Another day, another church’s youth minister arrested for crimes against children. If my blog were a sort of News of the Weird of Christianity–and I suppose in some respects it is–then this scenario would definitely qualify as no longer weird enough to make the cut. But I noticed something interesting: that I could tell something important about a church just by seeing how its members and leaders react to a scandal.
Everybody, Meet the (Alleged) Scumbag.
Largo, Florida police arrested the Director of Children’s Ministry of the very large Anona United Methodist Church, Domenic Bisesti. The 31-year-old hip an’ happenin’ youth minister, it seems, was fondling an underage girl. So yes, this story is yet another iteration of the timeless tale of the youth minister who decides to fish off of his own dock, pushing himself onto an underage victim and then making his sexual assaults into some kind of romantic movie playing in his own head.
Like a lot of people who prey upon children, Domenic Bisesti built his life around getting close to them. He got into drama and theater, mingling it with children’s ministry well enough to get hired by Anona United Methodist Church. Not only was he working for the church, but he also worked with a local dance troupe that catered to children ages 6-18 as well as a community theater troupe called Eight O’Clock Theatre. You can find his YouTube stuff online–here’s one video of him dancing barefoot in what looks like the church with some kids from last September, a whole channel of videos he created to support his “ministry,” and one from a few years ago of choreography he did for The Rocky Horror Show for another group. And, um, he was also in this thing whose reason for existence may never be ascertained:
I can’t help but think that this is kind of racist.
I can’t tell exactly when Anona hired him, but it was probably around 2015–and probably quite a feather in his cap considering the church’s size. In his capacity as a children’s minister, Domenic Bisesti chose and then tried to groom his victim, a 14-year-old girl attending the church. He started by “accidentally” brushing against various parts of her body. At first, she was confused and thought that he hadn’t meant to do it. As time went on, though, she became certain that no, he meant all of it. At that point, he began telling her how “cute” she was, how he just couldn’t stop himself from preying upon her, and then escalated to cornering her alone to kiss her. And then he sent an out-of-this-world straight-up delusional message to the girl’s phone that said, in part, that he wished they’d “either kept going or never gotten that close.”
Remember, she was not on board with any of this abuse. Nothing I’ve seen indicates that she was even vaguely interested in what he was doing–not that a 14-year-old can meaningfully consent to this kind of contact. It would have been wrong regardless and it would have still been completely his fault. But everything I’ve seen indicates that he had this love story going on in his own mind that didn’t depend in the slightest upon his victim’s compliance.
The reaction the girl got when she sought help told me something very important about her church: that it was not going to be one of those broken systems that coddle predators.
Predators Love Broken Systems.
One can easily see why so many people who want to abuse children end up at churches. Most of them have at least a few young kids floating around with their parents, and their parents often put a lot of trust in their church staff to provide a safe environment for those kids.
When an abuser gets unmasked in such an environment, the broken system’s members will immediately try to cover up the crime. That abuse makes their group look bad for a number of reasons. It makes very obvious the fact that there’s no god making any Christian groups into better people, that there’s no god protecting their most vulnerable members, and that there’s definitely no god leading them to choose better workers and leaders than they do. So the natural inclination in such groups is to quietly resolve the issue by silencing the victim somehow–through social pressure or financial misdeeds or even violence. If further action is needed, then the abuser will simply be shuffled off to another location the group maintains–naturally with no warning ahead of time to the people there that they’re about to get a predator in their midst.
People in broken systems can’t stop abusers from infesting their ranks and rising to positions of power because that’d involve totally changing how they deal with people in power and most especially reducing the level of power given to leaders and changing the kind of power those people enjoy over others.
Since people in broken systems get really good at pretending to be super-duper-happy ALL THE TIME, those outside that system don’t generally realize how bad things are for the people within it. They see the big dopey ear-to-ear grins and behold the Potemkin village in full throat, and they don’t realize what lurks underneath those placid waters. It’s not until some shocking scandal erupts or someone escapes the system that the cover gets blown wide open.
Seeing the Signs.
I’m going to run down here some of the signs I look for in a group that is operating within a broken system, and then show you what happens when an un-broken group faces a scandal.
- They don’t take abuse of children very seriously. They may bitterly resist the idea of doing background checks or maintaining an abuse database.
- They routinely blame victims for their own victimization. They may claim that an underage child actually wanted a sexual relationship with an adult, or that a victim did something to somehow provoke the attacker.
- They routinely defend the character of abusers. He’s such a nice guy! She seemed so good with the kids! They just have no idea where these accusations are coming from! They don’t even realize that abusers can be super-charismatic people, nor do they care. In a broken system, appearances matter way more than reality.
- Victims have no protection or advocates within their group. Children who are abused know (or at least strongly suspect) that their parents won’t believe them if they tell. Other victims know that if they speak up about what happened to them, their group will retaliate against them and possibly even cast them out or ruin their lives with gossip and drama.
- Group members are way more concerned about their group’s image and credibility than they are about the victims of the abuse scandals that crop up constantly in their group. When group members are confronted by non-members with their group’s scandal, chances are they’ll try to silence the critic or to insist that the scandal didn’t really happen–or wasn’t that bad. They will not generally address the scandal or take definitive measures against wrongdoers until and unless outcry gets so bad that the group’s power becomes threatened.
- Their power structure is made up entirely of one demographic that they feel should have all the power, effectively stripping other demographic groups of power–and their voice. For example, a fundagelical church might have a “ministry team” made up entirely of older white men. Scandals will almost always come from abusers who belong to the demographic in power in that group.
- They do not instantly remove an accused abuser from his or her position of power. They may piously proclaim that they are “praying for” the abuser while ignoring the victim of that abuse or they may rally around the abuser in court to make the victim feel completely alone. They grant abusers far more “reasonable doubt” than they do victims. And as mentioned, they shuffle abusers around and around and around to keep them operating in other areas.
There are lots of other signs that mark a broken system–high turnover in membership or leadership, badmouthing non-members and ex-members, and as we talked about in comments, there being no way to correct or gainsay a member who is saying stuff that is objectively incorrect or to stop a “bad apple” from running amok over everything–but those are the relevant ones to this discussion. When you see these signs in a group that faces a very serious abuse scandal, you know that you need to run far, far away from the group involved.
But Then Shines a Good Deed in a Weary World.
When Domenic Bisesti pushed himself onto the 14-year-old girl he worked with at Anona United Methodist Church, the girl in question at first thought he was touching her accidentally. When she finally worked out that none of it was accidental, she told him to stop doing it.
After gaining very clear confirmation that his victim wasn’t welcoming his advances, he didn’t care. He pushed past her objections, as predators do, because what he wanted (his gratification) mattered way more than anything she needed or wanted, and obviously it mattered way more than the trust the church had put in him when it allowed him access to their children. As I said, he had this idea in his head that he had this romantic relationship blooming with this child, and a simple thing like her flat-out rejection wasn’t going to get in the way of his desires.
In a broken system, chances are the girl never would have gotten as far as telling her abuser to leave her alone. Girls raised in those systems don’t have much of an understanding of boundaries and often don’t consider their bodies their own property–any more than their elders do. A group that is ruled by respect for consent and boundaries is not one that is conducive to predation anyway.
So the mere fact that she herself tried to stop him is a very big deal. She knew what was happening wasn’t right, and she knew that she had the total right to demand that it stop.
When she realized that he wasn’t going to stop, though, she then went to her mother–who immediately contacted police to report the youth minister. That tells me that the girl knew that her mother would be her advocate. She knew that her mother would believe her, and she knew her mother would be quick to help her. And she was right. Her mother put her child’s safety way above that of her group’s image and way ahead of the predator’s happiness.
Then the police duly performed their investigation, found corroborating evidence on the girl’s cell phone, and arrested the guy.
When the senior pastor at the church, Jack Stephenson, found out about the arrest he took immediate and definitive action to protect his flock: he immediately removed Domenic Bisesti from all the church’s programming and had him return his church keys and clean out his office. Bisesti is actually barred entirely from the church’s property now. The pastor is arranging for counselors to help the victim and her family as well as the church’s other congregants–not only to help parents explain the incident to their kids, not only to help the people there as they work through the abuse scandal, but most importantly to locate other victims if they exist.
The pastor has also stressed that not only does his church conduct background checks before hiring anybody, they also conduct them on an ongoing basis. Like a lot of child sex abusers, this particular one just didn’t have a formal record of criminal charges. But neither that lack of history nor the pastor’s own feelings of affection for his former youth minister kept him from doing every single thing you could really hope to see a church leader do to try to help the abuser’s victim and ensure that his group is safe.
A Swing and a Hit.
When I hear about a scandal coming out of a particular group, I try to guess what that group’s position is regarding human rights and Christianity’s culture wars. Then I look up the group to see if I was right or wrong.
In this case, I looked at how the victim reacted, and how her mother reacted, then at how the pastor responded to the news. I made a guess based on that information that this group was probably not broken–and that it probably was very progressive on the topic of human rights. I also guessed that there’d be at least a few women in positions of authority at this church.
So far I’m batting a thousand. I expect that one day I’ll be wrong, but so far I haven’t been. We can find a remarkable correlation between a group’s response to a scandal and their position on the culture wars.
Here’s Anona’s list of leadership committees, including the list of people they send to the United Methodist Church’s annual jamboree. You’ll quickly notice that there are a lot of female-sounding names on that list. (Notice also that front top and center on that portal is the church’s child safety questionnaire.)
Here is Anona’s cultural statement. It stresses their inclusive nature and specifically includes gay people in that inclusivity. Here’s their staff page for their Licensed Clinical Social Worker, who got her education from real live secular schools. Here’s their lecture series about superheroes that’d make fundagelicals burst into flames. (And yeah, I’m not thrilled with the way Christians usurp superheroes, but it’s still a hoot to see a six-week-long lecture series that focuses on them here.) Notice also in that newsletter that they host a support group for PFLAG, and that they’ve already put someone else into Domenic Bisesti’s former position of Director of Children’s Ministry–a woman.
About the only objection I could raise is that Anona’s parent denomination doesn’t allow openly gay members to serve in their clergy, but I suspect that’s coming since they do allow women to be ordained and support abortion rights for women. The NYT had a piece a couple of months ago about a church squabble over the ordination of a gay bishop, and the piece mentions a gay senior pastor in Connecticut who isn’t having a problem . Plus there’s this story about how 150 queer UMC clergy wrote a letter to their denomination’s brass hats to ask for LGBT ordination. So I’m inclined toward generosity on that count.
I’m going to keep an eye on this correlation, but so far it sure seems solid.
Oh and While We’re At It, Also Meet the Theatre Director Who Apparently Didn’t Have a Problem With the Idea of a Grown Man Fondling an Underage Girl.
It’s not just churches that can be affected by the dynamics of the broken system.
Remember that Eight O’Clock Theatre group that Domenic Bisesti was involved with? Its director, Betsy Byrd, didn’t have any problem with maintaining a professional relationship with a guy who got arrested for fondling a tween. She told Tampa Bay Times that gosh, casually patting people on the ass is totally common in theatre culture so she didn’t see any reason to reject the accused molester. He’d been working with children through her group for years and well golly everybody adored him!
When a reporter with the Times showed her the arrest report and she learned about exactly what her pal Domenic Bisesti was accused of doing, she was floored. She said, “I don’t really have any comment on that. I don’t really know what to say about that.”
I thought I’d give her a hand cuz I’m feeling really helpful right now:
You say, “Oh my ever-lovin’ god of tiny orange kittens, I had no idea. Obviously, the idea of an adult patting an unrelated child on the ass is unacceptable anywhere, even in the debauched and recklessly careless world I clearly ooze through, so I don’t even know what got ahold of my mouth that made something that patently horrifying come out of it, but obviously I know that fondling little girls is totally not okay in any world at all. Thank you for telling me about this so I can immediately take measures to remove him from any contact with any other children.”
But weirdly, that wasn’t her immediate reaction.
The other dance troupe, meanwhile, swiftly took the pervert off of their website entirely. As I look at the theatre group’s website a few days after Ms. Byrd made that statement, I don’t see any mention of the alleged molester, so that’s good at least; she may have had a serious change of heart after being shocked by the news. I hope she makes clear that this behavior is totally unacceptable–because I wonder how many parents are going to hear that comment of hers and then happily entrust their children to her. I hope not many would, even in Florida.
The church’s reaction turned out to be the totally correct one in this case, while the supposedly secular groups that worked with the alleged molester gave the responses that are most likely to provide a great cover for people like him to do their dark deeds. Who’d’a thunk? It doesn’t make me think this church’s religion’s a good one for the world, no, but at least they’re not doing quite as much harm as their culture-warring brethren are–and at least their children are demonstrably safer there than they are in culture-warring churches.
Last, let me say here that my heart goes out to Domenic Bisesti’s victim, and I truly hope that she gets the help she needs in recovering from her youth minister’s abuse–and that there are no other victims. Ultimately, what matters most to me is that she’s okay and that her attacker is denied all future opportunities to harm other children.
We’re going to look at apples and broccoli next time we meet up, but first:
Join me on Saturday as I watch A Matter of Faith, a movie about a Christian girl with fluffy pink ladybrainz in a mean ole secular biology class that challenges her beliefs in Creationism–to the chagrin of the men around her who want to rescue her from that challenge. The movie’s available on Netflix and probably lots of other places. I’ll be getting started at around 4pm, will post a quick intro first so we can chat about it in comments if desired, and then later that night I’ll post the full review. I’d love for you to watch it along with me if you can! The wine pairing for the occasion will be Columbia Winery’s “Composition,” a red that claims to be the next evolution in wines. See you then!