The quote above was a minor footnote in the article about Ronald William Brown, the youth minister and puppeteer from Largo, Florida who was recently sentenced to 20 years for possession of child pornography and investigated for conspiracy to rape, murder and actually cook and eat an identified, targeted child at his local church. But the quote makes a strong point anyway.
Many youth organizations, religious and non-religious, perform criminal background checks of candidates and current employees. The problem is they’re usually worthless. Child predators, particularly relatively educated, middle-class white men with ties to the community and convenient covers for their methods, are usually not criminally versatile, meaning they don’t engage in “typical crimes” like robbery, burglary, car theft, etc that are most often reported immediately (unlike child abuse, particularly sexual abuse). So between the very low rate of reporting child abuse and the low likelihood that it will be successfully prosecuted, there’s nothing to alert well-intentioned leaders of youth groups that a certain candidate is dangerous. This played out exactly as expected in Brown’s case where there was no footprint in the criminal law reflecting the reality of his pathology and intentions to act on it.
Nevertheless, there were warnings.
From the same article: “In 1998, a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy stopped Brown for a traffic violation and observed boy’s underwear between his front seats. Brown said he used the underwear to dress his puppets. In 2010, Largo police were called to Brown’s house by a neighbor who had suspicions about his habit of driving boys around. No arrest resulted.”
Most likely, no blame lies with the police officers who were alerted to these facts but made no arrests. As is typical, Brown was ready with a plausible explanation on both occasions, the first a tragic 14 years before his arrest in 2012. I say tragic because although the Federal prosecutors who pursued Brown found no evidence of him actually harming children, it is at least quite possible that he did so to one degree or another given the access he created over the years through many different venues. His attorney insisted that Brown’s pathology was limited to fantasy, and thankfully this was challenged by the prosecution and the judge. But even in the court proceedings, the assumption by all parties (prosecution, defense and the bench) seemed to be that Brown had not yet acted on his impulses.
Granted, that assumption is appropriate in terms of legal sanctions for Brown; he cannot be convicted or punished for what he might have done or wished he could have done. But the fact is, given how infrequently children report acts of abuse and how often men like Brown get away with them, we’ll likely never know for sure what he did over the many years his pathology evolved and metastasized. Brown alone drove groups of children to church in a van the church itself provided. He had them over for pizza and proselytizing.
The pastor from Brown’s church, Randy Morris, where Brown was active for more than 15 years, stated that, to his knowledge, Brown was never alone “at the church, with any child, at any time.” I’m sorry, but that should be little comfort to parents whose children interacted with Brown over time. The more jaded among us (those who have, for example, seen Brown’s now vintage ventriloquism on the Christian Television Network) may assert that leaders and involved parents at Brown’s Gulf Coast Church were foolishly naive to give him any access to children, ever. After all, Brown did match every Internet child molester stereotype, right down to his trailer formerly shared with his parents and pet cat. But in fairness, the typical Evangelical pastor is often not the typical young adult on the internet looking to make fun of something salacious.
Regardless, the question becomes whether a decision-making leader like Randy Morris should monitor people like Brown, with not only conviction records but also arrest records (they are public), and with any other available and potentially reliable information. The answer should be obvious.