Madrid man gets probation for sex abuse; calls for mandated clergy reporting renewed by CFCtoo
Edited: May 16 at 3:51 p.m.
CFCtoo members recently visited Albany urging lawmakers to support the Child Abuse Reporting Expansion Act, which would make clergy mandated reporters. Pictured in front are Michelle Wilbur and Abbi Nye, formerly of St. Lawrence County. (CFCtoo photo)
Editor’s note: This story contains a description of sexual abuse that may be offensive to some readers.
BY JIMMY LAWTON
North Country This Week
MADRID – A man who admitted rubbing his erect penis on the genitals and anus of victims under age five will receive six years probation and register as a Level 1 sex offender following a plea deal in Madrid Court Tuesday.
The original charge of first-degree sexual abuse would have carried a maximum of seven years in prison. Under the plea agreement there will be no prison time.
The incident occurred in 2015, but wasn’t reported until 2021 after the accusations were uncovered by St. Lawrence County Child Protection Services, who reported the allegations to police.
No stay away order of protection was ever issued in favor of the victims nor was one included or requested as part of the deal.
Sean Ferguson, 43, was charged with first-degree sexual abuse and acting in a manner injurious to a child in May of 2022.
Ferguson will be supervised for six years for a charge of second-degree sexual abuse and must register as a Level 1 sex offender, though he will not be included in the online searchable database. New York State defines a Level 1 offender as being of low risk of a repeat offense; Level 2 represents a moderate risk and Level 3 a high risk.
Tough to prosecute
“The deal was the best of two unsatisfying outcomes,” St. Lawrence County District Attorney Gary Pasqua said. “Under the agreement he will be under supervision, he’s convicted of a crime and has to register as a sex offender.”
He said that given what the prosecutors had to work with, it was the best result they could expect. Pasqua says the alternative outcome could have ended with Ferguson avoiding all of the above.
He said securing a felony charge would have required clearing a grand jury trial and that it wouldn’t be possible to convict on Ferguson’s confession alone.
Pasqua said a major problem in the case was that prosecutors were denied access to the victims and were unable to interview them.
“We have to go through a legal guardian and in this case there was a lack of cooperation on their part,” he said. “We were not afforded the opportunity to have any contact.”
Pasqua said his office was reluctant to push for an order of protection for fear the plea would be rejected as well. That’s partially due to the fact that following the original charges, Ferguson was still allowed to be in close proximity to the victims.
He said that likely occurred because of the time that had passed between the crime and when it was reported.
Pasqua also clarified that the sex offender level issued to Ferguson is not up to the prosecutors. He said that goes before a board and is based on a points system stemming from the allegations of the original charge, likelihood of reoffending, cooperation level, conduct during incarceration and other factors.
“The level they are forced to register at is not something we can negotiate,” he said. “It’s a risk assessment filled out based upon the allegations and it’s totally points based,” he said.
Pasqua admitted the outcome may not feel like justice to many.
“But quite frankly, the fact that we were able to get the deal we did was the best possible outcome available,” he said.
When asked if he believed clergy should be mandated reporters, Pasqua said that he’d let lawmakers decide that, but said he believes anyone, regardless of their position, should report abuse when they are made aware of it.
Survivors group formed
As a member of Christian Fellowship Center, Ferguson’s case made waves locally after he was charged in 2022 with sexually abusing children in 2015. He was not charged until seven years after the incident.
CFC operates churches in Madrid, Potsdam, Canton, Gouverneur and Moira and has several hundred members. A number of local business owners in the Potsdam area are members of the church, which actively recruits college students and runs a Friday school, used by members and non-members for homeschooling support.
The church – which has successfully been growing membership and expanding since the 1970s – saw a wave of people breaking ties following the charges.
The catalyst for departures, as corroborated by several members of the church, was a decision by clergy not to report sexual abuse.
Several CFC members told North Country This Week they left the church because leaders were aware of but did not report the allegations to law enforcement or disclose them to community members whose children were around Ferguson on a near daily basis.
Abbi Nye, a former member of CFC, who was raised in the church but has since moved to Wisconsin, helped found a survivors group called CFCtoo. The organization aims to help those who have lived within the church transition to life outside of CFC. The group was founded in direct response to the church’s handling of the Ferguson allegations.
The organization’s website includes survivor’s stories in which former members share their experiences as members of the church. Some include claims of physical, mental and sexual abuse. To date, at least 14 such stories have been posted on the site.
“Christian Fellowship Center is responsible for this miscarriage of justice. Their dangerous approach to abuse refuses to report child sexual abuse and pressures victims into abandoning accountability in favor of false reconciliation and rehabilitation,” Nye said in regard to the results of the Ferguson plea.
CFC leadership’s decision not to report the sexual abuse allegations is not a crime in New York State, though it would be in roughly 34 other states.
CFCtoo members were recently in Albany advocating for passage of the Child Abuse Reporting Expansion (CARE) Act, which would make clergy mandated reporters for child abuse, though it still allows for some exceptions.
During the trip, former CFC member Michelle Wilbur publicly spoke out against the abuse she and others suffered.
“My church leadership’s failure to report my children’s abuse set them up for a lifetime of trauma,” Wilbur said. “For far too long predators have been able to hide in churches where the pastors do not report the offender’s vile acts to authorities. Churches are a place for all sinners to feel loved. But it must be a place where the most vulnerable are protected.”
The organization has been pushing for passage of the act for more than a year now and recently gained support from North Country Sen. Mark Walczyk, who signed on to the Senate version of the bill and is the sole Republican sponsoring the CARE Act in either of the state houses.
Nye said Ferguson’s sentencing shows exactly why the CARE Act is needed.
“Sean Ferguson's sentence highlights why we need to pass the CARE Act. If Christian Fellowship Center refuses to report child sexual abuse and pressures victims into abandoning accountability in favor of false reconciliation, we must pass a law that reminds pastors that their duty before God is also a duty to the state.”
North Country This Week sought comment from Christian Fellowship Senior Pastor Rick Sinclair regarding the situation, and though the questions were not answered, Sinclair provided the following statement.
“I am aware of the resolution in the Ferguson matter, and I trust the ruling and wisdom of the State. Our local law enforcement and courts are to be commended for their excellent work. Thanks to those who serve us so faithfully.
The Ferguson family is moving forward, and I continue to pray for and support them. I believe and have seen that Jesus is able to heal and restore both abused and abuser. The Gospel message is Good News — Christ alone is our very real hope!! The gospel can change repentant hearts, heal victims, and redeem broken individuals.
Child sexual abuse is a heinous sin, as are all types of abuse. It is a perversion of God’s design for sexuality, and it is destructive to individuals, families, and our society. The effects of this perversion are far reaching and devastating.
For over 40 years I have been called into some very dark places in St Lawrence County. When I am called into people's lives, I bring any wisdom I may have gathered over the years, but more importantly, I call upon the Holy Spirit, who is able to deliver us out of sin, and heal the broken hearted.
My message remains the same: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And anyone who calls on the name of the Lord, will be saved.”