May 15—A white plastic binder marked "confidential" on the cover, and the spine, sits on the table in front of the Rev. Brian Salter. In thought, the lead pastor of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church flips open the binder for several seconds before closing it again.
"It's just very complex, which, to be honest, is why people don't do these," Salter said, referring to the dozens of pages in the binder. "Sadly, it's swept under the rug because if you go after it, truly, it'll be the hardest thing you've ever done."
The binder in front of Salter represents some of the darkest days of his time as pastor and, potentially, in the more than century-long history of the church. The pastor is seated at a table in his office on a Wednesday afternoon in April, the same spot in front of his bookshelf where, four months ago, he addressed his congregation virtually about the contents of the binder.
"What we are dealing with is unreconciled and largely overlooked criminal activity by spiritual leaders, and that is especially heinous," Salter told his church in January.
In June 2019, Lookout Mountain Presbyterian became the latest church to face allegations of sexual misconduct involving children. The allegations, confirmed through an independent investigation, reached back decades and involved adults in leadership positions at the church but not members of the clergy.
That was not the only thing that made the situation unique. In the midst of a crisis, the leaders of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian chose to be radically transparent about what happened and how it was being handled. They sent letters to their congregation. They held virtual town hall events. And, when the investigation was complete, they made the final report public.
Dee Parsons, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based writer who investigates church abuse and cover-ups on her blog "The Wartburg Watch," said the church near Chattanooga is an outlier in her 12 years of work as a watchdog.
"The abuse had taken place many years before. And what usually happens in situations like that, is that the church claims that they have no responsibility for something that happened 35 years ago, or whatever," Parsons said. "Lookout Mountain didn't do that."
The church's transparency meant notifying current and former employers of the accused abusers, raising questions about how that information was handled, especially by another regional office of the church where one of the men had been serving as a pastor for decades.
Salter first heard about the alleged misconduct through a phone call in June 2019. The statute of limitations had passed for prosecuting any of the actions, but the pastor put together a committee to gather more information.
On May 6, 2020, Salter sent a letter to those in his congregation age 18 and older saying that the church had learned of multiple allegations of misconduct against a summer youth intern at the church nearly 40 years ago.
The letter did not name victims, who still remain anonymous, but it provided two pieces of information that drove the story for months to follow. First, Lookout Mountain Presbyterian was working with an outside investigator to gather information and look for additional victims. And second, the letter identified the alleged abuser as Paul Warren, who was an intern at Lookout Mountain in the early 1980s and was now serving as a pastor in Maryland.
Salter hosted a virtual town hall 11 days later to answer questions. Not long after, Parsons published her first blog post on what was happening, titling it "Well Done, Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church! Churches: This Is How to Handle Sex Abuse Allegations."
Parsons was stunned when she saw how the church was handling its crisis. Church leaders did not try to cover it up or emphasize that the events happened decades ago. The church provided counseling for those affected, hired independent investigators and took responsibility, even though the clergy was not involved.
The church hired Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, a Virginia-based nonprofit, to investigate. Advocates like Parsons praise the investigative organization for its thorough work and sensitive handling of such cases.
GRACE's 14-month investigation involved 32 interviews with witnesses and victims, as well as documents provided by the church and those found by the investigators.
The investigation found that Warren, while serving as a youth leader intern for junior high boys in the early 1980s, sexually abused at least five boys in Tennessee, Georgia and Maryland, who were between the ages of 12 and 15 when the alleged abuse began.
The version of the investigation made public redacted some specifics about what happened but mentioned that Warren's alleged misconduct included sharing sexual stories with minors, masturbating in front of minors and touching the genitalia of a minor. Warren also allegedly made sexual comments and took some actions toward minor females, according to the investigation.
"The evidence is overwhelming that Paul reportedly used his position in a very calculated manner to groom and abuse boys under his care and supervision," the GRACE report said.
Warren did not respond to multiple telephone messages from the Times Free Press seeking comment over the past two weeks.
In the 1980s, Warren was fired from his internship on Lookout Mountain because of immaturity, according to the report. The GRACE investigation did not find evidence that church leaders were aware of any abuse allegations at the time.
The investigation did find that some elders in the church became aware of some of the incidents years after the fact but no documented action was taken. Similarly, a pastor serving at the church in 2004 heard information about the incidents but the investigation found no evidence the pastor notified others.
According to the report, Warren told GRACE the junior high boys were his "best friends" during the summer and that he told them sexual stories, including about masturbation, as a form of "good Christian counsel" so they would not make mistakes. He said some of his behaviors were "inappropriate" and "immature" and were carried over from his time in the college dormitory.
Warren did not deny many of the accusations against him but "frequently minimized his reported abusive actions," including not acknowledging the potential that masturbating in front of minors would be a crime or that his actions could be considered pedophilia, the report said. He also told investigators he received counseling, but the counselor Warren named told investigators she had never met him.
"Paul's failure to admit that such conduct is profoundly more than 'inappropriate' is either continued failure to acknowledge his wrongdoing for what it is or part of an ongoing pattern of deceiving himself and others," the report said.
The May 2020 letter from Salter notifying the Lookout Mountain congregation of the investigation caused other people to come forward with additional allegations of sexual misconduct.
Those new allegations added more complexity to the situation. There was an alleged second offender.
Anthony Marcano was a summer youth intern at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian in the 1970s. He graduated from Covenant College in 1973 with a degree in psychology.
The GRACE investigation found two people who accused Marcano of sexual abuse, one of whom said he was sexually assaulted as a 16-year-old boy. Marcano allegedly groomed and abused the minors by justifying the sexual abuse as Biblical, the report said. One victim told GRACE he did not report Marcano's behavior because he was a leader in the church and, being from the South, he was taught to trust elders.
A former pastor at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church learned some details about the alleged abuse but did not report any potential crime because, by that time, Marcano had left to join another church and the pastor did not want "the whole world" to know about it, the report found. The former pastor did not notify the Florida church that Marcano moved to, according to the investigation.
Marcano did not respond to multiple phone messages from the Times Free Press seeking comment in the past two weeks. Unlike Warren, he did not participate in the GRACE investigation.
Salter told his congregation during the January town hall there are other alleged victims of both men who did not participate or fall under the scope of the GRACE investigation.
DEPOSED FROM MINISTRY
After leaving Lookout Mountain, Warren and Marcano worked in situations in which they interacted with minors. At least one alleged incident of abuse occurred after Warren left the region and was serving as a junior high youth director at an Annapolis-area church in Maryland, according to the report.
In the 1980s, Warren worked as a residence hall director and assistant soccer coach at Covenant College. He has worked as a youth minister at Howell Branch Fellowship in Orlando, Florida, and assistant pastor at Parkview Church in Lilburn, Georgia, according to a since-deleted online biography. In 1997, he began a pastoral job at Abbott Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore.
Warren did not disclose his past actions while being considered for ordination in the Presbyterian denomination because, as he told investigators, he believed his sin had been forgiven, according to the GRACE report.
When Salter first learned about the allegations in 2019, Warren was still serving at Abbott Memorial Presbyterian Church. In September 2019, two letters were sent to the Chesapeake Presbytery, which oversees churches in the Maryland area. The letters detailed the allegations and notified church leadership of the investigation.
Warren told the GRACE investigators his past actions and failure to disclose them to the presbytery should not cause him to lose his job as pastor.
Timothy Persons, stated clerk for the Chesapeake Presbytery, told the Times Free Press that Warren is no longer ordained in the denomination after a church-led proceeding found credence in the sexual abuse allegations from the early 1980s.
During that proceeding, Warren was allowed to continue in his role as pastor at the church for more than a year after the presbytery was first notified of the investigation in September 2019. Warren was listed as pastor and provided the sermon at the church as late as Jan. 24 of this year, according to church bulletins.
Persons said in an email the presbytery would not take part in a telephone interview and declined to answer questions about when Warren was stripped of his ministerial credentials, why Warren was allowed to continue in his role as pastor for more than a year while under investigation or whether the presbytery would initiate other investigations to look for more victims given Warren's involvement with several churches.
"Mr. Warren was investigated, convicted, and deposed from his ministry through an ecclesiastical judicial system — all during a global pandemic," Persons said in an email to the Times Free Press. "Please consider this our formal response to your additional questions since we will not comment further on the details of his case."
Lookout Mountain Presbyterian notified all known current and former employers of Warren and Marcano of the GRACE investigation's findings, though the employers were not listed in the report.
Both Warren and Marcano had connections to Covenant College. In a statement to the Times Free Press, Covenant College said events described in the report were unknown to the school at the time and no further allegations related to the offenders have been made. The school made the GRACE report available to all of its employees.
"We believe that allegations of misconduct would have been brought to our attention in light of this widespread distribution," the school said in its statement. "We are confident in the investigative work undertaken by GRACE and will initiate further investigations should credible allegations of abuse or misconduct be made."
Shortly after an incident of alleged abuse, Marcano left Lookout Mountain to become a member of a church in Pompano Beach, Florida.
In August 1979, Marcano began working with Broward County Schools in Florida, but the school system did not have record of what his role was. He stayed in that school system until 2002, when Baltimore City Public Schools hired him as an instructional associate and later as a counselor in an elementary school and high schools.
Marcano sued the Baltimore school district in January 2019 for disability discrimination based on not accommodating his conditions of polyarthropathy and rheumatoid arthritis. The case was settled out of court in December 2019, according to court records.
In a statement to the Times Free Press, Baltimore City Public Schools said Marcano is on administrative leave while the personnel matter is under investigation.
'HURT IS EVERYWHERE'
Salter's choice to make the investigation public and answer questions related to the allegations won him the praise of many. Yet, it remains a tender spot for the pastor.
He has an obligation to be transparent, which is why he agreed to be interviewed by the Times Free Press in April, but still loses sleep thinking about how more attention to the story could re-traumatize victims.
Survivors of abuse process events from the past differently. For some, public recognition can be a source of healing while, for others, it can trigger painful memories, Salter said.
"I'm real sensitive to our 'doing it right' being a badge of honor because I don't think that should overshadow what was wrong," Salter said. "I don't think that should overshadow the pain. I'm real hesitant for credit. These terrible things happened in our institution."
But, as he told his congregation in January, not releasing the report and not talking about what happened would be morally questionable. The multiple public letters and the town hall discussions also opened up potential legal risks for the church.
Managing liability is not the primary concern, Salter said. Physical, emotional and spiritual harm was done by spiritual leaders, and the church has to do what is right no matter the risk, he said.
Church staff have conducted training around trauma and protecting children from abuse. Two non-related church employees or volunteers should be present during church activities involving children. Any one-on-one meetings between a church employee or volunteer and a child must be reported to a supervisor, have parental permission and be in a public place, according to church policy. The organization's policies around safeguarding children have been reviewed, Salter said. The church is far more equipped than it has ever been to protect the vulnerable, he said.
Lookout Mountain Presbyterian aimed to handle the situation the best it could, Salter told the Times Free Press. He said the same thing to his congregation in January.
"There's no playbook for this," Salter said during the January town hall. "It's heavy. It's dark. It's tragic. Hurt is everywhere. Justice is yet. But pray for us."
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.