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Athens, GA
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A 63-year-old man has been charged with multiple counts of child molestation in connection with the alleged molestation of five young children at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Elberton.
Town reacts to molestation charges
In Elberton, thoughts turn to family

By Allison Floyd

Jan. 11 - ELBERTON -- Less than a week after a businessman was arrested and charged with molesting children at an Elberton church, locals don't publicly criticize the church or police; they avoid passing judgment on whether the accused man did anything wrong and they don't discuss the details of the allegations.

But if you talk to residents long enough, one word is sure to come up: family -- their families, the victims' families, the suspect's family, and, most often, the church family.

''I hurt for the family,'' Janice Dickerson, owner of Love Unlimited Christian bookstore on Elberton's downtown square, said of Ralph William Tulk's relatives. ''I know them, and it's just a hard thing.''

Tulk, 63, was arrested Tuesday and charged with five counts of child molestation for allegedly inappropriately touching five children at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church over several years. He was superintendent of the Sunday school program when some of the alleged molestations took place and was treasurer of the church until last month, according to police and the church.

Dickerson and many other residents of this Northeast Georgia city -- most of whom were willing to share their thoughts about the case but not be quoted -- said they worry about the church, but aren't yet convinced of the allegations.

''This is America, and you are innocent until proven guilty,'' Dickerson said.

The church stands two blocks from the center of downtown, where at least two television crews set up late last week. But television broadcasts can't spread the news as fast as word of mouth in this town of 5,000.

Bob Ward, owner of Ward's Pharmacy on the square, said patrons are talking about the arrest, but it hasn't caused them to worry more for the safety of their children. They also don't assume that Tulk is guilty because police have charged him, he added.

''Elberton's such a small town, people are going to make up their own minds. We'll see what the court does, but people will decide for themselves,'' he said.

Like many people working or taking care of business in downtown Saturday, Ward knows the family somewhat; the pharmacist employed Tulk's son for several months.

Because many Elberton residents are related by blood or marriage, or know each other through business or church affiliation, they trust one another unless they have reason not to, Ward said. That trust may be harmed by the molestation allegations, he said.

Johnny Lutz, who worked as an investigator for the Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS) in Elbert County for three years, doesn't think a dose of skepticism hurts a town, however.

''You know the old saying, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and swims like a duck and repels water ...,'' Lutz said. The father of a 16-year-old son, Lutz said he hopes the allegations -- true or not -- prompt parents to listen to their children and look for unusual behavior that might signal a problem.

''I just can't stress enough that people should listen to their kids, to keep the lines of communication open with their children,'' he said.

Ted Dove attended Holy Trinity Lutheran most of his 44 years before he joined a Church of God congregation a few years ago. Dove said he knew Tulk when they attended the Lutheran church together.

Dove was ''born and Lutheran and will die a Lutheran,'' he said, and he now understands how Catholics must feel in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic church recently.

''The church is a family,'' Dove said, ''and you don't want to believe that anyone in your family would hurt a child.''

He's also concerned about what unchurched people will think of the allegations.

''Non-Christians will use this as another example to believe that Christians are hypocrites, and they won't come to church,'' Dove said.

Though reports of sexual abuse in churches draw attention, it is not common, according to Theresa Mangapora, executive director of the Sexual Assault Center of Northeast Georgia, a grant-funded program that advocates for sex assault ''survivors'' (as the center refers to victims) by assisting law enforcement and social service agencies.

In the vast majority of cases, child molestation allegations are lodged against a family member or someone connected to the mother or father, such as a spouse or boyfriend, Mangapora said.

''Children are so rarely abused by a stranger. It's such a small percentage. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen, however,'' Mangapora said.

And though Elberton police investigated 11 child molestation cases in 2002 -- a number that investigators consider high in relation to the town's population -- Elbert County as a whole doesn't have a particularly high number of molestation reports.

Of nine Northeast Georgia counties -- Barrow, Clarke, Elbert, Franklin, Greene, Jackson, Madison, Oconee and Oglethorpe -- Elbert ranked fourth per capita in child sexual abuse cases reported to DFACS in 2001.

According to those figures released by Children's Advocacy Centers of Georgia (the blanket organization for the local Sexual Assault Center), DFACS offices in Elbert County investigated 13 reports of sexual abuse in 2001.

Of those cases, only two were substantiated, meaning DFACS workers found enough evidence to decide that abuse likely had occurred. In 2000 and 2001, Elbert DFACS had the lowest substantiation rate of the nine counties.

Jeff Lukich, the director of Elbert County DFACS, wouldn't offer a theory about why the office finds proof in such a small number of cases.

Lutz, the former DFACS investigator, said he suspects parents didn't push the cases because they didn't want to expose their children to the stress of an investigation and court case.

In the recent case, people had suspected Tulk of molesting children at least twice in the past, but their concerns didn't lead to a formal investigation, according to police and the church's current pastor, the Rev. Dr. Don Elam.

In the mid-1990s, a congregant reported suspicions of child abuse to church leaders, who didn't find any evidence of wrong-doing and didn't report the information to law enforcement, according to Elam. At that time, Tulk was acting in a ''teaching capacity'' at the church, said Elberton Police Investigator Benjie Cain.

Police said they now believe that Tulk was molesting church children at that time and continued to abuse them until December, when a parent reported the molestation to DFACS and church leaders banned Tulk from the church.

He was arrested Tuesday and charged with molesting five children at Holy Trinity Lutheran over the past nine years. He was released on $120,000 bond.

Since then, two South Carolina teens have contacted Elberton police, claiming that Tulk molested them in 1994 at a swimming pool behind Tulk's mother's Elberton-area home, Cain said. Those allegations apparently were reported to DFACS workers in Greer, S.C., but weren't forwarded to Elberton police, according to Cain.


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