It’s not just Catholic churches that harbor pedophiles and sex offenders. Churches of any kind can unwittingly provide predators access to children in trusting environments, as a controversial case with a Folly Road Episcopal church parishioner shows.
On Oct. 11, Mack Swafford, 65, a former lay leader at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Folly Road, became a registered sex offender. Swafford pled guilty to charges in connection with his arrest about a year ago after three men accused him of sexual improprieties dating back to 1983 and ending in 1990. The men, two of them brothers, told police Swafford fondled and kissed one, 11 years old in the beginning, and performed oral sex on the other two, ages 16 and 17, during the alleged incidents.
Because of Swafford’s position and relationship with Holy Trinity, where some of the incidents occurred, this case shines a critical light on how the church, its leaders, and the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina responded to allegations of child sexual abuse, which were reported in 1994 and handled internally, as no law required the church to report the incidents to the police. Law enforcement entered the picture years later, when the victims finally decided to come forward.
At least two former parishioners have accused the church and the diocese of protecting a pedophile, a charge the clergy adamantly denies.
Holy Trinity interim rector the Rev. Frank Seignious, in 2001, excommunicated one of those parishioners, Beverly Moore, after she accused Swafford of inappropriately hugging a teen boy, later refused to accept communion from Swafford, and stirred up animosity towards Swafford among her fellow parishioners. Moore says she was forbidden from receiving the sacraments and from attending Episcopal churches.
The Rt. Rev. Edward Salmon, bishop of the diocese, maintains that Moore was excommunicated because her behavior was destroying the church, saying her excommunication had nothing to do with Swafford. Salmon believes she merely latched on to the Swafford issue to get attention, but Moore and other parishioners say she was punished for trying to protect children from a pedophile.
A week before Swafford’s guilty plea, Moore filed a pro se civil suit in state court claiming the church slandered her, infringed on her right to freedom of religion, and intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon her. The suit names as defendants the national Episcopal church, known as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the S.C. Diocese, Holy Trinity, and about a dozen clergy and lay leaders mentioned in an attached complaint.
Moore filed that complaint about a month earlier to the national church against Salmon and Seignious. The national church is investigating the complaint, in which Moore claims that Salmon is guilty of conduct unbecoming a member of clergy. Salmon says he believes the investigation is a waste of time and money and that he and the church have done nothing wrong, legally or ethically. Seignious, who has left the diocese for undisclosed reasons, did not return phone calls for this story. Salmon declined to comment on the pending civil suit.
The national church representative who received the complaint is the Rt. Rev. F. Clayton Matthews, executive director of the Office of Pastoral Development. He declined to comment on the complaint and the civil suit, saying church law forbids him from talking publicly about pending complaints.
For his crimes of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature and committing a lewd act on a minor, Swafford was sentenced to 10 years probation, which will be suspended after he serves three years probation. The West Ashley resident was also required to register as a sex offender.
The church handled it
The Rt. Rev. Edward Salmon has a manila folder about an inch thick with records pertaining to Mack Swafford that date back to 1994. The Charleston County Sheriff’s office subpoenaed the file a year ago after detectives roped off Holy Trinity as a crime scene and questioned church leaders. Salmon handed over all the documents, but police never questioned him directly, he says.
One set of papers in the file is a dated account written by the retired Rev. Bert Hatch, who was rector at Holy Trinity in 1994 when, according to Salmon, the first allegations against Swafford emerged. The document, dated May 1994, begins with a January 1994 entry describing a conversation with a church secretary, who told the Rev. Hatch that she’d heard from parishioners that Swafford had molested at least one boy, and that the boy’s mother was upset. Hatch chronicled other events, including when church leaders confronted Swafford, who admitted to molesting two boys.
Sitting behind a shiny wooden desk in his Coming Street office, his lumbering old dog, Bailey, resting on the floor nearby, Salmon claims that Hatch’s signed statements in the file show that the church and the diocese did everything required of them, including counseling the victims and their families and urging them to go the police. He says the families refused to press charges. Before state law changed in 2002, churches were not required to report child sexual abuse claims to police. Police did not learn about the incidents until 2004.
The mother of one of the alleged victims, Betty Hayes, who lives in Newport News, Va., said in a phone interview that the vestry and clergy at Holy Trinity asked her and her son, Charlie Wilson, to let the church handle Swafford. She says she felt pressured not to go the police. Salmon denies that claim, saying the church urged the victims and their families to press charges.
The church forced Swafford to seek psychiatric counseling in 1994. A copy of Swafford’s mental evaluation is in the file, and Salmon says it proves Swafford received help and was rehabilitated.
The church did not stop there. Church officials removed Swafford from several leadership positions and established rules to prohibit his contact with children. If Swafford moved to another parish, he had to brief the new church’s leaders about his past.
The way the church handled the situation is typical, according to Atlanta attorney Joy Melton, author of Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Child Abuse in Churches.
“Christian people want to say ‘he’s changed, we’ve forgiven him, he’s reformed,'” she says. “Sometimes they put rules in place. But who is involved enough to police those rules?”
Melton, a United Methodist clergy person, has helped hundreds of Protestant and Catholic churches across the country create and enforce policies aimed at keeping children safe. Churches need common-sense policies to protect children, she says. Safety measures include having two unrelated adults in rooms with children at all times and having a window in every door. Everyone who works with children should have a background check, and those who do not pass muster should be excluded from working with children.
The Episcopal Diocese is updating its training program and policies for protecting children from sexual abuse. Created in 1995, this program includes Melton’s suggestions and aims to equip parishes with the tools to train new employees and volunteers, according to Deborah Barker, a diocese administrator coordinating the program. Historically, employees had to come to Charleston for training, she says.
Melton prefers her work with churches to be proactive, but sometimes it takes civil litigation against churches to make them wake up and do something, and she adds that she’s not opposed to representing victims in suits against churches.
Charlie Wilson was the first, in the summer of 2004. He told sheriff’s office detectives that, from 1986 to 1990, Swafford grabbed his butt while sitting behind him in choir and cornered him and kissed him on the mouth, threatening to do the same to his brother if Wilson told anyone, according to the affidavit. Wilson was 11 years old when this started and waited until he was 18 and a freshman at The Citadel, according to his mother, before coming forward to her and to the church about his abuse in 1994. It took him another decade to go to the authorities.
Soon after Wilson pressed charges last year, James Clark told detectives that when he was 16, in 1987, Swafford allowed him to drive his car to Edisto Island, where Holy Trinity then-rector the Rev. Bill Skilton’s house was being built. At this secluded construction site, Swafford asked Clark to fool around, the affidavit states, and after giving Clark beer, Swafford talked him into oral sex.
Skilton, now Bishop Suffragan of South Carolina, says that he was serving as a missionary in the Dominican Republic when the incident occurred and that he did not learn it happened at his house until years later, when Swafford’s activities were exposed. Skilton declined to comment further for this story.
In August 2004, detectives arrested Swafford and charged him with committing a lewd act on a minor, based on Wilson’s accusations, and with third degree criminal sexual conduct, based on Clark’s claims. Swafford appeared in bond court Aug. 31, 2004, and posted the $180,000 bail to be released and await his day in court.
Two weeks later, Clark’s older brother, Kinney Clark, reported to detectives that Swafford abused him in 1983 and 1984, when he was 17. Clark stated in an affidavit that Swafford gave him alcohol and pornography and performed oral sex on him while they were in Swafford’s home in the Orange Grove subdivision.
Detectives charged Swafford a second time with third degree criminal sexual conduct and with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Swafford posted the $500,000 bail and was released after a Sept. 16, 2004, bond hearing.
None of the victims could be reached for comment for this story. Wilson is an Army helicopter pilot serving in Iraq for the second time. James Clark lives near Greenville, and Kinney Clark lives in New Jersey, according to police reports.
The criminal sexual conduct charges were later reduced to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, because police could not prove that alcohol constituted force.
“At 16, is it plying them with alcohol, or is it offering it and having them take it?” asks Charleston County Assistant Solicitor Debbie Herring-Lash.
If the boys were too intoxicated to defend themselves, they would not be able to recount the details years later, she points out.
South Carolina is one of a few states in which any of these charges can be prosecuted, because the state has no statute of limitations on criminal charges.
The assault charges are felonies that carry sentences of up to 10 years in jail apiece. The lewd act charge, at the time a misdemeanor, carries a jail sentence of up to 10 years, and the contributing charge carries a sentence of up to three. But, as Herring-Lash predicted, Swafford will serve no jail time. His only punishment is probation and registering as a sex offender.
“I think that was best, for what he did,” Herring-Lash says, adding that he might have received a stronger sentence if the incidents involved force, had happened more recently, and, especially, if more victims had come forward to press charges.
Bishop Salmon says that if other victims exist, they are outside the church. He knows of no other victims in the church because of the rules placed on Swafford.
“Obviously, we don’t know about anything that went on in secret,” he says.
Attorney Melton says it’s unbelievable that someone like Swafford would molest just three victims. Statistics from the Justice Department and from the Health and Human Services Department say a typical pedophile molests more than a hundred children before being caught. Many victims never reveal they have been sexually abused, even when they are asked, so it’s not surprising that just three victims have pressed charges, Melton says.
Neither Swafford nor his attorneys, Glenn Churchill and Jack Sinclair, would return telephone calls regarding this story. The detective who began leading the investigation, Clair Morana, declined to be interviewed about the case. She is no longer a detective, according to sheriff’s office spokesman Capt. John Clark.
A unique situation
Searching for more victims to press charges against Swafford is driving Beverly Moore crazy. She is obsessed with seeing him behind bars and seeing the church and the diocese accept blame for allowing him to molest children, she says. Her admission understates the obvious.
Stacks of notebooks and folders, fat with hand-scrawled notes, lists, and photocopies, clutter the tiny West Ashley apartment she shares with her feisty cat, Blackjack. Moore suffers from a spinal injury and other health problems and manages to get around with crutches. She spends most of her time with her bare feet elevated in her recliner, her telephone perched right beside her, and her computer a few steps away on a desk in front of an easy chair. At 55, Moore squeaks by on a disability check and depends on friends and generous strangers to help her through tough spots, like recently, when someone smashed out the rear door window of her car, and later when her car needed a new transmission.
The formal complaint against Bishop Salmon that Moore recently submitted to the national church in New York is 27 pages long. Full of details, it is well-written and nearly spotless grammatically. She spent countless hours on it, she says, because the first two times she submitted the complaint, it was returned to her. She learned by trial and error all the hoops she would have to clear to have it accepted.
She sent the first complaint in July 2004 only to learn she addressed it to the wrong office, the Department of Pastoral Development in Virginia, and that her complaint had to be “verified” by a notary public. She tried again this past March, and that letter was returned, followed by a letter outlining instructions for exactly how her letter should be filed. Her third attempt was accepted, and she received a letter from Bishop Clayton Matthews stating that her complaint would be heard. Matthews was away on business and was unable to be reached for comment for this story.
Moore says her mission started in May 2000, when she filed a complaint at Holy Trinity with her then-rector, the Rev. Woodleigh Volland. She had become concerned about the safety of children at the church, she says, after seeing Swafford walk up behind a teenage boy and hug him, placing his face against the boy’s face. When Swafford made eye contact with her, she says, he jumped away, leading her to believe he realized he had acted inappropriately.
A few weeks after Moore reported this, Volland resigned and soon left the church. Moore believes this was related to the Swafford complaint, but Salmon and Volland both say it was completely coincidental, that his resignation was over political strife between Volland and some older church members.
Church leaders counseled the teen and his family, who decided not to press charges, according to Salmon.
Over the next several months, Moore says she was intimidated by Salmon, as well as by church clergy, church vestry, and Swafford himself, regarding her outspoken objections to Swafford’s behavior. In September 2000, interim rector Seignious told Moore and another parishioner, Peter Rowe, who had allied himself with her, they could no longer sing in the praise band or choir during services. Moore says she and Rowe both hesitantly agreed to attend prayer counseling sessions regarding their attitudes. Moore was also removed from her position as a volunteer in the church office.
This went on for months, and by the summer of 2001, according to Salmon, Moore’s behavior was unacceptable. She was doing everything she could to turn parishioners against the church, he says. So, in June the vestry gave Moore an ultimatum. She could forgive, reconcile, and come under authority of the church or be exiled. She gave the vestry a letter reiterating that she felt Swafford was endangering children, she says. In October, the vestry voted to have Moore excommunicated. Seignious carried out the order, and Salmon supported the decision. Moore immediately appealed.
“It’s a unique situation,” Salmon says. “In my 45 years as a priest, I have never excommunicated anyone.”
Moore’s strongest supporter, Rowe, says he believes the reason he was not excommunicated along with Moore is because the church saw her as the ringleader and him as a follower. He stopped attending Holy Trinity soon after Moore was excommunicated.
Rowe, 79, has filed a separate civil suit against the church. Along with mirroring Moore’s claim, that his religious freedom was infringed, Rowe’s suit has a peculiar second claim. He is seeking damages for destruction of personal property. He says Seignious came to his house and talked him out of two antiques, a Buddha statue and a sculpture of a Chinese warrior on horseback.
“He took them away and had them smashed — the Buddha took longer because it was made of cast iron,” Rowe says, half-joking in his thick British accent.
Seignious told him those relics were anti-Christian and were influencing his position against the church, Rowe said. This happened not long after Moore’s excommunication and just before Rowe left the church.
About a month after Moore’s excommunication, she received a letter from Salmon dated Nov. 27, 2001, saying that her excommunication would be lifted Dec. 20, so she could receive communion during Christmas and thereafter, but that she should not return to Holy Trinity. The letter said she could attend another parish as long as she stopped her “destructive talk against the rector and vestry of Holy Trinity.”
Moore never returned to Holy Trinity, and for a long time, did not attend any Episcopal churches. About two weeks after Swafford was arrested last year, Moore was refused communion at St. James Episcopal on James Island, she said.
Later, she began attending St. Peter and St. John’s Episcopal Church in West Ashley, where she was allowed to receive communion. Then on Sept. 9, 2005, just days after the national church accepted her complaint against Salmon, Moore received an e-mail from the Rev. John Burwell, rector of both St. Peter and St. John’s and The Church of the Holy Cross on Sullivan’s Island. Burwell wrote: “I am grieved to have to say this, but according to our Bishop you are still under an inhibition instituted last year, and thus I cannot allow you to receive Communion at any of our services.”
The latest twist was a letter she received in late September from Matthews, with the national church’s Office of Pastoral Development, saying that her excommunication was lifted because the diocese did not follow proper procedures when it was instituted. Moore never received written instructions regarding how she might be readmitted to the church, according to Matthews.
Salmon says that in late September he had agreed with Pastoral Development to lift Moore’s excommunication and that he hopes that grace will help her reconcile.
“If grace does not, I will excommunicate her again, and that one will not be lifted,” Salmon says.
Moore says that she is still unclear about exactly where her complaint stands with the national church and that she feels the church owes her an apology for how she was treated.
Observers of the story, including Atlanta attorney Melton, child abuse prevention advocates, and former parishioners who asked not to be named, question why the church would counsel an admitted pedophile and keep him in the fold, then banish a woman for her efforts to expose this predator.
Salmon maintains that Moore’s actions were destructive, and because she refused to change her ways, the church’s only recourse was to force her to leave. On the other hand, Swafford admitted his wrongdoing and reconciled his behavior. So the church forgave him.
While this story is a far cry from the network of clergy abuse exposed in the Catholic church, there are connections between the two. The most obvious is that child molesting tends to happen right under the noses of parents and other adults, and there may be no better veil of protection for this abuse than the false sense of safety that churches exude.
And just as the Catholic abuse story started small, so could this one. Time will tell.
On the bright side, one also could argue that this case and the Catholic abuse exposure show a positive trend — that Americans are becoming harder to fool when it comes to one of the oldest and foulest forms of social deviancy.