Opinion

Girls were sexually abused. The work of these journalists could prevent it from happening again.

Lumberton police chief: ‘This is the outcome we all feared’

The FBI and Lumberton, North Carolina police confirm that a body found on Tuesday in Robeson County during their search for kidnapped 13-year-old Hania Noelia Aguilar has now been positively identified as Hania, missing since Nov. 5.
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The FBI and Lumberton, North Carolina police confirm that a body found on Tuesday in Robeson County during their search for kidnapped 13-year-old Hania Noelia Aguilar has now been positively identified as Hania, missing since Nov. 5.

Shortly after moving to Texas in February, Sarah Smith saw a news story about a father and a son arrested on charges of sexually assaulting children. The men and the children attended an independent fundamentalist Baptist church in Mesquite, Texas.

A previous pastor of the church had been charged several times with sex offenses before he hanged himself in jail in 2011.

Smith, then a reporter with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wondered if there was a pattern of sexual abuse at the church and began investigating.

About eight months later, the Star-Telegram published articles tallying at least 412 allegations of sexual misconduct in 187 independent fundamental Baptist churches and affiliated institutions in 40 states and Canada. There were more churches in North Carolina with reported abuses (17) than in any other state.

The Star-Telegram is owned by McClatchy, as is The News & Observer, and The N&O recently published Smith’s work. She showed that the network of churches often covered up the crimes and helped relocate the offenders. Some pastors acknowledged that they moved alleged abusers out of their churches rather than call the police.

“More than 200 people — current or former church members, across generations — shared their stories of rape, assault, humiliation and fear in churches where male leadership cannot be questioned,” Smith wrote.

In some cases, Smith communicated privately for months with a woman before she would talk. Some cried the entire time they were interviewed.

“It was re-traumatizing for them,” Smith, who’s now at the Houston Chronicle, told me. “But they really wanted to make sure it got out there to prevent it from happening to at least one other person.”

Many of the women were girls when the abuse occurred. Even as adults, they were reluctant to report the offenses to police.

“Not only is sexual abuse an extremely difficult crime to report (to police) but in the independent fundamentalist Baptist world, you’re taught all problems should stay in-house,” Smith said. Some of the women interviewed by Smith have been emboldened by her articles and are now talking with police.

Smith’s reporting shows the power of journalism to reveal abuse and spur a discussion about solutions. Our legal system sometimes has trouble uncovering problems and moving forward with action. Sometimes victims don’t want to talk. Sometimes police, prosecutors and courts are overwhelmed. Sometimes the legal system malfunctions or seals documents and proceedings that should be open.

That was the case when Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald, another McClatchy news outlet, recently reported that Miami’s former top federal prosecutor cut an unusually lenient, secret deal with multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was facing a 53-page federal indictment for sex crimes with underage girls that could have sent him to prison for life.

Instead, Epstein served 13 months in a county jail and the agreement concealed the full extent of his crimes so that victims could not fight the deal in court. The former prosecutor who approved the deal, Alexander Acosta, is now a member of President Trump’s Cabinet.

Closer to home, The N&O’s Josh Shaffer recently reported the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office had DNA evidence linking a man to a 2016 rape a year before charging him in the recent rape and murder of 13-year-old Hania Aguilar, but did not follow up. Hania had been missing since November when a man forced her into a vehicle outside her home.

The abuse described in these stories cannot be undone. But because of these reporters’ efforts, police and others in our communities can work to prevent them from happening again.

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