Finger-waggers and life lessons, Tucson style.

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.

Eric Holtan - The Tucson Triple Threat: Conductor, Executive Director, Convicted Child Sex Offender
Eric Holtan – The Tucson Triple Threat: Conductor, Executive Director, Convicted Child Sex Offender

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.


9 thoughts on “Finger-waggers and life lessons, Tucson style.

  1. Thank you for the courage of your words and acts.

    I knew Eric when he taught in Duluth. He was a very talented choir director. I went to many of the concerts with his youth choirs and knew many of the choir members. I know enough to know that the girls involved were not responsible for what he did, either legally or in any other sense. He was the teacher. He was responsible for maintaining proper boundaries. He violated the trust of the girls and the families of the girls. He maintained these relationships while at the same time convincingly pretending to the parents, other choir members and the community that he was a trustworthy, responsible, professional teacher. He pled guilty to these charges relating to these two girls. There is no doubt about the basics of what he did. What he did were serious felony criminal offenses. I and many others were shocked when we learned about what he did, with at least these two girls. We had no idea that he could not be trusted around underage girls.

    The basic information about the conviction and sentencing is available to the public at the public web site, but it does not contain details of the events. See:

    You will have to agree to the terms and then search for criminal files and search for his name. These are felonies. That file contains the disposition of the charges and the sentence, including 15 years supervised probation from 2000 and registering as a sex offender and no unsupervised contact with underage females. This is Minnesota Case No. 69-K4-99-601112

  2. I used to know Eric. What I’m going to write is based on opinion.

    Eric was 23 when he first offended. He was a high strung, seemingly confident individual who got the most from his students. But, it appeared to me that he was actually very socially inadequate. I suspect his intimate relationships with these girls may have been his first. Eric was a 23 year old that was closer to a 16 year old social level.

    Of course, that’s not an excuse for what he did. As a teacher in a position of authority and trust, he committed a crime. And, when he broke up with one of them, he had an intimate relationship with another student. Did these girls come on to him? It doesn’t matter. In his position, it was up to him to decline.

    However, important to note is he didn’t fight in court when he was accused. He plead guilty. Most offenders fight to their dying breath declaring they are innocent or victims themselves.

    I believe in second chances. But I also acknowledge that over 90 of sex offenders commit similar crimes. With Eric, he offended with 2 young girls. His offenses were between the ages of 23 and 27, and he was arrested and convicted 3 years later. But, if he hasn’t offended since, it would be 17 years since his last crime was committed.

    I believe that Eric’s past in Tucson should be carefully scrutinized. If he has offended again and violated his probation, throw the book at him.

    I don’t have the answers as to what should happen to him if he has not offended since 1997. At some point, society should let people move on…..I don’t know where that point is. I really hope that he has not offended again after all these years. He has much to offer. But if he has, “throw away the key.”

    1. And do you want your daughter to be that “second offense” that is worthy enough to throw away the key.

      Joelle went to Tucson because there are huge warning signs that need to be addressed. The majority of the congregation is not aware of his past. His past is his past and they have a right to know. If they decide they want to still let him lead the choir then at least they are aware of the truth. Also he is leading people to believe he was only put on probation when he was sentenced to jail. That is a lie. I am all about second chances and forgiveness but that can only happen after the truth is addressed.

      Joelle is truly just the messenger and a needed messenger because this needs to be talked about and known in the community. If more people had talked about it in Duluth then there wouldn’t be two victims. And making excuses for him is ridiculous and telling someone to be quiet unless he does it again is frightening.

  3. I so deeply admire you Joelle for your courage and your compassion. It’s so hard to stand there never knowing whether the next congregant will blast you or thank you. And it’s so hard to be restrained when they say such hurtful, ignorant things.

  4. It is unfortunate that most people don’t understand the serial, and calculating nature of predators. While there is no legal or moral ground for the “finger-wagger” to stand on with any of her rationalizations, if she knew about the several additional underage victims of this predator, then what? Is he still excused and seen as a helpless poor man being victimized by young teenage girls? Following this logic, maybe Jerry Sandusky was just a coach who loved kids, and couldn’t handle the way that young boys threw themselves at him?

    The fact is, there are countless teachers, coaches, priests, youth ministers, boy scout leaders across the nation that never cross boundaries with the young people in their care. They are human, and imperfect, just like everyone else, but they do not use their age, power and authority to prey upon children.

    And then there are predators.

  5. Joelle…. I admire you so much, thank you, This is your best yet..!!!! Someday I will tell you a story of similar circumstances with my mother..

  6. Hope she and the others in the church…and in Tucson read this. You are a brave woman. Your
    words are powerful. So hard to speak to well…dumb people who just can’t get it. You hang in
    there and know that your righteous indignation and work as an activist is helping people.

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