I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
March 29, 2016
I grew up in Gainesville, Georgia, a small town tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Gainesville is the kind of place newlyweds dream of when they imagine raising a family– Its historic, cherry tree-lined downtown square is surrounded by charming shops and eateries, children play without worry on its shady residential streets, and no matter where you go in town, you can pretty much guarantee somebody knows your name– most likely, your mother and father’s names as well. We still visit family in Gainesville a few times a year, and while the cityscape has changed somewhat over time, I still recognize many of the names on storefronts and outside office buildings from my childhood.
Back in the 1970s and 80s when I was a kid, my friends and I followed a well-worn path to maturity from which few families in our community dared to deviate. We were born at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. We spent our preschool years singing ‘Old McDonald’ while Miss Mary played piano at Candy Cane Kindergarten. We went to youth group meetings on Wednesday nights at Gainesville’s First Baptist Church, a stately building with a broad, green lawn that seemed to anchor the heart of our town like a shining white thumbtack pushed into the center of a map. Every girl became a Brownie or Bluebird, every boy joined the Boy Scouts. Gainesville’s Troop 26 had its own den in the woods behind the church that was much nicer than the mildewing cabin where my weekly Bluebird meetings were held. While the boys in town enjoyed camping and fishing trips, jamborees, and pinewood derbies all year long, we girls were stuck making crafts with popsicle sticks and yarn as Susie Cannon’s mom awkwardly read selections from a Bluebird leader’s guide on how our bodies were about to change. I deeply envied the boys their badges and awards and weekend getaways and rued the fact that I’d never get to join Troop 26, simply because I was unlucky enough to have been born a girl. In retaliation, I filched an old Boy Scout Handbook from my brother’s room and secretly read it from cover to cover.
When I was ten, my mother remarried and moved with my brother and me to Atlanta. After that, Gainesville gradually faded first to a place for twice-monthly visits with my dad, then to an idyllic memory of small-town childhood– a place for Maypole dances and Dipper Dan ice cream cones and lazy afternoons on Lake Lanier.
That image changed for me a few days ago with a front page story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a story that exposed a sordid, decades-old secret and forever destroyed everything I thought I knew about Gainesville and the adults I once trusted to protect us.
The story (which I recommend- It is painstakingly investigated and very thoughtfully written) details how Fleming Weaver, troop leader for the First Baptist Church-sponsored Gainesville Boy Scout troop in the ’70s and early ’80s, admitted both to church leaders and, later, to law enforcement that he had sexually abused troop members– yet he was never prosecuted, never punished, never publicly exposed, and never effectively banned from contact with children.
Because of this, I’m only learning 35 years after the fact that when my childhood pastor found out about Weaver’s abuse in 1981, he opted to keep the information hidden from the parents in my congregation and from the Boy Scouts organization as a whole, announcing instead that Weaver was resigning as troop leader in order to spend more time with his family. As a result, Weaver was able to continue participating in Boy Scout activities outside the church– At least one other Gainesville scout has now come forward alleging that he was sexually assaulted by Weaver in 1985.
By 1995, another scout had come forward, and at that point Weaver admitted to law enforcement officials that he had abused a number of scouts over the years- “five or six, at least,” according to him– but because the statute of limitations had expired, he was never charged with any crime. The Boy Scouts organization found out about the abuse in 1995 and subsequently banned him from all Boy Scout events. Lydia Sartain, the district attorney who supervised the investigation according to the AJC, knew the details as well. Still, nothing was publicly shared, and no parents of former Boy Scouts were informed. In fact, for decades now, Fleming Weaver has continued to enjoy social prominence in Gainesville, serving on several boards (in some cases, alongside Lydia Sartain) and as a deacon at First Baptist Church, right up until the church learned about the AJC story.
Weaver’s alleged victims, on the other hand, have since attempted suicide, been in and out of jail, and suffered from depression, according to the AJC. What really stood out to me when I read the newspaper report was what one former scout told investigators in 1995: “Here I see him going in one direction and I’m going in the other. There’s no telling where I could be or what I could be doing if those years of my life had .. not happened.”
In the wake of this news, I’m hearing now from my Gainesville friends that many had heard rumors about Fleming Weaver over the years, including the current pastor of First Baptist Church. Yet Weaver continued being elected deacon by the FBC congregation and continued living as if he hadn’t destroyed childhoods and ruined lives. The First Baptist Church pastor told reporters he ignored the rumors because there was never any proof to them– but why didn’t he ever have a private conversation on the matter with my childhood pastor, who still lives and works in town? The former district attorney says her hands were tied– but why has she continued to serve on boards and attend meetings with Weaver, despite her knowledge of his past?
Why, in short, have so many people in Gainesville, many of them parents themselves, opted to protect Fleming Weaver and his reputation instead of rallying around his victims and helping families of former Boy Scouts make sure there aren’t more victims out there, suffering in silence?
Unfortunately, I already know the answer to these questions. The very thing that makes Gainesville and other small towns like it a desirable place to raise a family is what left its boys exposed to potential victimization: Everybody knows everybody. Parents didn’t report the abuse to law enforcement because they didn’t want their sons subjected to gossip and speculation. If word of what happened got out, it would have defined those boys in Gainesville for the rest of their lives. Church leaders and city officials likely kept quiet because they didn’t want their reputations and careers blemished by shedding light on such an appalling secret. I believe Fleming Weaver was counting on this code of silence, relying on the fact that as long as he acted as if nothing was wrong, people would doubt the rumors or at least become fearful of rocking the boat by asking questions or speaking out.
I’ve seen this attitude play out in my own neighborhood over the years- In my time as a parent and stepparent, I’ve witnessed and heard from other children about inappropriate behavior toward minors from coaches, teachers, youth leaders, and other parents. At times, the problems have been blatant and impossible to ignore– yet when I started asking questions, I quickly learned that the vast majority of parents prefer to turn a blind eye and not get involved. Nashville is a big city, but my community is a small one– Calling out a person whom you regularly see at the grocery, at your church, at your kids’ school, can be the equivalent of a social deathwish in a small town or neighborhood– and that’s just not something most people are willing to endure. Period.
Still, the child in me feels betrayed that my own pastor– the man who baptized me — didn’t do more. My church leaders didn’t do more. Other adults in positions of leadership, some with scouts of their own, didn’t do more. By Weaver’s own admission, we know there are more victims out there. Were they friends? Family? Neighbors? Classmates? Could their victimization have been prevented if someone had spoken out sooner and alerted parents and law enforcement?
Chances are, yes.
It took 30 years for Fleming Weaver’s secret to come to light, and I have no doubt that many in Gainesville will be grappling with the truth for years to come. The victims who came forward have been incredibly courageous– I believe the impact they’ve made will have a farther-reaching impact than they’ll ever realize…
By telling their stories, they’ve allowed Gainesville residents to see Weaver’s victims as sons, brothers, and friends, rather than shadowy figures swathed in anonymity.
By telling their stories, they may inspire more victims to come forward or seek help and healing in private.
By telling their stories, they could convince someone else out there to take action and expose another abuser in another community.
Most importantly, by telling their stories, they’re potentially saving other children from being victimized.
May we all be brave enough, if and when the time comes, to do the same.