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Dick Wichman

Seated across from me at my kitchen table in San Anselmo, he asked me to forgive him.  I was in the 10th year of my faculty appointment at San Francisco Theological Seminary, serving as the Assistant Professor of Ministry and Hebrew Instructor.  Dick Wichman had just renounced the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (USA), in essence giving up his ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.  He did this in order to halt the investigation into his years of sexually abusing young boys throughout his ministry at the Chinatown YMCA and Donaldina Cameron House.  The Presbytery of San Francisco, of which he was a member, could no longer pursue the charges filed against him.

At the time, I was among the dozens of victims who had come forward to give our testimony to the Presbytery.  In my case, he attacked me only once, at his cabin near Muir Woods.  I resisted sufficiently that he never tried to do it again.  I was fortunate.  Abuse, however, can continue to be perpetrated in other ways besides sexual.  This is my story of Dick Wichman’s continued abuse throughout my ministry, after the incident at his cabin.

I told him at the kitchen table that I forgave him of that one incident.  I had moved on with my life, loved my family, and was enjoying a rich and fulfilling ministry at the seminary.  In offering my forgiveness, I also said to him that I expected him to stop committing any further abuse on anyone else.  I was not the only victim.  True forgiveness requires repentance to complete the healing process, both for the victim(s) and the perpetrator.  My deep regret is that Dick died unrepentant.  I continued my journey towards healing from his continued abuse even after I had forgiven him.  

Abuse, as I said earlier, occurs in multiple ways besides sexual.  When I accepted the call to return to my home church, the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown (PCC), to serve as one of the Co-Pastors, Dick confronted me at the seminary parking lot, and challenged me, “how are they going to afford your salary?”  I found that to be a strange question in light of the fact that the Presbytery approved not only the call, but also the terms of call in the assurance that the calling congregation can afford those terms.  In his question, Dick was attempting not only to plant seeds of doubt in my mind, but also casting a negative assessment of the congregation.  Cameron House had always been Dick’s domain of authority and power.  As the Executive Director, he had no one to be accountable to locally, only to the Board of National Missions of the PCUSA.  So he established a relationship with the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown where he could exercise power and control without any accountability to the Session, much less the congregation.  The arrangement Dick made with the church was for the pastoral staff at Cameron House to provide pastoral leadership and care for the congregation in exchange and in return for “benefits” from the church, which primarily was to provide a validated call to the pastors who served on the Cameron House staff.   The result of this arrangement was the establishment of a dependency on the part of the English speaking congregation of the church to the Cameron House staff (with no accountability to the church in light of the fact that the pastors were not compensated by the church).  The rationale which made this arrangement so attractive was that the church could rely on Cameron House to provide a flow of young people to the church.  This was the church’s evangelism program, a reliance on Cameron House to be the source of new members.  

I was the first pastor to be called and compensated by the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown to serve as Co-Pastor, serving the English worshiping community, a radical departure from the established dependency relationship with the Cameron House pastoral staff.  Not only was I not on the Cameron House staff, but I was also not accountable to the Executive Director.  

It took a crisis at the church to bring about this seismic shift.  The crisis was so serious that the Presbytery had to appoint an Administrative Commission to take over the governance of the church, replacing a severely divided and conflicted Session.  The conflict was so severe that the pastor of the Cantonese congregation was terminated by the Presbytery, resulting in 2/3’s of the Cantonese members leaving and starting an independent congregation.  The pastor of the Mandarin congregation managed to hold on to his position as both the Cantonese and Mandarin congregations had formed a bloc against the English congregation.  The key contributing factor to this conflict was the power struggle between the Mandarin and Cantonese speaking pastors against the English speaking pastors from the Cameron House staff.

The precipitating event, the spark that lit the long-standing smoldering coals, was the proposed building remodeling project which the Cantonese and Mandarin congregations had been working on for years, and resisted by the English congregation every step of the way.  The Cantonese and Mandarin congregations had even raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the project, with minimum support from the English congregation.  More significantly, the English congregation exploited its political knowledge and connections to block the proposed remodeling plans from going forward.  The theological rationale upon which the English congregation lodged its resistance was that precious mission dollars should be spent on mission and not on property.

The Reverend Bob MacKenzie, a member of the Administrative Commission, was appointed by the Presbytery to serve as the Interim Pastor of the English congregation, in place of the Cameron House pastors in the midst of this crisis.  Bob helped to create a new pastoral staff design to alleviate the conflict, implementing a Co-Pastor model, with all three pastors sharing equal power and authority.  In addition, he helped create a 3 Commission governing structure to complement the Session.  In addition to fulfilling the requirement of the Book of Order that every PCUSA congregation is governed by the Session, the elected Elders from the 3 congregations were organized also to serve on 3 Commissions—Mandarin, English, and Cantonese.  The genius of the Co-Pastor staff and 3 Commission design was that it enabled each congregation to have an equal share of power.  The Session met quarterly and the 3 Commissions met monthly.  The church ended up operating with 4 budgets—the Session and 3 Commission budgets.

When the church reached a level of health and stability, the English congregation completed a Mission Study and elected a Pastor Nominating Committee to search for a pastor, independent of Cameron House.  I was called to the position, a first.

Dick Wichman was not finished with his abuse.  Following his veiled threat to my call, he proceeded to make pastoral visits to my parishioners even as I was called to be the pastor.  He encouraged parishioners to make regular visits to his home at the Rogue Valley Manor in Medford, Oregon.  I had to work my way through parishioners who were critical of my preaching and of my administrative decisions.  There was not one pastoral visit I made in my first year in which the question inevitably came up:  “So are you for him or against him?”  Even though Dick Wichman had renounced the jurisdiction of the PCUSA to avoid prosecution for his years of sexual abuse, he continued his abuse, in this case, undermining and sabotaging my ministry.  Not only did he want me to fail, he did not want the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown to be able to serve Jesus Christ.  It was all about him.

For Lent, in the third year of my ministry at PCC, we planned a study titled, “The Meaning of Forgiveness,” with the sub-title, “How do we handle Dick Wichman’s abuse?”  It was the best attended Lenten Study in the recent memory of the English congregation.  At the outset, one of Dick’s supporters challenged me on why we even needed such a study.  From that Lenten event, a healing group was formed, led by a couple of trained therapists who dealt with clergy abuse.  This first group of survivors and supporters helped to inaugurate the long healing process in the years that followed, conducted by both Cameron House and the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown.

In the year 2003, the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown celebrated a remodeled church building.  The project was completed debt-free.  Dick Wichman died in 2007, the year after I retired, upon completion of 17 years as Co-Pastor of the church.

8 thoughts on “Dick Wichman”

  1. Thank you for writing about this painful part of your congregation’s history and for being an instrumental part of its healing. I’m sorry for all you and your community experienced from his manipulation, power plays and abuse. May there continue to be healing as more of this story is brought to light.

    I’m remembering today that the risen Christ enters the locked rooms where disciples are huddled in fear, announcing his peace.

    Peace to you all.

  2. Thank you, Cal–
    You explained it very clearly- how we were so dependent on CH staff and Dick
    to our detriment!
    Peace, Shar

  3. I watched this or heard about it, from a distance, from outside, only in fragments over many years, from you and others–like doing a puzzle over decades without the picture on the box to refer to. This account brings the pieces together in a vivid way. There is so much wrenching experience for you to have dealt with. The pain of reading about it cannot be anything like the turmoil of living through it. It was such an evil history. One prays that the like rarely occurs, is very unusual. Unfortunately, the sins involved are not rare, I guess, even in the church.

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