Presbyterian News Service
06257 May 9, 2006
Let the healing begin
San Francisco's Cameron House confronts 40 years of sexual abuse
by Toya Richards Hill
SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- There are rooms in the basement of the Donaldina Cameron House where ghosts of the past cry out in fear and shame.
These same ghosts inhabit the wind and the sky around Lo Mo Lodge -- also know as Dick's Cabin -- in Muir Woods about 45 minutes away from this city.
They are the adolescent spirits of people like Buddy Choy, who lost his innocence at the hands of the Rev. F.S. "Dick" Wichman, an adult he trusted and revered. Wichman was executive director of the Cameron House -- a flagship Presbyterian mission -- from 1947 to 1977.
"Things happened to me with Dick Wichman right here at Cameron House," said Choy, now 63. Those basement rooms "were once very dark," and "I remember how Dick Wichman took me into those rooms and took my clothes off, and then took his clothes off."
Wichman "used me as a sexual object" from age 13 on, for about four or five more years, he said. This same man "taught me all the tenets of my faith."
"He was very good at manipulation" and "we were children," Choy said.
Choy is among a group of people who've publicly revealed that Wichman sexually and psychologically abused them during his tenure at Cameron House, and even after his retirement. Noel Chun was the first person to publicly identify himself as an abuse victim in 1987.
Wichman, now in his 90s, reportedly now lives in Oregon.
Those who've decided to share the stories of what happened to them at Cameron House are members of a survivors' support group. They say they are actively raising awareness so the entire Cameron House community can heal, and ultimately to encourage other victims to come forward.
Situated in San Francisco's Chinatown, Cameron House has always been a community-based center focused on the needs its constituents -- mainly Chinese immigrants. It was started by the Presbyterian Church in 1874 as a mission for Chinese girls rescued from being sold into slavery, but evolved into a full-scale community center with vibrant youth programs and social services for people of all ages.
Wichman was the charismatic white minister who established Cameron House's hugely popular youth ministry program. Young people from homes steeped in
Chinese tradition flocked to Cameron House, where they could have fun and
learn how to live in the Western world.
They trusted their teacher and father figure -- an ordained man of God --
and assumed his overly affectionate ways were the American norm. Besides,
to believe anything otherwise or to say anything against him would be disgraceful and un-Chinese.
Yet secrets and hidden memories can only lay dormant for so long before rising to the surface.
Tom Pong tells a story equally as disturbing as Choy's. He recalls how Wichman recruited boys to sleep with him during stays at his cabin in the woods.
"We were in our sleeping bags," Pong said, recalling the room full of about 20 boys at the Muir Woods' cabin for summer camp. "Dick walks in and says, 'who's going to sleep with me tonight.'"
Pong, then in the 12th grade, already had endured years of the "heavy hugging" and even French kissing that he said Wichman lavished on Cameron
House youth. Sleeping with him seemed simply an extension of that behavior.
Plus, Pong said, "my adult leader was in the room when Dick approached to
"I looked at him (the leader) right in his eyes and he didn't say anything," Pong said. "I figured it must be OK if my club leader did not say anything."
Pong said he went to Wichman's bed that night under the veil of Wichman's mantra: "God meant for us to love each other."
Yet instead, he said, "something very wrong happened."
It would be many years before Pong, a cardiologist and an active Presbyterian, would publicly tell what happened to him. And even today, years after going public, he still struggles through tears as he recalls the abuse.
Still, Pong, Choy and the others are committed to talking about the ugliness until real healing and resolution occur.
"We are no longer victims, we are survivors," Choy said. "The story needs to be told, so that history records it."
More than a decade of inaction
The group's charges against Wichman are not new. Formal allegations first surfaced in 1987 and were reported to the Presbytery of San Francisco, which had jurisdiction over Wichman.
Yet the survivors say the rift that formed in the Cameron House community
after things became public, followed by years of silence about the issue,
have made the pain of the abuse even more stinging.
On the eve of a formal church trial before San Francisco Presbytery's Permanent Judicial Commission in 1988 Wichman renounced the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church, taking away the church's power to try or punish him.
Criminal charges were not filed in civil courts because the reported abuse
incidents were beyond the statute of limitations.
The controversy caused many in Cameron House and the adjacent Presbyterian
Church in Chinatown to choose camps -- some siding with the claimants and
others aligning with Wichman.
It wasn't until 2002, 15 years after the first allegation, that any concrete measures were taken to heal and reconcile the Cameron House community. That's when the Cameron House Board of Directors formed a Healing Task Force.
"The goal was not one of vindictiveness or revenge, but of understanding,
healing and reconciliation within our community and for ourselves," the Task Force said in its final report.
Pivotal also was the presence of new Cameron House Executive Director Doreen Der-McLeod, who had come on board a year earlier.
Pong, chair of the Cameron House Board from 1999 to 2000, gives much credit to Der-McLeod for bringing the issue out of the darkness. He said that though he tried to get the abuse dealt with under the leadership prior to Der-McLeod, nothing was ever done.
"I said, 'This is a really important thing we need to confront,'" Pong said of those years when the abuse was never addressed. "I felt strongly that we had to do that."
The Rev. Harry Chuck, Cameron House executive director from 1977 to 2001, said, "admittedly, we didn't respond that enthusiastically."
Cameron House officials "were under pressure to do tremendous outreach to reinvent Cameron House" and raise funds at the time to restore the 100-year-old building, Chuck said. "We were reluctant."
Chuck's hesitation, too, was born out of the extremely close relationship he had with Wichman over the years. Chuck began participating at Cameron House in 1947 and spent "most of my life there."
In fact, Chuck actually lived in the Cameron House building for a period of time, and was virtually handpicked by Wichman to succeed him as executive director. Cameron House "was my life...period."
Chuck acknowledges he would have done things differently as executive director if he could do them over again, although he also admits "I don't know if I would have been very effective because of the strong denial" about Wichman's abuse.
Time has allowed Chuck to see Wichman's controlling nature and the abuse more clearly, leaving "no doubt" of what Wichman did, he said.
"Looking back, I really have connected a lot of dots, probably more than anyone else," Chuck said. "A lot of things make sense to me now."
"My own relationship with Dick, there was a lot of manipulation," he said. "There were times when he chose to be affectionate and I wasn't comfortable with it. I think I clarified that with him in my relationship."
Chuck said ultimately he was "relieved" when the Cameron House board and Der-McLeod opened the issue up again. "The time was right for it to happen," he said.
Der-McLeod said facing the problem "was important for me because, like all of us here, I grew up in the (Cameron House) program," she said. Plus, "it was clear to me that it was an unresolved issue."
After the allegations first came out, "everybody was in a quandary" about what to do and "everybody was very protective of the institution" -- fearful donors might withdraw their financial support or the organization's image would be tarnished, Der-McLeod said.
What ended up happening? "Nothing was done," she said.
The seven-member Healing Task Force, entirely comprised of Cameron House alums, spent two years studying the facts, listening to victims, looking at mechanisms for healing and taking various other steps along the road to their final report.
One of the report's conclusions was "that being Chinese made revealing Wichman's abuse even more difficult. "Chinese children are taught to listen to their elders or the sibling that is older. "So declining Wichman's request to sleep with him was not a choice that some youth saw as an alternative, given cultural training and the trust youth had in him."
In addition, the report stated, "his youth-leading-youth model created a system that prevented anyone from ever challenging or suspecting him because often youth leaders were only three to four years older than the groups they led."
"Since all were trained by Wichman in the first decade, he created a closed family system where he was the father, the unquestionable head of the household," the report goes on to say.
No one publicly questioned Wichman's "bear hugs and whisker rungs," his "chocolate swims" where the boys swam nude at night, or any of his other overt sexual behavior.
"All of us are struggling -- how could it (the abuse) happen for 30 years?" said Der-McLeod, one of the original girls' program workers at Cameron House in the 1960s. But, "Dick really created a community that was under his control."
Apologies, therapy aid in healing
Seven recommendations came out of the task force's report, including a private apology from Cameron House to the known victims/survivors; a public statement of apology to the known and unknown victims/survivors; and acknowledgement and an apology from the Presbytery of San Francisco, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown.
"The Presbytery of San Francisco acknowledges that youth and young adults, trusting in the ministry of the Rev. F.S. Dick Wichman -- were the victims of sexual abuse, exploitation, broken trust, abuse of authority and neglect for 30 years and even after his retirement," reads a portion of the presbytery's apology letter.
"We are sorry that our presbytery's inactivity over too many years has allowed hurt and harm to continue in the survivors' nuclear and extended families, friends and communities. We apologize that the presbytery did not do more to reach out to those who were victimized," the letter also states.
Though it was never reported officially until 1987, "all those years that he (Wichman) was doing that he was a minister member of the presbytery," said the Rev. Linda Regan, chair of the presbytery task force convened to respond to Cameron House issue.
"He should have been supervised in a way that the presbyteries do with all of its minister members," she said.
Acknowledgement also has come from the PC(USA), which has given $187,500 for therapy for survivors and $62,500 for retreats, said Pat Hendrix, sexual misconduct ombudsperson for the PC(USA). Funding for counseling and therapy was a recommendation of the Cameron House Healing Task Force.
During much of Wichman's tenure, Cameron House was programmatically related to the PC(USA)'s Board of National Missions.
"Listening to them, believing what they've said to us, working with them, providing money for the counseling and talking opening about" have been key to dealing with the issue, Hendrix said.
The General Assembly Council of the PC(USA) approved the money in response to an initial request from the survivors for $1 million and then a subsequent scaled-down second request for almost $600,000.
Along with therapy and retreats, the money was earmarked by the survivors to cover a staff position; support groups for alumni, former staff and women; workshops on child molestation and sexual abuse; a curriculum writer; and curriculum layout and printing.
Regan said the presbytery also is committed financially to the Cameron House healing process, and is now "in an education phase" in order to make the case for funds.
"We are focusing our efforts -- at this time to remind the members of the presbytery that this isn't over," she said.
One option being discussed is asking the presbytery for a special assessment, and "I personally expect that we will be asking for something of that kind within the next year," Regan said. Also being discussed is a presbytery-wide special offering.
Der-McLeod said funding remains key to the healing process and said Cameron House will seek outside grants as well to support its efforts. Integral, too, is hiring a staff person who can coordinate all of the efforts and also write the grants needed to sustain the healing ministry.
"The workshops, we know, need to be ongoing," Der-McLeod said. Plus, "each workshop allows for others to come forward."
No one really knows how many others like Choy and Pong are out there. The survivors conservatively estimate 10 victims a year over Wichman's 40-year career, which would mean 400 survivors.
Ultimately, the survivors hope people both within Cameron House and the Chinatown community at large will be able to openly and freely talk about what happened in order to prevent it from ever occurring again.
"The truth isn't really known to the community," Pong said. "People still whisper in the background when Cameron House is talked about.'
"Speaking the truth -- will only make Cameron House stronger," he said.