Thirty-two years in the pulpit have shown me that ministry isn’t based on what you plan, it’s expressed in how you stand up to what can’t be foreseen. That’s why, after wrestling with futile internal protest, and seeing no definitively informative and positive change, I decided to make public the failure of my church hierarchy to expose one of its long-term ministers as a pedophile.
On the contrary, last April, the annual report of the American Baptist Churches of Connecticut included praise and gratitude for Eli Echevarria, convicted four months before and sentenced to prison for possessing child pornography involving young girls down to toddlers. The printed endorsement nearly sucked the life out of my soul.
More than a year earlier, the same man began visiting my congregation in Branford. We welcomed him, and in the following months he mixed with the congregation, including the children.
Then, after he had been with us for several months, when I had returned from a summer holiday, it was brought to my attention that Echevarria had been recently arrested for possessing child pornography. The arrest was for behavior when he was still preaching in New Haven, well before he crossed our threshold. I then discovered he had been convicted before on charges of illegal sexual contact in 2006, put on three years’ probation and registered as a sex offender.
Back when I first heard of the arrest, and prior conviction, in September 2014, I notified the members of my church in Branford, and I also called our executive minister in Hartford. I was told that the state leadership had become aware earlier that year of the minister’s transgressions and criminal history. But I had never received any notice. I don’t believe any other pastors were informed either.
Indeed, in the previously mentioned letter from our regional president, relative to not informing local pastoral leadership about Echevarria’s history, he said that the ABCConn executive minister at the time had contacted church legal counsel, who told her that “there is no statutory requirement to make public information more public.”
Therefore, instead of receiving a responsible explanation for leaving local leadership out of the loop, it was fancy legalese with no biblical or ethical basis.
Then, in December 2015, I received the police investigation report leading to the most recent arrest, conviction and incarceration of the applauded pedophile. Just the short file names describing the child pornography involved made me want to cry and throw up. The police report describes images of men having sex with pre-pubescent girls, some described as being “clearly toddlers.” It is a painful thing to face the fact that such evil exists. Yet turning a blind eye is not an option.
There are critical points in all ministries when silence speaks loudest of all. Intrinsically baked into ministry is the response to truth, apart from which there is no ministry.
In January of this year, after the emails and letters to my denomination had essentially come to naught, I approached The Courant with the information I had. I am very grateful for the time and expertise Courant reporter Dave Altimari invested in his story.
Preying upon the most vulnerable is one of the worst sins committed in the Christian church. Victims of this abuse are given a special place in heaven, I’m sure, but they are handed a life sentence here on Earth.
Given widespread accounts of sexual assaults in other churches and institutions spanning several decades, most people can’t fathom how authorities can fail to alert the community of predators in their midst. Unfortunately, there is an answer that crosses denominational lines. Silence sets in when the energy to guard the institution exceeds the concern for people the institution is supposed to protect. In my view, the institution tends to protect itself.
Jesus had some very harsh words directed at those who would harm children. This obliges denominational leaders to steer away from hiding behind civil law and, instead, consider what pastoral love demands. Passively allowing dysfunctional people, in this case a pedophile, to fly under the radar isn’t restorative grace. It’s repugnant garbage.
For me, being ordained to serve within a certain ecclesiastical context is not the same as signing on to a blind denominational allegiance. I was putting all of my manifestly imperfect faith in Christ. And no faith of any caliber would compromise the protection of children to uphold an institution.
Four decades ago, as a theologically inexperienced and idealistic young man dressed in a dashiki, jeans and tire-soled sandals, I began my walk within the American Baptist branch of the Christian faith. That was a great decision and we represent a justly proud tradition. However, I did not step from the waters of Baptism to eventually fill the shoes of a quietly complicit minister. This issue may well turn out to be the most fundamentally defining matter of my career.
Therefore, without statutory requirement to do so, I chose to make so-called public information much more public.