The Miami Herald
1994-04-10
Section: TROPIC
Edition: FINAL
Page: 7

LEFT BY THE WAYSIDE
   

JOANNE CAVANAUGH, Herald Staff Writer

It was time to pray. Again.

 

Dan Artis bowed his head, tears creasing his ashen face. His young body trembled as he sat on the corner of the king-size bed.

 

His youth minister and friend, Keith Geren, was sobbing, begging: "You have to forgive me, pray for me. I promise it won't happen again."

 

His words were a familiar refrain. A ritual. The inevitable remorse, an attempt to put the patina of prayer on something distinctly unholy.

 

An hour before, Artis had been jolted from sleep to find Geren straddling his chest, the older man's legs across his arms. He had lain there in the dark, tears squeezing past closed eyelids.

 

He told himself it wasn't happening.

 

After ejaculating, the minister stood up and threw a crumpled towel at the teen.

 

"Clean yourself up," Geren ordered, and then walked into the bathroom.

 

It wasn't that easy. Six years after the abuse ended, Dan Artis is still tormented.

 

His abuser was sentenced to 15 years at the DeSoto Correctional Institution in Arcadia for what he did to Artis and nearly a dozen other teenage boys. In February, the church that had hired Geren and encouraged children to trust him, was ordered to pay Artis $4.2 million in damages. The jury ruled that the church was negligent for failing to search for red flags in the youth minister's background. But nearly as damaging, Artis claims, was that even after the abuse was exposed and admitted, the church made more of an effort to forgive and support the abuser than to heal the abused.

 

It is only now, after the bitterly contested court battle, that Artis says he can begin to heal. But the 1,700-member Kendall church, one of the largest Baptist congregations in South Florida, still languishes in a purgatory of doubt and recriminations. Some in the church feel victimized. They believe that the church tried in good faith and difficult circumstances to reach out to Artis and the other abused children, and that in showering forgiveness on Keith Geren, they were only exercising their Christian beliefs. Why should they be punished for that?

 

But the punishment continues. After the molestations, the church sanctuary was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. Now with the multimillion-dollar judgment against them, church lawyers say Wayside may not be able to borrow enough money to complete the rebuilding. There is even some fear that the church will be forced to close down.

 

Dan Artis is not happy about that. "It's not that I want vengeance," he said after the jury voted to give him even more money than he had asked for. "I just wanted justice done."

 

That demand will likely be heard more often as the national epidemic of child sexual abuse -- in school coat rooms, on Boy Scout camping trips, in the supposed safety of suburban bedrooms -- spreads to include the places meant to be a safe haven from the world's evils. Churches across the nation are grappling with the discomfitting issue of how to prevent or recognize sexual abuse in their own congregations. Despite the ever clearer dangers, some churches are reluctant to confront the problem, or prone to make critical mistakes when they do.

 

Though neither Keith Geren nor Wayside's senior pastor would consent to interviews, their statements in depositions and court testimony, and the comments and testimony of others familiar with the events, make a compelling case study.

 

As Victor Womack, Geren's attorney, told prospective jurors: "In a morbid way, maybe some good is coming to light from all this. It's educating people."

 

Love Thy Minister

 

Wayside Baptist Church loved Keith Geren. From the day he walked in the door in 1985, an electric current of enthusiasm crackled through the church. He wasn't content to just preach to young people. He really cared about them. Anyone could see that. He worked long hours and weekends as kids flocked to the fast- growing suburban church.

 

He was an innovator, a worker, someone who got young people excited about Jesus. He didn't just talk his faith, he lived it. He found jobs for car thieving kids, and homes for runaways. He organized Bible studies in jails. He helped single mothers discipline rebellious sons, along the way earning the respect of teens and their parents.

 

Geren was forever finding good, clean fun for the church youth. Like the lazy day in April 1989 when he took them on a weekend canoe trip along the Peace River in Central Florida. It was an idyllic voyage, dozens of teenagers laughing and joking and paddling laconically down the slow-moving river. But the trip was marred when some of the teens acted up.

 

When they returned to Miami, Keith Geren felt it his duty as youth minister to call one rowdy boy's father and tactfully complain about the boy's conduct.

 

But when the father confronted his son, the boy blurted out something unexpected: Why should he respect a man who had molested him?

 

Wayside's Senior Pastor Murrill Boitnott was just finishing up Monday supper when the phone rang. It was the father of the rebellious boy. He told the pastor he needed to come over and talk to him. Right away. When the man showed up and grimly explained that Geren may have been "fooling with my son," Boitnott was stricken.

 

Boitnott had not only recommended the youth minister to the church, Geren was his close friend. They had known each other for nearly nine years, ever since they had worked together at a Lakeland church. People at Wayside said they were so close they were like brothers. Now he was being asked to believe that his "brother" was a child molester. He found it difficult to accept.

 

In fact, he found it sickening. He bent double and vomited.

 

After he pulled himself together, he called Geren, who was eating dinner at another church member's house. Geren asked if he could come over after he finished. No, said Boitnott, this can't wait.

 

Minutes later, standing in the pastor's front yard, Boitnott asked Geren if he had sexually touched the boy.

 

The youth minister looked at the ground. "It's true," he said.

 

Boitnott was numb. "How many others?" he remembers asking. "He machine-gunned me nine other names."

 

As Geren stood there weeping, it all poured out. The fondling, the sex on sleepovers. It had begun when he was a teenager in Lakeland. A youth minister intern at his home church abused him, then begged his forgiveness, asked him to pray for him. Geren quickly began to abuse younger kids at the same church. He even found himself copying the intern's weeping plea for forgiveness. Eventually, Geren would name as many as 17 boys he thought he may have hurt.

 

"He unloaded this truckload of stuff on us. He'd been living on the dark side for a number of years," said Boitnott. "I thought murder, disgust." It was bad enough for the pastor to hear that his youth minister and close friend was a child molester. Worse still, he was the one who had to figure out what to do about it. "Ay-yi-yi man, I didn't know where to start," he would later say.

 

In most organizations that serve children -- day-care centers, schools, athletic teams -- an admission like Geren's would bring immediate dismissal.

 

But Boitnott was a man of God, a Baptist who believes all of us are sinners by nature and that a loving God wants to forgive those sins if we will only repent and turn to Him. The pastor was touched by his friend's obvious remorse. "I was taught love and forgiveness," he said.

 

At the time, Boitnott felt he was taking quick action: He stripped Geren of his youth ministry duties, removing him from any responsibility for the children. In accordance with state law, he reported the abuse to an HRS abuse hot line. He found Geren a psychologist. And he alerted a small group of deacons that the youth minister had abused some boys in the youth group. But he could not bring himself to recommend his young friend be fired. And he did not bar him from church property, or order Geren to have no further contact with church youth.

 

The youth minister was so popular, Boitnott later testified, he was concerned that if he acted more forcefully, some would think he had gotten rid of Geren because he felt threatened by the young man's popularity.

 

Boitnott, himself the father of three girls, discreetly contacted the fathers of the abused boys to discuss what happened and recommended Christian counselors for their sons. He also suggested that Geren tell the parents what he had done. Face to face. "I wasn't sure they would believe me if it didn't come from Keith's own mouth," he said.

 

Keith Geren embarked on a painful journey of penance, going to the homes of the children he had abused and confessing to their parents. Some parents were shocked speechless, others furious. At least one wanted to strangle him. "I asked the Lord to hold my hands behind my back," said one father. But despite the anger, most kept Geren's confession to themselves.

 

Nine days after he first admitted molesting children, Wayside's youth minister stood before a baffled congregation to resign. It was the first inkling many of those present had of any problem at all.

 

"For many years I have been struggling with this sin and it is awful," Geren read from a prepared statement. "Young people, I am sorry I have hurt you. I haven't been living what I have been preaching, and God has removed me as your spiritual leader . . . Your sins will always find you out."

 

But Geren didn't admit to abusing children. The sin he admitted to was "compulsive sexual behavior." It was another three weeks before church members were told exactly what that meant. Boitnott said he had wanted to wait until all the parents of abused children had time to absorb the news, and the church had time to chart a course for the future.

 

On May 17 -- with HRS and Metro-Dade detectives poking around the church and rumors flying -- Boitnott told his flock Geren had been abusing teenage boys. The congregation was silent. Then some people asked tough questions. Others began to cry. Still others blamed Satan for a national epidemic of child abuse. The pastor responded: "Satan is having a heyday and he wants our children." He gently advised parents: "Observe and tenderly talk with your children to discern whether they have been harmed by Keith."

 

Love the Sinner

 

In our society, child abuse is generally considered among the most contemptible of crimes. Yet in the days following Keith Geren's confession and his subsequent arrest on charges of sexually abusing the children of Wayside Baptist Church, something extraordinary happened. Church members rushed to embrace him, to forgive him, to tell him they still loved him and were praying for him. In time, church members, led by Boitnott, would charter a bus and visit Geren in the Dade County Jail for a prayer rally. The pastor urged members to write supportive letters to their fallen friend.

 

The attention he got from well-meaning church members became so intense, so loving that Geren now says he felt guilty about it.

 

"I struggled with the fact that I wasn't the victim -- the kids were," Geren would later write to Boitnott. "I didn't deserve the attention -- the kids did."

 

In the Baptist faith, believers are taught to forgive a repentant sinner -- no matter how horrible the sin. "Hate the sin; love the sinner" is a frequently heard admonition from Baptist pulpits. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ Himself urged Christians to forgive "seven times 70."

 

The problem was, some of the boys who had been abused weren't finding it so easy to do that. No matter how much they tried to forgive, the pain of what Geren had done wouldn't go away.

 

Dan Artis even wrote Geren a letter, which he handed to him after his dramatic resignation speech.

 

"Keith," he wrote, "I love you and wish you the best. I forgive you, my dad forgives you, God forgives you -- now all you have to do is try and forget it. Your friend, Dan."

 

Dan Artis quickly learned that forgiveness is not as easy as writing the words on a piece of paper.

 

"At the time, I honestly believed I could make it work," Artis later said. "But then some things happened that I didn't like."

 

They began the very day Artis handed Geren the note. After Geren resigned and made the vague reference to compulsive behavior, Artis sat in a pew quietly crying as church members crowded into the center aisle and lined up to embrace his abuser. Artis watched this effusive display of compassion and felt confused. He began to suspect that he hadn't really forgiven Keith at all.

 

"It made me feel like I was the evil one because I couldn't do what they were doing and forgive Keith," Artis said.

 

And in the following weeks, as he watched Geren sit boldly in church and giggle and chatter easily with friends before a service, as if nothing bad had happened, his confusion turned to hurt.

 

"Here I was, the victim, and they are loving him," Artis remembers. "Keith is a good guy, they'd say. They were helping him, and letting me rot away. I was sitting on the outside looking in, saying, 'Hey, I'm still out here feeling awkward, feeling different, feeling hurt and wounded.' "

 

The Nasty Details

 

When Wayside's senior pastor first told Artis Sr. that Geren had molested his son, he did not reveal all the nasty details. Even when Geren had met with the boy's father, no specifics were discussed. Boitnott later told lawyers that he believed the whole truth would be too overwhelming for the boy's father all at once. He thought it better that Artis Sr. learn of the worst in stages. To that end, he encouraged him, along with the other fathers, to take his son to Christian psychologists. But Artis Sr. was reluctant to go.

 

He said at the time he had few clues that his son was troubled. Now he kicks himself for missing something: More than a year earlier, his son suddenly began to resist going to Wayside. At one point, he had even said he was going to attend youth activities at another church, miles away in Perrine. The father told the son he was staying put: "I'm a deacon there. We are members there. You are going to Wayside."

 

Even now that he was being told the youth minister had been molesting his son for two years, he didn't make the connection. He thought Geren had patted his son on the rear, or fondled him outside his clothes. He says that was the impression he had gotten from Boitnott, and his meeting with Geren had done nothing to change it. He didn't think counseling would be needed.

 

But Boitnott insisted, bringing Artis Sr. to see the counselor himself. It was a revelation. When the counselor explained the kinds of things that pedophiles do to children, Artis Sr. was shocked. He couldn't understand why the pastor hadn't told him more details. Shaken, he drove home and sat down at the kitchen table. He told his son to tell him everything.

 

Dan resisted. He felt guilty about what had happened to him. He wondered if there was something about himself that invited the abuse. He was worried about his father's reaction to the truth: Will he blame me? Will he still love me? Will he send me away to a boarding school?

Finally, in short gasps and choking sobs, Dan told his father the whole story, the times Geren had molested him after he fell asleep. The abuse had lasted two years. The telling took hours.

 

His father did not handle it well.

 

"My dad was so outraged and so upset and so betrayed and so disgusted, he honestly went running through the house screaming and crying and didn't know what to do," a sobbing Artis told attorneys.

 

"He wasn't like a mad man," Artis said later. "He was crying deeply, his body shaking, his face real red. That is probably one of the saddest moments in my life, and one of the nicest moments, too.

 

"It is the one time in my life my dad looked like a broken man," Artis said. "But my dad also proved to me his love, and faith and belief in me."

 

No More Secrets

 

In the weeks after Geren's confession, church leaders and the elder deacons met to talk about the legal and spiritual repercussions of Geren's acts. Dan Artis Sr. didn't hear about the meeting. "They did not want to have the fathers (feel) more harm," says Michael Jenks, the church's attorney.

 

But it was too late. The Artis family started to feel it was "us" against "them."

 

Artis Jr. thought the congregation must not know how bad the abuse really was. So he went to talk to an elder deacon. He told him everything, embarrassing or not, hoping that maybe they would then condemn Geren.

 

"If they knew, maybe they wouldn't be so loving to Keith," Artis thought.

 

But nothing changed.

 

Boitnott did try to console Artis. But it may have backfired.

 

Wayside's senior pastor came into the church office one day to check his mail. Artis was working behind a desk, filling in for someone. Boitnott wheeled around and suddenly told Artis he knew what the teen was going through, how he was feeling, and that he was available to talk. Trouble was, Artis said, there were other people standing around. He was humiliated.

 

"Tell me they didn't know what he was talking about," Artis said.

 

Boitnott disputes that. He says he had made sure that nobody was around.

Boitnott encouraged church members to write letters to the abused boys. But even that didn't help much, said Artis, who got about 20 letters from people writing that he was in their prayers.

 

Some were addressed: To Whom It May Concern, or Dear Victimized Child.

 

"I thought, 'How can you pray for me?' he said. 'You don't even know me.' "

 

Not that he wanted to be named publicly. A psychological profile of Artis later filed with the court would summarize what Artis really wanted: "The pastor wept for and talked to Keith Geren, but never wept for or talked to (Artis) about his trauma."

 

Another of Geren's victims would later testify that Boitnott would bump into him in a church hallway and quickly look away, leaving him feeling somehow ashamed. It was almost as if he had done something wrong -- not Keith Geren.

 

"I felt all alone," the youth said.

 

Boitnott said he did not mean for things to happen that way. He had done what he thought was right. He was trying to protect the victims' privacy.

 

The senior pastor said he didn't know quite what to do for the boys, but tried to let them know that he was available, if they wanted to talk.

 

"I did not call the boys or confront the boys for fear that I would embarrass them," Boitnott explained. "I said to them that they needed to make contact with us."

 

Artis and another youth who was abused say the pastor's words now sound hollow. They testified they tried going to the Christian counselors, but stopped when they began to hear some of the most private details of their conversations with the counselors being repeated by church members.

 

The counselors, from Christian Counseling Ministry in Miami, later denied discussing their sessions with anyone from the church. But they said they understood their former clients' sense of abandonment.

 

Artis' counselor, Robin Reisert, later told attorneys, "I think the mistake (made by the church), which is not unusual . . . was to try to fix the situation as soon as possible so that people may be able to begin working on forgiving (the abuser). Which to someone that's the victim, that could seem like a betrayal."

 

From the beginning, the counselors urged Boitnott to be open with the congregation about what happened. It would take weeks for him to follow that advice.

 

"The big deal with children who have been abused is no more secrets, everything is out in the open," counselor Lottie Hillard remembers explaining to the pastor. "Say to the congregation, 'This is what happened.' "

 

Others outside the church found fault with how things were handled. A Metro-Dade child exploitation investigator and an assistant Dade state attorney later expressed disbelief that Geren was not immediately barred from church property.

 

The Metro police officer who investigated the case, then- detective Sheila Davis, told church attorneys during a deposition: "If a person knows that someone has committed this type of crime, and he allows this person to continue to have contact, and be placed in a position where he could commit the crime again . . . " she trailed off. "He should have forbidden Keith from being on the grounds."

 

Boitnott later said he regretted some of his decisions, including that one. "I should have fired him," he said. But in his court testimony, his regret seems tempered with a conviction that any retribution against Geren would have been contrary to his Christian ethic: "I should have taken the heat and called Keith ugly names and joined the We Hate Keith club. It was a difficult time. Forgiveness is a large part of Christian life."

 

Flashbacks

 

By summer 1989, three months after Geren's resignation and two months before Artis was to start college in West Virginia, Artis had become a young man in constant torment. He had not been able to shake the memories. He wondered about his own sexuality. His fears are common among abuse victims. Psychologists said he could face problems for the rest of his life, in relationships with women, in his marriage, as a father and as a man fearing he may look, or be, homosexual.

 

Artis' growing frustration with the way the church had handled things prompted him to call a lawyer. At first, he says, he just wanted to understand his options. It would take two more years before he would make the decision to sue. He had been raised as a Christian, and Christians don't sue their own church.

 

Six months later, Boitnott set up a bus trip for church members to go to the jail to show support for Geren before his sentencing. "They prayed for him and put hands on him to ask for the healing power of God, and I thought, 'This is B.S.,' " Artis said. "I said, look, I've had enough. I don't care if it's right or wrong. I want someone to pay for this. I want people to know what they did was not right."

 

Artis filed suit in early 1991, charging that Wayside was negligent in hiring and supervising Geren, and asking $2 million in compensation.

 

Soon after the suit was filed, Dan Artis Sr. answered the phone at his new home in Midland, Mich., where he had transferred for a managerial job with Dow Chemical. It was a call from a member at Wayside, urging him to convince his son to drop the lawsuit.

Even though the family had moved back to Midland in 1990, as many as seven people from his old church would eventually pressure him to change his son's mind.

 

Dan Artis Sr., once a deacon at Wayside, had his own doubts about suing the church. It was against his beliefs. Problems should be resolved within the fellowship, he thought. "But my son has a need and my family comes first."

 

It was what he saw in his son that finally convinced Artis Sr. to go to court. In high school, his son had been trusting, eager to make friends. But after his son went to college, he became bitter, withdrawn.

 

Before Keith Geren, his son heeded the Baptist doctrines against drinking. Dan now sometimes drinks heavily. He chain- smokes cigarettes. He dropped out of college in the spring to go into intensive counseling.

 

Dan claims to still believe in God, but he has rejected the church. When he went to college, his father gave him the names of two churches there. He did not go to either.

"It has no meaning," Dan said recently.

 

At college, Artis Jr. said he had trouble getting close to anyone, afraid that anyone interested in him must have hidden motives, like Geren. At first, cut off from most social interaction, his life consisted of going to classes then retreating to his dorm room to sit alone.

 

Later, when he did make friends and joined a fraternity, he said he flinched whenever someone made jokes about oral sex. Reminders like that would generate flashbacks or nightmares about the abuse.

 

He says he smokes a lot because it gives him something to do with his hands when he eats in restaurants by himself, just so he doesn't look like a loner. He says he also smokes because it makes him look tough. Less like a victim.

 

"It's the macho image," he said recently. "A more acceptable image."

 

Before the trial, Artis consulted at least three psychologists. They testified that he would need years -- or a lifetime -- of therapy. His worst fear: he may become an abuser
himself.

 

"I was holding my niece over Thanksgiving and I got dizzy and scared. I had to put the baby down," Artis testified. "I had all these thoughts running through my mind, when I was holding the baby. Flashbacks about what happened to me."

 

The Sins of the Father

 

Perhaps one of the reasons Keith Geren was so effective in reaching young people was that he had a troubled youth himself.

Growing up in Lakeland, Geren was a redhead with a tendency to throw tantrums. He later described himself as a "church orphan." His father, a Baptist pastor, was at the homes of church members more than his own.

 

Clyde Geren was strict, overbearing, and judgmental, often verbally abusing him and his mother, Geren would later tell a psychologist. Whatever Geren did wasn't good enough for his father. He said he was frequently beaten with a belt.

 

Geren said he was an angry child who fought too much with other kids to make friends.

Yet, he was eager for approval and attention.

 

One day when he was in third grade, a boy three years older convinced Geren to lie on top of him naked. They engaged in mutual masturbation.

 

Years later, after some sexual experimentation with both sexes, Geren said he was massaged and fondled by a youth minister intern at his hometown church. Geren later told a psychologist that he was confused by the 29-year-old man's advances.

 

"I knew I loved (the minister), yet not romantically like I sensed he liked me," Keith told psychologist James Vigorito, according to court documents. "At the same time, I almost fed on his attraction to me because his friendship with me also won me the friendship of many people who loved and respected him dearly."

 

Soon after the youth minister performed oral sex on Geren, Geren said he started to imitate his methods with junior high school students at the same church. He said he mostly fondled the boys' genitals outside their clothes.

 

Apparently, none of the youths reported the abuse.

 

"I even found myself repeating (the minister's) apology afterward," Geren told the psychologist. "And tell them it wouldn't happen again."

 

Geren later named four teenage boys he said he molested in the early 1980s, while working in youth ministries at the First Baptist Church of Lakeland and the Park Avenue Baptist Church in Titusville.

 

No charges were filed against Geren in Central Florida, although there were inquiries after his confessions at Wayside in 1989. The boys named said nothing had happened, church and police officials there said.

 

Boitnott met Geren at the Lakeland church in the early '80s when Boitnott was a youth minister there. In the few years they worked together there, Geren, then about 20, and Boitnott, 10 years older, hung out on weekends, and after church services. They had a playful, almost giddy friendship. In a later letter to Boitnott, Geren recalled a day they drove around in Boitnott's Volkswagen, Geren pointing out which way to go, and Boitnott driving the opposite way every time. And then there was the time they skidded around a tennis court in the rain, slamming a soggy tennis ball back and forth.

 

But there was a more sober side to their relationship. They shared what was inside their hearts, their hurts. But Geren held his worst secret back.

 

In the letter Geren wrote in the days he faced prison, he asked Boitnott to forgive him and thanked Boitnott for his friendship, a tie that would help him face his fear, as it had in the past -- when an uncertain future meant only a new job in a strange town.

 

"I remember the last hugs and tears we cried the evening before I moved to Titusville," he wrote.

 

Today, with three years left before he comes up for parole, Geren is trying to seek help for his urge to molest young boys. But it's difficult. Florida's prison system does not provide counseling for sex offenders there.

 

So he's taking correspondence courses toward a master's degree in sociology. His area of focus -- the causes and cures of compulsive sexual behavior like his own.

 

"Keith is trying to overcome it," Womack, Geren's attorney, said. "Some people cry out to get caught. They cry out for help with this disease. It may have taken so long because Keith didn't get help."

 

But before he was caught, Geren had sought help. From the church.

 

Mostly, he was told to pray.

 

Red Flags

 

In the fall of 1983 or 1984, while working as a youth intern at Park Avenue Baptist, Geren approached youth minister Michael Williams at a church revival meeting and said he needed to talk. They walked to a bench in a nearby park.

 

Geren told the minister that he had been sexually molested at least twice, and that he was feeling "temptations, continuing struggles" to abuse teenage boys at the church, Williams said in a deposition last May.

 

Williams told Geren to pray for forgiveness. He suggested he seek counseling. And he told Geren to make sure he did not tempt himself, advising him not to spend time in boys' bedrooms with doors closed.

 

After talking to Geren, Williams watched him for a while. But he considered Geren's confession confidential, and, even though he knew Geren continued to work with boys, he did not report the conversation to his senior pastor, Peter Lord.

 

Williams also said nothing when he heard Geren was going to work with children at Wayside; he said he assumed Geren had dealt with his temptations. No one from Wayside called Williams -- Geren's former supervisor -- to ask about any problems with their new youth minister. In his deposition, Williams refused to say whether he would have warned the church or not.

 

Since Geren had only admitted to "temptations" and not to committing abusive acts, Williams had no legal obligation to report the conversation. And at the time, there were no general church guidelines about what to do in such a situation. (The Southern Baptist Convention is now working on guidelines for just such situations.)

 

But Williams admitted to later wishing he had done things differently. When he heard about the abuses at Wayside, he said, "One of the first reactions was regret on my part, kicking myself because I had not given him any further help than I had."

 

In 1988, when children of Wayside were already being abused, Geren flew to Titusville to see a minister he trusted. Geren later told his attorney he wanted counseling. He didn't say exactly what he told the minister, only what the minister told him: Pray. Praying helped, Geren said. But only for a little while.

 

A Personal Friend

 

Dan Artis Sr. and his family moved to Miami in summer 1984. It would be their fourth move since his son's birth.

 

During all the family's moves, there was one constant: Wherever they settled, the Artises soon found a Baptist church to join.

 

Soon after the Artis family joined Wayside in 1985, Murrill Boitnott called his old pal Geren, then in college in Kentucky studying speech and communications, and invited him to come to Wayside to be a youth minister intern for the summer. When Geren did well, the church agreed to hire him as its full-time youth minister.

 

But Boitnott had failed to follow the hiring practices suggested by the Southern Baptist Convention. The pastor did not require Geren to fill out a formal application. And the church did no background reference checks. In Geren's case, Boitnott didn't think they were needed.

 

"In honesty, I would probably say that the personnel check was not done on Keith because he was a personal friend of mine," Boitnott told the Wayside congregation on May 17, 1989, after disclosing Geren's abuse. "I had every reason to believe that he was a fine, upstanding young Christian man, and if the mistake was made, it was mine."

 

Geren had no criminal record; in fact he would later be approved to work with children by the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. He needed that clearance to be a guardian at the Florida Baptist Children's Home, a nearby residential center for troubled teens.

 

At Wayside, Geren moved into a parsonage on church property that he shared with a church deacon and his wife, Fred and Peggy Touchton. Soon after being hired, the church's youth minister started holding teen sleepovers.

 

Sometimes the youths slept in the living room on sleeping bags. But other times Geren would invite teenage boys and have them sleep in his bedroom at the end of a hallway at one end of the parsonage -- sometimes on the floor and sometimes sharing his bed. The invitations continued at other houses where Geren stayed.

 

Church leaders knew about some of the sleepovers, but Boitnott, who even had breakfast with Geren and one of the boys after one such sleepover, said he did not know the teens slept in Geren's bed.

 

"I thought they were having Bible studies, or something like that," Fred Touchton, the deacon who now lives in Central Florida, told attorneys. "I guess I am just naive. I didn't really think that sort of thing went on."

 

In some ways, it was easy to trust Geren. He seemed so worthy. On good days, he knew how to build up a troubled teen's self-esteem. He was observant; he would always notice a new tie or pair of shoes. He watched out for kids who might wander off alone and depressed. He would bring over other teens and crack jokes until the troubled kid felt like part of the group.

 

It was part of a calling to help, Geren would say. He told a close friend, Dr. Elizabeth Francisco, that he wanted to become a missionary in Latin America.

 

In the late 1980s, he organized a youth trip to the Dominican Republic to help renovate a church. He set up Bible studies to spread the Word. But even then, he seemed only comfortable with teens, or people who idolized him.

 

"Keith agreed that he had a problem relating to adults," Francisco, one of the adults chaperoning the trip, later wrote to Geren's sentencing judge. "He believed that when he got married he would not have such a problem."

 

Over the years, Geren dated girls. But even Boitnott later said his friend seemed to be the one to always back out first.

 

Geren was ordained as youth minister in June 1987, in front of the deacons. During the ceremony that would mark his calling to the ministry by God, he hinted at an internal struggle.

 

"What's your skeleton?" Geren was asked.

 

"I have no unconfessed sin in my life," he answered. "I do admit I do struggle with lusts, but God helps me with it."

 

The deacons found nothing unusual in that response. Even Jimmy Carter had confessed to struggling with that particular sin.

 

An Honor

 

In summer 1986, Geren invited Artis to sleep over. Artis, who was 15 then and hoped one day to be a youth minister, was thrilled.

 

"I felt kind of honored. It made me feel good, special," Artis testified during the trial of his lawsuit. "My idolized role model -- what I wanted to be in life -- wanted to spend time with me."

 

Geren picked up Artis, and drove him to the house. The two talked for a few hours, listening to Christian contemporary music. They flipped through the Bible; Geren always knew where to find a biblical passage that could help solve a personal dilemma.

 

After they got tired, Geren climbed into bed -- two twin beds pushed together -- leaving the side by the wall for Artis. They talked a bit more, and went to sleep.

 

A few hours later Artis woke up to find Geren rubbing his thigh and groin, outside his shorts. Stunned and confused, Artis pretended to be asleep for a few minutes, hoping Geren would stop. When he finally moved away, Geren sat up and started crying, apologizing. He told Artis he was the only one who knew about his problem, the only one who could help. The two prayed, went back to sleep, and did not discuss it the next day.

 

Geren's sexual approaches would escalate over the next two years, in five incidents, until the night in 1988, when Dan was 17 years old. That's when Geren pinned him to the bed and performed oral sex on Artis while masturbating himself.

 

After Artis decided to sue the church, some church members began to wonder if the young man was really as much a victim as he said he was.

 

Wayside's attorney, Michael Jenks, wondered: Why wouldn't a 15- to 17-year-old report the fondling? Why didn't Artis just get up and leave? Jenks and others asked. Why did he put himself in the same situation again?

 

"This young man exercised horrendously poor judgment," Jenks said.

 

In fact, Jenks believed it was more than poor judgment. He suggested Artis let the abuse go on again and again over a period of years because he liked it. At trial, Jenks sought to introduce a statement made by Geren in 1989, during his confession: According to Boitnott and another church member, Geren said Artis became the aggressor, calling him to arrange "appointments" to meet for sex.

 

But Dade Circuit Court Judge Arthur Rothenberg did not allow jurors to consider that testimony because Geren had already pleaded guilty to sexual battery on Artis, therefore agreeing Artis had been -- as the law puts it -- unable to give consent.

 

In cases of sexual abuse of minors, consent is irrelevant, says Ron Weil, Artis' attorney. "There is an inequality of power. The molester is older, bigger, stronger, smarter and able to manipulate young victims."

 

But if it was legally irrelevant, the allegation that he consented was hardly irrelevant to Artis. During the trial, the church's attorney did his best to get Artis to agree that he may have encouraged Geren's advances.

 

"Could it be that it was not completely against your wishes?" Jenks asked Artis, who was on the witness stand. "Could that be the reason that you did not tell anyone or call the police?"

 

"Sir, you disgust me," Artis said, gritting his teeth. "No, it was not against my will. I'm sorry. I said that wrong."

 

He drew in a breath, his face reddening, his voice angry: "I was not sitting there saying, 'Yes, Keith, do this to me.' No, I was not -- you disgust me."

 

"Well," Jenks retorted. "Maybe you spoke the truth, Mr. Artis, when you said it was not against your will."

 

Artis said he tried to get away from Geren by going to the church in Perrine. When his father made him continue at Wayside, he said he wanted to believe Geren's assurances that the abuse wouldn't happen again.

 

"I thought that it was my fault," Artis said. "That I was a bad kid and that God was punishing me for something."

 

There were at least 10 other boys at Wayside whom Geren said he touched. Some he fondled, or simply patted on the buttocks, the boys later said. Others were more seriously abused. Yet for years, no one said anything.

 

"It's easier for a child to say, I'll just keep quiet," said Mic Hunter, a psychologist and author of books on sexually abused boys. "It's hard for them to disclose what's happened. They have been taught to trust adults."

 

Artis' mother, Edwina, would later say that the family had taught Dan to respect authority -- at all costs.

 

"We told our children if you are in school and a teacher says something, and you know absolutely, positively, beyond any doubt that the teacher is wrong, you don't open your mouth," she said. "That's stronger for a church or spiritual leader."

 

That may be practical advice, said Hunter, the abuse expert. "Lots of times, congregations turn against the accused. If they say nothing, the boys won't have to face being attacked by the religious community."

 

Another of Wayside's teens who testified in the civil case, but asked that his identity be shielded, was about 13 when the abuse started. He had stayed overnight at Geren's house dozens of times, maybe as many as 40. His parents, like many others, had urged him to spend time with the youth minister.

 

During about half of those times, Geren fondled the youth, sometimes barging into the bathroom to stare at him taking a shower, the now 20-year-old testified.

 

After the teen started locking the door, he said Geren broke it open, and at one point Geren climbed into the shower, rubbing his penis on the teenage boy. The youth, who broke down crying in court. "He was a man of God, he was a youth pastor," the youth said. "He knew what was right and I had to accept it."

 

During his and Artis' testimony, a few church members in the courtroom whispered and snickered in disbelief.

 

At one point, after Artis wept on the witness stand, a few of the church members started to pick apart his story. They debated how much Geren weighed versus Artis.

 

One member, who was taking shorthand notes on a pink steno pad, said: "I feel for him."

 

Another church member shot back: "I don't. I think he's lying like hay."

 

Following their pastor's urging not to speak to the press, most Wayside members who attended the trial would not consent to interviews. But they could not conceal their anger at the lawsuit.

 

"To have to drag such fine people through something like this? Our pastor doesn't deserve it," said Wayside member Bob Corell.

 

Neither, some said, did their former youth minister. Church members still visit Geren, driving the four hours to Arcadia on prison visiting days. Many more write letters and think of him in their prayers.

 

"I love Keith Geren," said the mother of one of the abused boys. "I am a Christian, I have forgiven Keith, and so has my son."

 

The people of Wayside had found it in their hearts to forgive a child abuser -- after all, he had repented. But some could not forgive Artis.

 

JOANNE CAVANAUGH is a Herald staff writer.

   
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