I could tell exactly what kind of person she was when she started wagging her finger at me. She was mean.
I hate finger-waggers. My dearly departed cat had the perfect reaction: If I ever wagged a finger at him, he’d attack (playfully, of course. But it was still an attack). Even my sister, as a super-wise 10-year-old, told me at age five, “You may be pointing one finger at me, but you’re pointing three fingers at yourself.”
It was last Sunday and I was standing outside of Dove of Peace Lutheran Church in Tucson. I had recently learned that their choir director Eric Holtan is a convicted child sex offender. He is possibly in violation of his probation—he is not registered anywhere, as ordered by the courts. I was there to talk to parishioners about the news, tell them how to report abuse (by Holtan or anyone else), and show them safe ways to talk to their kids about abuse. I also wanted to talk to church leaders, who had not responded to my emails and phone calls, to make sure that men like Holtan are not hired into positions of power in this church or any other.
I met a lovely family and a few nice parishioners who were anxious to talk. One women told me that her daughter had been molested as a child by a choir director. We hugged, sharing our mutual loss. I also learned that most of the families at the church only learned about Holtan’s conviction the day before, when they received a letter from the pastor in anticipation of my visit. If I had never raised the issue, would church members still be in the dark?
There were critics, too. There was the man who simply told me, “Eric is my friend. I don’t care what you say.” He was followed by people who politely declined to talk to me, saying that they knew and loved and accepted Eric for what he was.
Cue Wicked Witch of the West music
There she was. The finger-wagger. She was late-middle-aged and drove a well-worn brown minivan. And she came right to me, finger wagging like a dog’s tail at an all-you-can-eat kibble buffet.
“You came to the wrong woman, young lady!” she said. “I know all about Eric and you have it all wrong. It was consensual.”
Nice, I thought. She continued.
“That girl, you know, the one who said she was a victim? She wanted it. My son was a young teacher, and he said that the girls would throw themselves all over him. That girl wanted it and she wanted to hurt Eric when things were over between them. Eric fell, but it’s not a crime. My son thinks so, too.”
“Ma’am,” I said in the nicest tone I could muster, all the while swallowing bile. “He was convicted of molesting two of his high school students. He admitted it and pled guilty. You weren’t there. You should get more info …”
She cut me off, “Were YOU there? Of course not. All you want to do is sully the name of a good man because those girls were all over him. They should have known better. Besides, he only deals with the adult choir. I am calling the POLICE.”
The finger? Still wagging. I could even feel a slight breeze in its wake. I thought about biting her a la my cat, but common sense got the better of me. She walked off in a huff, apparently looking for the closest phone so that she could call the SWAT team.
She left a little cloud of desert dust behind her. The Wicked Witch of the West music slowly faded. And I thought about everything that could have been said.
I wanted to tell her: I know what it’s like to be molested by your choir director. How the man who directs the choir—and hands out the solos, makes you dig deep for emotion, helps you embrace your art, nurtures your talent, and helps you fill your soul for the first time in your young life—has an ultimate power over you. I know what it’s like to have a simple girlhood crush on a teacher (every girl has had one) and have that teacher twist it into ugly and grotesque abuse. I wanted to tell her: I think your son is hiding something. When my ex-husband was a substitute teacher, he was the subject of many a girlhood crush. But he did the right thing. He kept strong boundaries, understood his position, and most importantly, he saw the that girls were CHILDREN.
I wanted to tell her: You say that the girls “wanted it.” My four-year-old son wanted a machine gun. I said no. Eric Holtan should have also said no. The damage is the same. These girls were not mature enough to drive. Yet you say they are mature enough to fight grooming and molestation by a 30-year-old man who holds their futures and their art in his grip?
I wanted to tell her: I am 43. I am still grappling with what happened to me. Coming here today was one of the most difficult things I have done in years. Because of the emotions I am dealing with, I can’t sing anymore. I am sick to my stomach and the hole in my soul from losing my innocence and my art is overwhelming. But I came here today because Eric Holtan’s victims are worth it. The children in this church are worth it. Even you are worth it.
I wanted to tell her: You say he only deals with the adult choir. But every teen in that church wants to sing in the adult choir, not with the kids. Every teen in that church looks at Holtan and wants to sing in the Tucson Chamber Artists. They go to the TCA concerts, because they are advertised at church. They admire him. They want to learn from him. He inspires them to pursue music in college. But they don’t know the danger, because the church leaders won’t tell them.
What did I really tell her?
“I am so, so sorry.” I told it to her back as she waddled away. But for some reason, I felt better. So what if I didn’t say these things out loud? She wouldn’t have listened. I said it to myself-the person who needed to hear it the most. And I believed all of it.
I thought I was there to stick up for Holtan’s victims. But I was really there to stick up for me.