Ex-missionary confesses to "sinful acts"
June 21 2002 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

Ex-missionary confesses to "sinful acts" | Friday, June 21, 2002

Friday, June 21, 2002

Ex-missionary confesses to "sinful acts"

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor

In a June 17 letter to fellow church members, family and friends, William N. (Mac) McElrath confessed to several incidents of child abuse early in his missionary career. McElrath and his wife, Betty, served as missionaries to Indonesia through the International Mission Board (IMB, formerly the Foreign Mission Board) from 1964 until 1995, and now live in Raleigh. The incidents occurred between 1967 and 1973.

The public statement came in the wake of pressure from five former missionary children, now adults, who say they were abused by McElrath. Along with a small group of supporters, they met June 14 with IMB president Jerry Rankin and other officials of the mission board. The IMB responded with a press release affirming support for a resolution on "the sexual integrity of ministers," approved June 12 at the annual Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting.

In the IMB statement, distributed June 18 by Baptist Press, Rankin said, "Sadly, our record in this area is not without blemish and we are not immune from such problems, though our policies and current stance on sexual misconduct are very strong." Internal policies were strengthened in the area of sexual misconduct a decade ago and reflect zero tolerance on sexual offenses, Rankin said.

The statement said the IMB "is taking initiatives to provide additional counseling for these men and women," and quoted Rankin as saying, "We are firmly committed to reaching out to victims and dealing decisively with violators. We are engaged in an ongoing review of our policies regarding sexual misconduct, and we are committed to continuous training of our personnel in awareness and prevention of sexual misconduct."

The release named McElrath as an example of "isolated cases of sexual abuse in the past," and cited McElrath's letter of the previous day.

IMB spokeswoman Wendy Norvelle told the Religion News Service there were two or three other cases involving abuse of children in the past nine years, but said she could not provide details. "If there is misconduct, termination is the result," she said.

A complaint was made against McElrath in 1973, accusing him of fondling two children of missionaries in Indonesia. The accusation was reviewed by field administrators, parents of the children and the McElraths, and "was resolved among the parties," according to the IMB statement

McElrath said in his letter that none of the incidents involved sexual intercourse. "My sinful acts involved touching, tickling, cuddling, fondling that went too far," he wrote. McElrath said he was discouraged, following conventional wisdom of the day, from talking with any of the involved persons.

In January of 1995, a group of victims came forward as adults and contacted IMB officials with information about other incidents that occurred between 1967 and 1973. In the course of an investigation, McElrath admitted to additional charges and was terminated by the mission board. His wife was allowed to take early retirement.

Because the incidents had taken place more than 20 years previously and in another country, no legal charges were filed.

At that time, McElrath wrote personal letters "to each person whom I thought I may have harmed, including grownup missionary children and their parents," he said. There were 12 or 13 letters, he said, involving six missionary families. "I confessed my sin, apologized for my actions, and begged forgiveness," he said. "Thank God, people blew the whistle on me 29 years ago," said McElrath, who insists there has been no additional misconduct since 1973.

Some victims and their advocates, however, say McElrath is minimizing the seriousness of the issue and understating the number of children involved.

Eddy Ruble, the brother of one victim and a spokesman for the group, told the Recorder that he believed McElrath's failure to remove himself from all contact with children indicates a lack of true remorse and concern for the safety of children.

The Rubles cited research suggesting pedophilia is generally considered a permanent condition.

According to a fact sheet on pedophilia published by the American Psychiatric Association, "the outlook for successful treatment and rehabilitation of individuals is guarded," leading most treatment programs to emphasize a relapse-prevention model designed to preclude contact with children.

Upon leaving the IMB, the McElraths moved to Raleigh and joined Forest Hills Baptist Church. McElrath said in his letter that he told senior pastor Larry Harper in confidence about his termination prior to joining Forest Hills, and he pledged not to accept any ongoing leadership responsibilities involving children or youth.

He and Betty did accept periodic requests "to share with children or youth at church, based on our experiences in music and missions," McElrath said, but always in public settings, with other adults present.

One concerned church member who does not want to be identified disputed that account, telling the Recorder that McElrath had spent unsupervised time with her children, though she was confident that nothing untoward happened.

In a March 21 letter intended for distribution to ministerial staff and lay leaders at Forest Hills, Ruble wrote to express concern that McElrath's quiet departure from the IMB "allowed him to maintain his fa�ade of being an upstanding member of the clergy - simply retired."

McElrath should not be recognized as a "former" or "retired" missionary, he wrote, but publicly known as a "terminated missionary."

"I have taken it on as my cause to try to put a stop to Mac's endangerment of children by informing those in supervisory roles in places and institutions where Mac McElrath places himself in contact with children," he wrote.

Leaders at the church mailed a letter to church members on June 17 indicating a policy agreement in which McElrath "will not participate, lead, accept or be involved in any trust position with children or youth within the church." The church arranged a forum to allow members to address concerns and released a public statement on June 21.

"The leadership of Forest Hills Baptist Church is not aware of any recurrence of

William McElrath's indiscreet behavior from the years of 1967-1973 at any time

since Mr. McElrath has been a member of Forest Hills Baptist Church," the statement said. "The church is also not aware of any allegations of any recurrence of such behavior. The church leadership is responding to the present situation with concern for our children, our parents, the church-at-large, as well as with grace and compassion for the McElrath family."

McElrath has published more than 60 books, about half in Indonesian and half in English. Many of the books, such as A Bible Dictionary for Young Readers, were marketed to children and youth. A 1997 title, Ways We Worship, introduced

young readers to world religions. McElrath also wrote Sunday School lesson commentaries for the Biblical Recorder for four months beginning in January 2001. The Recorder staff was unaware of the incidents of abuse at that time.

McElrath's record became public through efforts by the Rubles, the five victims and other supporters, which led to the June 14 meeting with Rankin, several top IMB officials, and two lawyers. The IMB arranged the meeting and paid the expenses for all participants, including three persons who traveled from Europe and the Middle East, Ruble said.

Victims and their advocates asked the IMB to make a public statement about McElrath's termination, to provide counseling services for victims, to actively seek other victims of abuse and make counseling available to them, and to tighten internal policies to discourage future acts of abuse.

"The only way to protect children is to break the silence," Ruble's wife, Cindy, told the Recorder, "to expose perpetrators at such a level that they can no longer be in a situation that could endanger children."

The Rubles said IMB officials promised to release a statement "within one or two weeks" of the Friday meeting, after clearing it with victims and their supporters. But, the IMB statement released the following Tuesday included no input from the victims and played down their concerns about McElrath, Ruble said.

Three of the victims are seeking financial restitution. They held a second meeting with IMB officials and legal counsel on June 14. No details of the meeting have been released, though an IMB official cited legal ramifications growing from that meeting for the decision not to consult victims before issuing the mission board's press release.

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6/21/2002 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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