Man sues church, minister in sexual abuse case Civil damages sought for childhood trauma

October 17, 1991|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Daniel B. Swartz was a lonely 11-year-old whose mother had just died when a new pastor from the United Church of Christ came to his family's home in Eldersburg and befriended him, leading to more than six years of sexual abuse that he detailed yesterday in a lawsuit against the minister and the church.

Now 36, Mr. Swartz, contends the panic attacks and phobias that have plagued him since childhood are a result of that abuse.

In the civil action filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court, the Laurel man said he is seeking damages from the Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ, which has its headquarters in Catonsville, and from his former minister, Kenneth B. Wyatt, who resigned last month after admitting to the church that he sexually molested Mr. Swartz in Carroll County. Mr. Swartz said the money will pay for the therapy he has undergone since 1989.

At a news conference in Towson after filing the suit, Mr. Swartz, an interpreter for the deaf and blind, said he is angrier at the church for failing to protect him than at the minister, because "he is sick."

"I stand here before you today because I couldn't do it 20 years ago," he said. "I didn't know how and I didn't know I had the right. I didn't think anyone would believe me. The perpetrators must know that they are no longer safe. The abused must know that they are safe."

Mr. Swartz recounted his ordeal accompanied by two ministers of the church, who stated their support.

He said that soon after his mother's death in 1966 following a three-year struggle with cancer, the new minister at the United Church of Christ in Eldersburg came to counsel the bereaved family.

Mr. Swartz said he was lonely and Mr. Wyatt befriended him, encouraging him to join the church youth group. After a bowling outing when he was 12, Mr. Swartz said, the minister invited him home to play chess.

"We ended up on the floor. He was fondling me, he sodomized me," Mr. Swartz said. "All I remember is the pain, and thinking, 'Is this wrong? He's a minister.' There was nobody I could speak to."

The relationship was exposed when Mr. Swartz's father and sister intercepted a letter from the minister in 1969, he said. Mr. Wyatt left Eldersburg, and the church soon closed.

However, Mr. Wyatt continued to telephone from New Jersey, where he was pastor at another church, and visited for trysts at motels, Mr. Swartz said.

He said he was about 21 when he ended the sexual relationship. He said that although he loved Mr. Wyatt and believed the minister loved him, he hated their sexual activity.

Mr. Swartz said that in 1989, during therapy, he realized that he had been abused and that the phobias he had experienced since childhood stemmed from the abuse.

Mr. Wyatt, 76, who now lives in Frederick, said yesterday that he had "no comment" on the lawsuit.

But in a Sept. 2, 1991, letter to the church shortly before a $H scheduled disciplinary review, he resigned his ministry of 46 years and wrote: "I hereby acknowledge and confess with deep regret and shame that 23 years ago I violated the ethical code of ordained United Church of Christ ministers by professional misconduct. Although I deny many of the specific allegations made by Dan Swartz, I admit to sexual relations with him while he was still a minor."

No criminal charges arose from an investigation last year, said Assistant Carroll County State's Attorney Kathi Hill. "We believe [Mr. Swartz] . . . but were not able to find any victims willing to come forward -- except him." Without a confession, she said, the 18 years passed [since Mr. Swartz was a minor] would make it difficult to meet the high criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The state's attorney's office had agreed not to prosecute if Mr. Wyatt confessed to the church.

Mr. Swartz expressed disappointment at the lack of criminal prosecution and now is seeking $100,000 to $200,000 in damages on each of nine counts.

The suit alleges gross negligence, assault and battery, sexual abuse, breach of pastoral duty, invasion of privacy and other causes of action.

The Rev. Thomas R. Hamilton, associate conference minister, said he hadn't seen the suit but, "We knew we were vulnerable."

"We do not tolerate sexual abuse," he said. "It is not condoned. It was not covered up. . . . It's the integrity of the church and the ministry that's at stake, and there are thousands of ministers out there who shouldn't be tainted because one of us violated ministerial ethics and, in this case, sexually abused a minor."

He said the conference, which does not assign ministers to churches, was unaware of the abuse until May 1990, when it began its own investigation and disciplinary proceeding, meeting with Mr. Swartz and Mr. Wyatt and cooperating with the criminal investigation.

Mr. Wyatt retired to Frederick about 10 years ago, where he has been a fill-in minister.

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