Abuse survivor says bill would give her justice
Debbie Williamson Warren has lived with the nightmare of being sexually abused by her science teacher.
For almost 40 years, Debbie Williamson Warren has lived with the nightmare of being sexually abused by her science teacher, and the only way she feels she can protect others is through the provisions that proposed legislation in Pennsylvania – House Bill 1947 – may provide.
The Florida resident and her family moved to the Olney section of Philadelphia when she entered fifth grade.
“I was 9 years old,” the now 47-year-old said. “My family had just moved from Danville, Va. My dad took the position as a principal at Cedar Grove Christian Academy” in northeast Philadelphia.
Childhood sexual abuse is a pervasive societal problem that gained much exposure after the Archdiocese of Boston came under scrutiny in 2002 for widespread abuse and concealment. In the Philadelphia region, two grand jury reports in 2005 and 2011 outlined abuse and coverups in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Since then, various legislative appeals have attempted to address the issue.
One of them — House Bill 1947 — would extend or eliminate criminal and civil statute of limitations for cases involving childhood sexual abuse. The initial House version included an amendment that would allow adult survivors age 50 and younger to pursue civil justice. That was stripped from the Senate version due to concerns regarding constitutionality. The bill now rests with the House for reconsideration and some, including state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-126, of Berks County, had said he is debating whether to reinsert that provision.
Warren said there was a science teacher at the school at that time who became a good friend of her family and who rented a house her family owned.
“They trusted him,” Warren said. “He was a science teacher, he was a Christian. They would drop me off when they went shopping, when they’d go out. He began to groom me.” That escalated into physicality. “He would wrestle with me and tickle me,” Warren said. “That began with him touching me.”
Then, the incidents of touching increased.
“The balcony of the church, he would touch me,” Warren said. “In the science lab, he would touch me. In the classroom, he would touch me, in his home. Several times, it was hands down my
pants, fingers …”
Warren recalled staying at his house in his daughter’s room overnight as her parents trusted him and they had gone out of town.
“Eventually, I woke up with him on top of me and he was rapinwg me” as his daughter lay next to her, Warren said.
She said he tried to keep her quiet for two years.
“(He) threatened me not to say anything,” she said, adding that he told her, “My parents would lose their ministry at the church.”
“He guilted me (saying) he would go to jail and I didn’t want him to go to jail,” Warren added.
She recalled him putting his hand down her shirt while going sledding during big snowfalls.
She said he’d place a blanket over her while she and his children watched TV in the basement and he would put his hands down her pants.
Warren said she was trapped.
“I would try to get away but he was stronger than me,” she said.
The abuse impacted other areas of her life.
“I was sick to my stomach all the time as a child,” Warren said, adding that she almost failed sixth grade. “Every time the phone would ring, I would be really nervous.”
When she was 11 years old, she told her parents and her dad told the school board and religious officials associated with the school.
Warren said she was pulled out of class to speak to the pastor, an assistant pastor and a guidance counselor by herself.
She said they told her “he admitted it and he was sorry. He promised to not have any more contact with me. They let him finish out the year.”
She said she was told to keep quiet.
“(They said) for me to not tell anybody or talk about it at all,” she said.
Warren said they told her parents, “You don’t want to put her up on the witness stand. Don’t call the police that would make the school look bad. You need to forgive. That’s the Christian thing to do. He promised he wouldn’t do that anymore.”
She said her family lived in the neighborhood another three years before moving to North Carolina.
“I literally put this behind me, I didn’t know how to handle it,” Warren said.
In her mid-30s, she said she started to have a challenging time.
“I was having nightmares, I was losing sleep, I was depressed,” she said. “I went through a lot of depression.”
She would have difficulties with certain smells and certain places she would go.
She spoke to someone in her church who advised her to go to the police, where she learned the statute of limitations in these instances had expired.
Her pastor suggested she write a letter and send it to her abuser. So she did.
“I got a letter six days later in his handwriting,” Warren said.
In the four-page missive from a decade ago, the former teacher said he was unable to ask her forgiveness because he was denied contact to her.
“I regret deeply all the pain I have caused (your parents), but chiefly the turmoil it has caused you and your husband all … these years,” he wrote. “You need ‘justice’ much more than I need ‘mercy.’ What recompense can I give?”
Outlining an abusive childhood including his own sexual abuse and suicidal thoughts, he admitted his acts.
“The only plea I have is ‘guilty,’” he wrote. “The only Advocate I have is Jesus Christ the Righteous One who paid for my ‘depravity’ with His blood … I know I cannot be trusted around ‘little girls.’ I know that I am a pedophile and have been one since about 10 years old … you were not the first nor the last.”
He ended his letter, “I do not look forward to the jud(g)ment seat of Christ.”
Warren said her pedophile had been accused at least two other times with 9- and 10-year-old girls. She said he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in 1995 as a victim’s parent didn’t want their child on the witness stand.
“He just lucked out every time,” Warren said.
She wrote to her former school because she understood her perpetrator was permitted to return, where she said he was assisting in youth programs and in overnight camps.
“This is my situation, this is my story and I want closure, I want closure,” she said. “They never answered me back. They got an attorney. I wanted to meet with them without attorneys … They refused to do that.”
She said she spoke to the pastor who approached the school board and deacons to express his concern.
“They expressed no sorrow for how they handled everything,” she said, adding that she was only notified by legal counsel after she appeared in a documentary. “They refused to meet with me. They refused to acknowledge that they did anything wrong with the way they handled all of this.”
Her disclosure, she said, caused a split in the church that oversaw the academy.
Jeff Howard is principal of the 350-student Cedar Grove school that teaches pre-K through eighth grade. Working his way up from a maintenance position to a teacher, he became school principal five years ago.
He said several things occurred when they received Warren’s letter.
“We heard that, it was like, ‘Wow!’” Howard said. “It’s hard to believe that something like that happens. We really had no reason to doubt it.”
The principal said school officials said her abuser could no longer be on campus. They then held a town hall meeting in which 250 people attended to let them know this happened.
“This was something we obviously were just as surprised as they were,” Howard explained. “We take the safety of our students, past ones, present ones and future ones, we take that very, very seriously.”
In the meantime, he said they began to evaluate what safeguards were in place and what needed to be established.
“It kind of raised awareness,” Howard said. “This is not good. We need to make sure that we’re doing the right thing going forward.”
Now, teachers are subject to FBI fingerprinting and security background clearances.
Teachers were trained, and take annual refresher classes, to identify signs of child sex abuse and how to respond to that. Students, Howard explained, are taught at their level how to recognize inappropriate behavior and what to do in those situations.
Howard said school officials tried to reach out to Warren and had a lawyer, who is an alum who sits on their board, contact her after they received a second letter from her.
“It was a legal type letter,” Howard said, adding that it was threatening the possibility of legal action.
He said the lawyer also spoke to the perpetrator.
“When this took place,” Howard said of the initial abuse, “there were people involved with it including her father that decided not to take action on it, at least not legal action.”
He said the teacher was removed.
“The record of the school, he was dismissed,” Howard said. “It wasn’t an instantaneous dismissal. Today, would that be an instantaneous dismissal? Oh yeah … That was unfortunate. Today, our action would be report it immediately.”
Howard said they think about Warren.
“We really feel for Debbie, we really do, we want to do the right thing,” he said. “I feel very sad that this took place to her.”
He said in his 27-year career there was no incident like this. “This was a real shocker,” he said.
“I’m sure it has to be difficult for her,” Howard said. “We pray for her often.
We pray for her often. We really love her. We want what’s best for her and for our school. With the new laws that are going into effect soon, I pray for our school a lot.”
Warren said she feels House Bill 1947 is her only course of action left.
“That’s actually my last and only hope right now,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do about it because of the statute of limitations. He’s out there still. He’s free to molest and touch any girls he wants.”
Warren said if this bill passes, she is considering legal action.
“We live in America,” she said. “We don’t live in North Korea. They would shoot you in the back of the
head. We use money. They go to jail or we take their money.”
She said she wants to get this man on a list to protect other children from him and she is unable to pursue criminal charges because those statute of limitations have passed.
“The only thing I have is this bill,” she said. “I know that my goal is to prevent this from ever happening again … My only recourse is to take legal action against the pedophile as well as the leaders who hid and covered up his actions and continued to allow a known pedophile to be around the very children they should be protecting.”
Warren said she regrets not pursuing this earlier as
“I wasn’t ready to face it all again,” she said. “It was hard enough to come forward with all of this heavy stuff at 11 years old. It’s embarrassing to talk about someone sexually abusing you. This has affected every area of my life. I have fear, I have anxiety, I have depression. My self-image is horrible. I carry guilt that I couldn’t stop him but I was just a little girl … a little girl who barely even had the words to use to explain what had happened to me.”
The married mother of four and breast cancer survivor said she believes God allows bad things to make us stronger people and she wants to use that to help
She said religious institutions of any denomination should lead this effort.
“They should be the first to apologize and make things right,” Warren said. “They should be the first to do the right thing and uncover the darkness … Those of us who were abused in the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s are hurting. We need closure. We need the Church to begin the process of making this right.
“I am trying to do whatever I can do to get the bill passed,” Warren said. “God kept me alive from cancer for a reason and I’m thinking this is one of the reasons. I don’t ever want to see any more kids go through this.”
Debbie Williamson Warren talks publicly about her past and her struggles as a victim of childhood sexual abuse.
Debbie Williamson Warren as she appeared at the time she was abused as a youth.
A portion of the letter sent to Debbie Williamson Warren by her abuser.