December 20, 2019
Donna Thornton
Gadsden Times

A once prominent Alabama youth evangelist on Friday received the maximum sentences after pleading guilty in Etowah County to 28 sex offenses committed against boys, ages 12 to 16, whom he encountered through his ministry.
Acton Bowen’s consecutive sentences total 1,008 years, and maximum monetary fines of $840,000 were imposed.
Bowen pleaded guilty to all charges against him — multiple counts of second-degree sodomy, enticing a child for sex, traveling to meet a child for sex, facilitating travel of a child for sex and second-degree sexual abuse.
Bowen was arrested in April 2018 in the first of an avalanche of criminal charges. The initial arrest was made in Hoover, and because of Bowen’s history as a youth minister at one local church and his work with a youth group at another, local investigators reached out to possible victims.
Soon six young men came forward, disclosing abuse dating back to 2006, and continuing to the time of his arrest.
Etowah County District Attorney Jody Willoughby and Deputy District Attorney Carol Griffith feel sure there are other victims who have not come forward — yet.
“Somebody approached me in the courtroom immediately afterward and said he’d been waiting for this for years,” Griffith said.
She said she felt confident there were other victims.
If there are, Willoughby said, they can call the district attorney’s office or law enforcement and bring a case against Bowen.
When given a chance to speak in court, Bowen apologized to all those he’d hurt, including the victims. He told psychologists he was sexually abused as a child. Testimony about that allegation, and the claim that he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome were offered as mitigating circumstances at the sentencing hearing.
“The hurt that they feel, I understand,” Bowen said. “I understand it all too well.”
Bowen said he’d prayed for their healing and that he decided to plead guilty so they would not have to go through a trial.
He said he was “humbling himself before the court, before the victims and before God.”
But Willoughby noted after the sentence was imposed, that as soon as he was arrested, Bowen started contacting victims and trying to get them on his side — to help him, rather than helping the prosecution.
Willoughby read impact statements from two of the six young men who brought charges against Bowen. A third victim indicated he wanted to testify, but declined at the time of the hearing. Griffith asked that the judge note the difficulty he faces at the prospect of speaking about what had happened to him.
One of the victims wrote of molestation that began when he was 12, at an time in life when kids focus on “being cool.”
“Acton was seen as a cool guy, so it made sense to want to be part of his inner circle,” he wrote, “and he made it easy never mentioning what we did when we were alone even once.” He sweetened the deal” by buying gifts, and taking the victim on trips.
“As long as I ignored what I had to do to receive the perks, I could convince myself I was living the good life,” he wrote.
But as he furthered his education, the shame of what happened led him to experiment with drinking. “I found I could get drunk enough to forget everything that happened.”
But the drinking led to dismissal from his learning institution while the abuse caused him to keep people at arm’s length, for fear that others might be “as malevolent as Acton.”
“The sacrilegious method Acton used has driven a divide between me and my God that I’m still trying to reconcile,” he said.
He said he was ashamed that he didn’t have the courage to stop Bowen sooner, because other boys were hurt after he was.
“I do not trust, fully, anyone anymore,” another victim wrote, in a statement read to the judge. “Hearing his name makes me angry and upset.” What Bowen did to him and other victims, he wrote, as “unforgiveable.”
Bowen entered a guilty plea earlier this month on all the charges on the day jury selection would have started in his Etowah County trial.
He faces additional and similar charges in Jefferson County and in Bay County, Florida.
Defense attorney John Floyd called a clinical therapist and a psychologist, both of whom evaluated Bowen in the county jail.
Both testified Bowen told them he’d been sexually abused, starting at the age of 12, by a football coach at the school he attended.
Clinical therapist Deegan Mercer Malone testified he had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder of the kind seen in victims of child sexual abuse, and that such unaddressed abuse can led victims to “recreate” the circumstanced they faced.
Psychologist Eric Seeman echoed the finding of post-traumatic stress symptoms related to child sexual abuse.
Both said the only evidence they had of any abuse was what Bowen told them; neither investigated the claim.
Seeman said PTSD could be a mitigating factor in the initial act of Bowen sexually abusing a child in the way he claimed to have been abused, “but not in the ongoing behavior.”
The continued incidents of abuse, he said, would have occurred because he enjoyed what he was doing.
Willoughby and Griffith said when they learned Bowen said he’d been abused as a child, they questioned whether there’d ever been complaints made of such abuse. They found no complaints made to the Department of Human Resources or to the school.
Donna Thornton writes for the Gadsden Times of Alabama.

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