was charged and arrested, the chairman called and told Derek to resign immediately. If not, he warned, they would vote to have him terminated.
“He said that if I resigned, my family could stay in the parsonage for five weeks until our kids were through with school,” Derek said. “If not, we had to get out of the house. Under those parameters, I did resign. I found out a week later that they allowed the perpetrator to speak from the pulpit and defend himself.” There were a lot of emotions swirling at the time, he said. That included a lot of anger.
A traumatized family
The situation impacted the whole family. “Our children were isolated; we were concerned about their safety,” Derek said. “We moved their beds away from the windows. We had to transfer our daughter to another school because of rumors, name-calling, and bullying.”
The family of six moved to a two-bedroom apartment, and Derek got a job in construction. Joy took other jobs. They went to individual, family and couple’s counseling for two years. Derek said it was helpful in many ways in dealing with the abuse and other family issues.
“It (the situation) created a lot of insecurity and anxiety in our sons and for us,” he said. “I still deal with anxiety. It was a long process, and it’s something you can never completely get over. Our daughter went through some addictive and destructive behavior. She’s better now and seeking the Lord’s direction in her life. She married a godly man and is excited about what is going on in her life.”
Joy, looking back, said, “It was a very lonely time. I had lost all my friends … and my children lost their friends, so we were very dependent on each other. Our family was really struggling. I’m really thankful that God has given me the skills to manage when we’re in crisis. I may fall apart afterward, but I can manage through the crisis.”
“Derek was in a very dark place,” Joy said, starting to break down. “There was a time I saw him lying on the carpet face down, just crying out to God. He got to the point where he couldn’t go to church. Church was just a very dark place. He dealt with a lot of anger and anxiety.”
“Our daughter had shut down,” Derek said. “She was isolating, and at one point, we had to take the door off of her room.” The couple also had to talk to their sons – informing them but striving to protect them and keep them safe. “We needed to normalize as much as possible,” he said.
“My daughter had been hurt, so she would attack me, probably for good reason with some of the things that occurred during that time,” Derek said. However, the painful season was profitable because they spent time together, learning to be sensitive to one another. “I remember hearing Joy crying at 2 a.m. one night and saying, ‘We’re just not going to make it!’ I was so angry that I thought, ‘Oh yes, I am! I’m going to make it just out of spite! I’m going to do whatever it takes to save my family. Whatever it takes!’ We finally started working together instead of working against one another. Sometimes, when you’re being attacked, you have a tendency to attack anything and everything, and you have to realize your family is not your enemy. There were a few other pastors who were supportive and helpful. You try to reach out and find people who can help and encourage – like Paul and Barnabas relationships. Then you look at ways, later on, to hopefully use the situation for some good.”
Healing and ministry to abuse victims
And that happened. When they moved to a different state, God brought others into their lives who had been through abusive situations, and Derek and Joy were able to minister to them. “That was one of the more encouraging aspects for me as a pastor – being able to minister to others who had gone through something similar,” Derek said. “I have a more compassionate spirit towards them and don’t make the mistakes I might have made in the past – asking questions like, ‘Why did you do this or that?’ Sexually abused people have been through trauma, and they’re dealing with guilt. They are not the ones who did something wrong.”
Derek brought a motion to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in the mid-2000s calling for investigating sexual abuse allegations and providing training for churches and developing policies to prevent sexual misconduct and abuse. He’s encouraged by what he sees today, both nationally and locally.
“I’m grateful to see today our convention is taking this issue seriously and taking positive steps not only in reporting things in the past but in preventing this from reoccurring in the future. That’s the key! We want our kids to be safe; we want our women to be safe,” Derek said.
“Most churches have locks on doors to protect from thieves, fire alarms to protect from fire. We try to be prepared for the worst-case scenarios,” he said. “We have to have the same protection in place for sexual abuse. We have to realize that predators are looking for opportunities to take advantage of individuals. Many times, for them, there’s not a better place than a church.
“Most everyone who comes through the church doors has the best intentions. But we must be as shrewd as serpents. We must be very careful to make sure those attending, especially the most vulnerable, are safe.”
Derek encourages pastors to ask leaders to consider their children and grandchildren. “Don’t you want them to be as safe as they possibly can be?” he said. People need to become aware of the magnitude of the problem. The goal should be to make church a safe place.
“It’s not that it’s necessarily an unsafe place, but let’s make it a safer place,” he said.