Religion

Series on sex abuse at independent fundamental Baptist churches brings tips, action

A Michigan woman who told the Star-Telegram she was sexually abused by a volleyball coach at her independent fundamental Baptist school now says she plans to seek charges against the man in her home state.

The woman, Ruthy Nordgren, was part of a Star-Telegram investigation published Dec. 9-10 that exposed a pattern of sexual abuse, cover-ups and relocation of abusers in independent fundamental Baptist churches and schools across the country.

Nordgren says she was inspired by the newspaper’s investigation to contact the state police in Michigan, whom she spoke to last week.

Dozens of other people have contacted the Star-Telegram since its investigation was published to share allegations of abuse and stories of abusers not being held accountable for their actions. In once instance, a man brought additional damning evidence regarding a case that was part of the Star-Telegram’s investigation.

Nordgren, now 28, says she was sexually molested by the coach, Aaron Willand, when she was 12 years old while she was a babysitter for his family. Willand was a coach at the Christian school affiliated with Grace Baptist Church in Gaylord, Michigan.

Willand then moved to Washington state and, at 14 years old, Nordgren followed to help his family with a new baby.

In Washington, Nordgren said, Willand raped her every day for two weeks. In 2006, Willand pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse and rape in Washington, but the abuse Nordgren said occurred in Michigan was never investigated by police.

Willand did not respond to a letter sent over the summer during the Star-Telegram’s investigation.

Nordgren’s sister Naomi Perez was also prompted by the Star-Telegram’s investigation to contact police. She was quoted in the newspaper’s investigative report about a time she says she saw Willand molesting another girl on her volleyball team in the early 2000s in Michigan.

Perez said she was ignored when she tried to report the abuse to church and school officials.

Perez said police told her they are willing to investigate Nordgren’s allegations in Michigan and the possibility that Grace Baptist’s school and pastor broke mandatory reporter laws.

State police confirmed they spoke with the women. They said the next step would be for Nordgren to file a criminal complaint. They declined to comment further.

Nordgren said she plans to file a complaint this week.

The church has not responded to requests for comment but in a statement to WWTV, a CBS affiliate in Cadillac, Michigan, it said it immediately reported Willand to authorities when it became aware of the accusations.

In June, Michigan extended its statute of limitations for sexual assault cases to 15 years. The law also allows victims of sexual assault after Dec. 31, 1996, to file civil charges if the alleged abuser was in a position of authority.

New evidence

The Star-Telegram’s investigation has also brought forth new evidence and the possibility of a police investigation in another alleged case of abuse associated with Grace Baptist’s school.

Brianna Kenyon, one of 10 people who submitted a video for the series detailing their experience in the church, said one of her teachers, David Beckner, positioned himself as a father figure and eventually sexually abused her in 2006.

Kenyon said the abuse began when she was 16. Beckner, she said, controlled her and made her feel bad for thinking there was anything wrong with their relationship. When she was 17, she said, he had sex with her for the first time. He was still her teacher at that point.

“Once he had sex with me he said no one will ever marry me, no one will ever love you,” she said. “I felt ruined. I was in a captured situation where I felt like, now I’m yours, whatever you want.”

Kenyon followed Beckner and his wife to West Virginia at his request a month after she turned 18. It was her senior year, and she told her mother that she would be getting a GED.

“He would practice with me things to say to my parents if they got suspicious, things to say to my siblings and my friends,” she said. “He controlled everything I did, for years, and I was trapped in a hell that I couldn’t get out of.”

Several months later, Kenyon said, Beckner’s wife found out. But Beckner kept calling Kenyon until she took out a restraining order against him in 2011.

Kenyon said she plans to speak with police this week about how Beckner sexually abused her when she was underage in Michigan.

Beckner has never been charged with a crime and did not respond to requests for comment.

The Star-Telegram’s investigation prompted a classmate of Kenyon’s, John Pavlick, to come forward with new information.

Pavlick, now 27, said he could tell something was wrong about the relationship between Kenyon and Beckner when he attended school with Kenyon in 2006.

They were together all the time in a culture that didn’t allow men and women to get close before marriage, he said, and he saw the teacher pass the girl notes.

So Pavlick, 15 at the time, wrote a letter to Robert Perrotti, a pastor and the principal at Grace Baptist’s school. He warned Perrotti about what he felt was an inappropriate relationship.

Pavlick read the Star-Telegram’s investigation, saw Kenyon’s video and knew he had been right.

“You have most likely noticed that she is around his family quite a bit,” Pavlick wrote in his letter to Perrotti, a copy of which he provided to the Star-Telegram. “If I were unsaved, and I saw an alleged ‘man of God’ (is not Beckner ordained?) spending much of his time around a young fatherless teenage girl, I would sense that something is amiss. In fact, the general opinion among many of the teenage boys in the very school that you administrate is that Beckner has ulterior motives, and sensual ones at that.”

Pavlick said the principal never answered his letter and didn’t answer his repeated attempts to ask about it. Perrotti and Beckner did not respond to a message left by the Star-Telegram.

“If I could see this well enough to understand — I didn’t know what rape was,” Pavlick said, reflecting on his 15-year-old self. “I didn’t know what sexual abuse was. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as the age of consent. I don’t think I understood how sex worked at the time. If I could see this plain as day, and it bothered me enough to write a letter to my principal, every other adult in administration had to have been watching what happened.”

In its statement to the local television station, Grace Baptist said the pastor did not know about Beckner until “years later,” at which point he called the police. Kenyon said she spoke with police but she said they told her too much time had passed.

A firing instead of call to police

The Star-Telegram’s investigation showed how allegations of abuse within independent fundamental Baptist churches were often not reported to authorities, suspected abusers often ended up at other churches and the blame often fell on victims.

The stories prompted multiple people to send tips about such a case that began in the mid-1990s at an independent fundamental Baptist church in Cleburne — Calvary Baptist Church. The church’s pastor fired his associate and didn’t contact police after the man kissed a teenager from their congregation.

The associate, Roland Lee “RL” Smith Jr., left the ministry but would later return and work at two more churches before he was arrested in 2011 on charges that he touched two girls under 17 and made inappropriate comments to them while they were attending Alvarado Baptist Church in Johnson County.

In a deal, Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of possession of child pornography, and the charges of indecency with a child were dropped. Smith denies the allegations of sexual misconduct. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail and 10 years probation.

In the mid-1990s, Smith told his now ex-wife Pat Davis that they were leaving Cleburne because he had kissed a 17-year-old church member, Davis said. Other sources say the kiss was on the girl’s forehead.

“He didn’t want me to make a scene,” Davis said. “He told me we were going to have to leave, that there was a 17-year-old girl and he found out it was her birthday and she didn’t get anything, so he got her a teddy bear or something and she hugged him. He said ‘I don’t know what happened, but I kissed her.’ That’s all he told me.”

Instead of going to the police, Davis said, Calvary Baptist Church “covered it up” by firing Smith.

Asked why he didn’t call police, then-pastor Charles Payne told the Star-Telegram that he talked with the girl’s mother, who said she was satisfied with his response to fire Smith. He said it was not a cover-up.

“The kiss on the forehead was concerning, but I felt like if the mother wanted that reported that she should report it,” Payne said. “My wife and I even had the girl come to my home and talk about the whole thing. I thought it would be in the best interest for (Smith) to move on.”

Texas’ mandatory reporting law requires that anyone who has knowledge of suspected child abuse — including sexual misconduct — report it to police or to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The mandatory reporting applies to everyone and is not limited to teachers or healthcare professionals.

After Smith’s departure, another allegation surfaced against him at Calvary Baptist, according to Payne and Davis. Payne said Smith was accused of making an inappropriate comment to a girl; Davis said the girl was 14 and kissing was involved.

Payne said the girl’s father went to police, but there were no charges because the girl changed her story. Davis, Payne and Smith said Smith passed three lie-detector tests administered by police in the case.

The Star-Telegram talked to an investigator who worked at the Cleburne Police Department at the time of the investigation. He said he remembers the accusations against Smith, but couldn’t recall if a polygraph was taken or what happened in the investigation.

One woman who was close to Smith at the time said Smith’s behavior was well known in the Cleburne community and that the two accusers were painted as “promiscuous temptresses trying to destroy the reputation of a man of God.”

Smith registered as a sexual offender in January 2013 and lives in a mobile home just outside of Brownfield, which is 40 miles southwest of Lubbock. His sex-offender registration lists his risk level as “low.”

He said he moved to Brownfield to live with his mother, and he joined Bethel Baptist Church to have a place to worship.

Earlier this year, Smith was seen playing guitar and leading a portion of worship at Bethel Baptist Church, which readers called to the attention of the Star-Telegram after its investigation was published.

Pastor Leland Penny Kaimimoku of Bethel Baptist doesn’t share their concerns.

“The only time he was up there was if I was there or if everyone was together,” said Kaimimoku, who said Smith was already a member when he arrived two years ago.

When Kaimimoku arrived to the church, he said Smith was open about his status and offered to not return. Instead, Kaimimoku said he established rules. Smith would not be allowed around children by himself.

In a service recorded on the church’s Facebook Live page about nine months ago, Smith was seen speaking, playing guitar and singing for about 12 minutes before he walked off the stage, sauntered down the aisle and appeared to have touched or tickled a girl’s ear.

The video was deleted less than 20 minutes after a reporter called the church asking about Smith’s involvement there.

Smith told the Star-Telegram that he hasn’t been attending church at Bethel or anywhere else for the last five months. He won’t return, he said, until the pastor, the pastor’s wife, and Smith’s mother have taken sex offender chaperone classes. The Texas chaperone training program is for family, friends and co-workers of sexual offenders who want to help offenders stay out of trouble.

Smith said he has spent the last five years trying to better his life.

“I’m 65 years old and I’m going to meet God soon,” he said, laughing. “I’ve done the best I could to not have to answer to him when the time comes.”

IFB response

The Star-Telegram’s series provoked hundreds of responses on social media and via email and phone messages. They ranged from support to condemnation.

Butch Like, a member of an independent fundamental Baptist church in Springtown, said he was “appalled by the actions of those ‘men of God’ who preyed on young women and children” and called them “the reason more folks are not coming to Christ.”

He added, though, that not all independent fundamental Baptist leaders cover up abuse, and disagreed with ex-members who characterized the church as cult-like.

The churches mentioned in the series are the “exception not the rule,” he wrote in an email.

Other pastors said they were brokenhearted.

“As an IFB pastor I am saddened and ashamed at what seems to continue to be acceptable in our movement. Even one incident is despicable and too many,” William Tyson, a pastor at an independent fundamental Baptist church, wrote in a Twitter message. “We must do better and protect the innocent.”

If you have a story to share, contact reporter Nichole Manna at nmanna@star-telegram.com or 817-390-7684 or reporter Kaley Johnson at kjohnson@star-telegram.com or 817-390-7832.

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Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.
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