April 20, 2016
How AJS and three brave mothers stood together for justice
The arrest — that was the moment Teresa* felt like she could truly trust the three-person team from AJS that contacted her two months earlier, asking if she and her son would accept their help.
The team members all seemed like kind, genuine people — but then again so did the man who they helped arrest. He was one of the people Teresa had trusted most in the world: her pastor.
Until the arrest happened, Teresa felt that justice lay beyond her reach. She had already decided to report how the pastor was sexually abusing boys in the church’s youth group, including her 14-year-old son, but how could she ensure that anything would be done?
Like the vast majority of Hondurans, Teresa’s family didn’t have money for a private lawyer, and she knew that it was highly unlikely that the government’s investigation would go anywhere. After all, nearly all crimes in Honduras go unpunished — especially if the victim is poor. That’s why Teresa — a 36-year-old mother of three boys — was so curious about the team from AJS when they contacted her and told her they could help bring her case to justice.
The AJS team — comprising of an investigator, a lawyer, and a psychologist — wanted to meet with Teresa, along with the other two mothers in her church who had reported the pastor’s abuse.
The mothers agreed to meet with the AJS team, but they were hesitant about how much information to share. They found it hard to trust anyone after learning that their own pastor had abused their children, manipulating them into silence with his threats and lies.
Fearing the pastor’s threats, the four boys remained silent until the oldest of them finally told his mother what was happening. The mother then reported the pastor to the Honduran authorities for abusing two of her sons.
That mother also began contacting other mothers of boys in the church who she suspected the pastor was also abusing. That’s how Teresa and her sister both found out that the pastor had abused their sons.
They too reported the pastor to the authorities, but then months passed, and nothing happened. The mothers’ hopes were waning. Then the call from AJS came. The mothers wondered how effective this small team from a Christian nonprofit would really be. The answer became apparent the day that police arrived with an arrest warrant for the pastor.
“The arrest of the pastor was like the parting of the waters that we needed for the mothers and sons to believe that, ‘yes, there are people who can help us; yes, there is hope for justice,” said Lucia,* the AJS psychologist on the team. “This also opened the door for more swift progress in their psychological recovery.”
Lucia, who is a pastor herself, would spend the next two years helping Teresa, her son, and the other mothers and boys undergo emotional and spiritual healing. This healing was crucial for the families as they faced the next challenge: proving the case in court.
A sunset over the city where Teresa and the other mothers live with their sons. More than a million people live in the city, and AJS fights to make sure cases like Teresa’s don’t just slip through the cracks.
A Challenging Investigation
When AJS lawyer Julio* got the call from the Attorney General’s office asking for help in Teresa’s case, he knew it would be one of the most complex and difficult cases he had ever worked on.
The church that the pastor led was small, and its congregation was made up of members of the same community where Teresa and the other mothers lived.
A significant portion of the congregation refused to believe that the pastor had abused the four boys. In court, the pastor used his detailed knowledge of the mothers and their families to undermine their character, claiming that they were collaborating in untruthful slander against him.
With the community split over their opinions on what really happened, it was hard for Julio to help the prosecution to develop a clear case. He and his coworker, a seasoned investigator, had to do extensive investigations to help establish the credibility of the boys’ testimony in court. They also collaborated with the forensic medical examiner and experts in psychology and psychiatry to confirm that the boys showed signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Through it all, the boys and mothers demonstrated tremendous bravery and developed a strong bond among each other and the AJS staff working with them. One good thing that Julio and the team had going for them was that the boys, who were between the ages of 14 and 17 when the investigation began, were all very cooperative and brave.
Julio and the team helped the prosecutor explain how the pastor would trick the mothers into thinking the boys were going to special overnight bible studies or taking care of the instruments in the church.
The very strategy behind AJS’s approach to cases of sexual abuse involving minors is to take on cases that are extra difficult for the Attorney General’s Office to handle — cases that can be used to demonstrate that it is possible for poor Hondurans to achieve justice despite the challenging investigative work required. Obtaining justice in these cases proves to poor communities and government officials the importance of establishing trust and ensuring that cases are brought to justice. It also proves to would-be sexual predators that they will not get away with their actions.
Speaking of Teresa and the other mothers, AJS Psychologist Lucia said, “We want to serve as a bridge so that the mothers can see that there can be justice on Earth as well as in Heaven.”
The Verdict Comes
During the trial, the AJS team helped to present the extra evidence from their investigations — evidence that let the prosecutors attempt more serious charges than they initially planned. And, with the help of Lucia, the boys gave excellent testimonies.
Finally, the day arrived for the judges to deliver a verdict. They found the pastor guilty on all eight charges against him.
After years of toil and uncertainty, the Honduran justice system had finally done its job. Teresa and the other mothers cried tears of happiness. They embraced each other and the members of the AJS team.
At the beginning of the hearing, Teresa said that a sense of loneliness started taking hold of her as she began to feel the weight of the moment. Then she looked up, and she saw the AJS team in the courtroom and immediately felt the encouragement of their support. She knew things would turn out alright.
“They helped us feel encouraged and supported because there are moments when one feels alone,” shared one of the mothers after the verdict. “There were moments when the situation felt impossible, but God makes all things possible — in this situation, with the AJS team. He used them.”
Silhouette of dancers performing during the ceremony where the mothers and sons joined 24 other families graduating from AJS’s Rescue Project
Young Lives Restored
Last November, Teresa, the other mothers, and their sons joined 24 other families at a graduation celebration for families involved in AJS’s Rescue Project — that’s the name of the project that Lucia and Julio work with to help minors who are survivors of sexual abuse.
It had been two years since Lucia and Julio first contacted Teresa and the other mothers. During that time, the families made tremendous progress in their emotional and psychological recovery, to the point that they were ready to finish their counseling sessions.
The two oldest boys have now finished high school. One is in college. The other has a stable job and is making plans to get married. Teresa’s son is still in high school, as is his cousin. Both of them are receiving grades at the good levels they were at before the traumatic actions of the abuser.
The mothers have found a new church, and the two younger boys have gotten involved in it as well, joining the musical and drama teams. For Lucia, the pastor who works as an AJS psychologist, this was especially important. She knew that the mothers and boys had their faith in God greatly shaken. She helped them recover that faith, learn to trust other Christians again, and learn to identify environments with potentially dangerous leadership.
“God has put Lucia and her coworkers in our path and in the path of our sons,” said the mother of the oldest two boys.
Together, all the mothers use the same title for Lucia. After all, they’ve been through, it’s not “psychologist” or “pastor” — it’s “sister.”
*Names changed to protect identities