Thirteen-year-old "Emily" was flying home by herself from a weight-loss camp in Philadelphia when Jackson Senyonga, a pastor with ties to Pat Robertson, allegedly molested her. The details of the case are especially disturbing, but sadly, it's not unique.
Emily (she and her mother asked that their names not be used) says that Senyonga touched her stomach and thigh, then began tugging on her underwear. She pushed him away repeatedly, and tried to put her teddy bear between them, but he persisted, stuck his hand down her pants, and touched her genitals. At that point, Emily (showing remarkable presence of mind in a scary situation) jumped up and told a flight attendant, "I want to move! I want to move!" Once the flight attendant heard Emily's story, Senyonga was questioned by police.
Senyonga is pastor with a thousand churches in four countries, including Uganda and the United States. He has ties to US religious leaders, including Pat Robertson, and he operates an "orphan village" of 1,000 children in Uganda. When questioned, he at first said, "I never touched the young lady with my hands," but then admitted, "Possibly my hand, um, several times probably, um, brushed over her as we rode the plane. And that's all." Later, when police accused him of lying, he did not argue, and a deputy said his denials "were weak and without emotion." But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the testimony is his assessment of Emily. Ashley Harrell of the SF Weekly writes,
When asked about Emily, Senyonga estimated her to be 21 or 22 years old. He believed this, he said, because "she was a big girl." He also told police she was mature and that she was well-endowed in the breasts. When asked if he took notice of the pin on her chest, the one that indicated she was an unaccompanied minor, he said he never saw it.
The "I didn't know she was underage" defense works even less well if the victim is wearing a button that says she's underage — but Emily's case does highlight the fact that the buttons aren't adequate protection for kids flying alone. Harrell writes that a LexisNexis search "turns up 10 instances of child molestation cases aboard airplanes from the past couple of decades, though there have almost certainly been more." On a 2007 Delta Airlines flight, a man allegedly kissed an 11-year-old girl flying by herself and "jabbed his hands into her stomach" — she was later treated for a ruptured ovary, but no charges were ever filed. Airline policies on unaccompanied minors differ, but most charge $40 to $100 extra for taking care of a child flying alone. Emily's mother had paid $99 extra, but apparently that didn't include protecting her daughter from molestation, or noticing when Senyonga switched seats to be next to her, as many airline predators do.
Hopefully Emily's case will inspire airlines to better protect the unaccompanied kids in their care, but that doesn't do much for Emily. A flight attendant says Emily blamed herself after the molestation, saying, "I should have done something sooner." Her mother says her grades and "outlook on life" have suffered. The U.S. Attorney's office won't be filing criminal charges against Senyonga, but Emily's mom is suing Senyonga and United Airlines. She advises other parents to remember that airlines don't truly protect kids flying alone, saying, "Look what happened to my daughter."
Predators Are Free To Move About The Cabin [SF Weekly]