A former prosecutor and longtime DeLand lawyer has returned home to help victims of sexual abuse — particularly those victimized in churches and other religious institutions.
Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, grandson of legendary evangelical minister Billy Graham, recently moved back to DeLand to pursue his practice as a lawyer at the DeLand firm of Landis Graham French.
Tchividjian, who did his undergraduate studies at Stetson University and pursued his law degree at Cumberland School of Law, recalled returning to West Volusia as an assistant state attorney in 1994 after completing his studies.
“It was in that position that I first encountered — in a really real way — the horrors of sexual abuse,” he said. “I had so many child-sexual-abuse cases as a prosecutor. I probably personally prosecuted hundreds and hundreds of them, and supervised the prosecution of thousands of those types of cases, mostly here in the western part of the county.”
While the cases were varied, many of them shared a common element: they happened within communities of faith. This fact troubled Tchividjian, not only as a man, but as a practicing Christian.
Even more troubling, in many cases, the churches or other faith communities involved would respond with indifference, or worse, with support for the purported offender.
“Most of the time, the churches and faith communities responded terribly to that,” Tchividjian said. “Either they were not being proactive and protecting the vulnerable people inside their churches and faith communities, or when somebody stepped forward to disclose it, depending on who the purported offender was, they would oftentimes express more support for that person than the victim.”
That troubled Tchividjian on a spiritual level, as well as a moral one.
“Especially as someone who professes to be a Christian, who grew up in the church, I thought, ‘Man, that does not seem to reflect the words and actions of Jesus,’ because Jesus was always moving toward the vulnerable and the wounded, and not moving away from them,” he said.
Tchividjian went into private practice with Landis Graham French in 2001, and later founded the organization GRACE — Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment — in 2004.
The group focuses on educating religious leaders about sexual abuse, along with conducting independent investigations into alleged cases of abuse and making recommendations to the church and victim about how to move forward.
“It focuses on strengthening and equipping churches and educating them on these issues, and also conducting independent investigations,” Tchividjian said. “Where a church has an allegation made about somebody connected to the church, the church shouldn’t be the one conducting the investigation. They reach out to an outside entity that’s qualified, that’s comprised of investigators who are former prosecutors and former law-enforcement sexual abuse investigators.”
The group’s work has “exploded in the last three years,” Tchividjian said, especially with the advent of the #MeToo movement, which aims to shine light on sexual abuse and sexual harassment.
Tchividjian left Landis Graham French in 2008 to become a professor at Liberty University’s School of Law in Lynchburg, Virginia, a position he held for 12 years.
He returned home to DeLand in July, to “the exact same office” at Landis Graham French that he used to work out of.
The former prosecutor and professor is now singularly focused on getting justice for victims of sexual abuse in faith communities, primarily through civil legal actions, where a victim can receive funds from an abuser or church.
“We usually will go after both [the individual abuser and church] … the churches who failed to protect [the victim] oftentimes do have money or do have insurance coverage,” Tchividjian said. “My goal in representing a survivor in a civil case, and ultimately, the only thing I can do for them in a civil case, which can be really significant, is to get them money — get them money for therapy, get them money to help them get schooling and get help.”
One challenge in such cases is that Florida imposes a statute of limitations on such civil lawsuits. Victims have seven years after they turn 18, or four years after the time of “discovery” of when the victim learns about the connection between the injury done to them and the abuse — whichever occurs later — to file civil lawsuits.
Victims who were sexually battered while under age 16 aren’t subject to a statute of limitations, if the abuse happened after July 1, 2010.
Some states, like New York, Tchividjian explained, have passed laws that have opened up limited windows of time where victims of sexual abuse, no matter how long ago it may have happened, can file suit against an alleged abuser. However, no such law exists in Florida.
While Tchividjian said he can’t be sure exactly how prevalent such cases might be in West Volusia, based on his experience, abuse in churches is more common than most people think.
“The only way I can assess the situation around here is based upon my experience of this type of issue around the country, and that is, it’s much more prevalent than most people think,” he said. “The good thing is that, in recent years, churches and some church leaders, who have never talked about this issue in the past, are beginning to finally talk about this and acknowledge it does happen in our churches. That’s the first step in doing something about it, is to acknowledge that it exists.”
He had advice for churchgoers.
“I tell people, listen, if you go to church, and they say, ‘That stuff does not exist in our church, not here,’ I recommend them leaving that church, because that’s not a safe church,” Tchividjian added. “If you’re going to not acknowledge the possibility that this could exist in your own church, it’s not a safe place to be.”
Tchividjian said he takes civil cases involving sexual abuse in faith communities on a contingency basis, meaning victims don’t have to invest large sums of money into their legal battles upfront.
He said anyone interested in reaching out can call Landis Graham French at 386-734-3451, or message the firm through its website, www.landispa.com. People can also email Tchividjian directly at Boz@landispa.com.