by Mark J. Welch
In February 1994, I made the very difficult decision to publicize the release from prison of my brother, Jeff Welch, who is a child molester. I have posted an essay about that experience on the World Wide Web. (http://www.MarkWelch.com/molestpr.htm)
Shortly after I publicized my brother's prison release, and just as my life was settling back to normal, a local elementary school teacher (Neil Shumate) was charged with molesting a number of his students. A few reporters called me for comments, but I viewed the case as unrelated to my experience and I have never even met Mr. Shumate, so I declined to comment. Only after the jury verdict was returned, finding Shumate guilty of molesting his students, did I decide to speak publicly about the issue. (Before the trial, I did speak to a group of local parents as part of a private panel discussion.)
During the trial, the local newspapers reported in grim detail the testimony of about a dozen children, who clearly testified that Mr. Shumate had fondled their "privates" [my word] and had put his hands inside their clothing. Each child was cross-examined by Shumate's defense attorney, who claimed that Mr. Shumate was merely tucking in a loose shirt or something similar, and each child clearly reponded that Mr. Shumate was not just tucking in a shirt or something similar. The trial testimony also included parents who testified about what I would call "borderline" conduct; the failure of parents to object to this conduct helped explain why children had failed to report molestation. (To protect the children, their names and their parents' names were not published.)
Before, during, and after the trial, Mr. Shumate made every possible effort to make his case appear to be a miscarriage of justice. He protested his innocence and sought financial and moral support from the community. After his conviction, he scheduled a press conference where he claimed there was no testimony of molestation; his statements ignored hours of courtroom testimony. He rambled on for more than a half hour, talking as much about other cases of alleged child molestation as about his own case. Later, at his sentencing hearings, he again refused to acknowledge the children's testimony.
Also before, during, and after the trial, Mr. Shumate's supporters, including family members and some parents of his former students, aggressively maligned the district attorney and police assigned to the case. (After the father of one of Shumate's former students spoke out publicly in Shumate's support, his son reluctantly revealed that he had, in fact, reported inappropriate touching by Mr. Shumate to his mother, who dismissed the report and said not to talk about it.)
Meanwhile, the child victims and their parents sought only to avoid the spotlight, not wanting to add more trauma. There were reports of harassing telephone calls and letters. Several of the victims' families moved out of town, and claimed they felt that they were driven out by Shumate's supporters. Other families' children changed schools.
Many of the teachers at Mr. Shumate's school also publicly supported him, and at least one teacher encouraged pupils to talk about the case, unaware that some of those pupils were Shumate's former victims. The school district promptly sought better training for its teachers, both in responding to reports of child molestation and in dealing with child abuse victims.
It may seem strange, but I can't really blame Neil Shumate for refusing to accept his own guilt. The jury convicted him of intentionally sexually molesting several children in his classroom -- based on the difficult standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." Based on the jury's verdict, I believe Neil Shumate is not just a child molester, but a pedophile. He is emotionally disturbed, and in any event it is far too late for him to admit his crimes and seek leniency, so I expect him to deny his crimes even to his grave. It does not surprise me or especially disturb me to see Mr. Shumate deny his crimes and villify his accusers.
Nor can I blame Neil Shumate's family for standing by him. They believe he is innocent, I cannot blame Mr. Shumate's family for standing by his side and even for ignoring what they believe are manufactured claims and inconclusive evidence. I do worry that the family members of child molesters are more likely than others to ignore signs of sexual abuse, but ultimately I cannot blame the Shumate family even for the most bitter statements they may make; their family and their dreams and beliefs are being torn apart by the trial, and I cannot expect them to properly attribute the blame to their own family member.
Indeed, I find it difficult to blame Mr. Shumate's other friends and supporters for standing by his side and refusing to accept that the teacher they trusted with their children could ever sexually molest children in his classroom. Some people cannot accept that it is impossible to "know" whether someone is a child molester; nor can some people comprehend how a child molester selects which children to molest and which to ignore. And some people simply have too much "invested" in their friendships and the people they trust to accept that their friend or teacher might be weak or emotionally disturbed.
But during and after the trial, I became very disturbed by the statements made by Shumate's supporters, because I believe those statements were harming children in my community.
After the jury's verdict was reported and Shumate's supporters made outrageous claims that were carried on local television news, I wrote the following letter to the editor, which appeared in the Valley Times newspaper (Pleasanton, CA) on February 13, 1995.
To the Editor:
I spent Monday evening in shock and pain, as I watched the television news coverage of the jury verdict in the case of Neil Shumate. On Tuesday morning, my stomach churned as I read the newspaper articles. My discomfort had nothing to do with Neil Shumate; I have never met him or any of the children he taught.
I felt pain because I was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, and because each news report and every quote offered a reason for other victims of child abuse to remain silent.
One community member whom I respect was quoted as saying that she would never believe the charges were true; a similar quote was aired on television. Another person announced on the television news that the jury's verdict was a shock because there was absolutely no testimony about the abuse. What she meant was that the children's testimony should be disregarded.
Supporters of Mr. Shumate have accused other parents as being manipulative liars who have tricked the children into telling false tales or distorting innocent touches. Will other children report abuse, if they thus create a risk that similar claims of manipulation will be made against their own parents?
What message do these people send to the children of Pleasanton and the Bay Area who suffer from child molestation? These children know already that their statements will be denied as fantasy by their abuser. Most child sexual abuse involves a family member; virtually all abusers are known and respected by their victims' families. Now these children learn from television and the newspaper that other trusted adults won't believe a child's word against another adult's, even if a jury rules against the adult. What better incentive to remain silent?
It took me almost twenty years to recognize that my silence protected only my abuser, not me. My silence allowed dozens of other children to be abused.
If my own experience is any guide, the children who are victims of sexual abuse are paying close attention to the Shumate case. That's not because they have an opinion on the outcome of this trial, but because they need reassurance that if they disclose their own abuse, they will be believed. They want to know that if they tell the truth, they will not become outcasts.
While I am inclined to respect the jury's verdict, I also respect Mr. Shumate's supporters, who have valid emotional reactions and some legitimate concerns. I believe that those concerns should not be worded in a way that discourages truthful disclosures by children who are victims of child abuse.
Children who believe that an adult has acted improperly should tell another trusted adult. Every adult must respect each child's report, and must respond appropriately, whether the complaint is of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. Of course, not every touch that makes a child uncomfortable is "molestation"; but even "innocent" touches are inappropriate if they violate the child's boundaries, and children must learn appropriate ways to respond to such violations. Each child must also learn that if one report is ignored, they should tell another adult, and another, until someone acts appropriately to protect the child.
Mark J. Welch