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