Mansfield News-Mirror

Victims allege Mansfield church leaders kept quiet about member's sexual misconduct

Two women say leaders at a Baptist church in Mansfield kept quiet about sexual misconduct

The women say an older church member touched them inappropriately when they were teens, and that church leaders kept it quiet. Now, years later, the man has been convicted on charges of child porn and online solicitation of a minor.
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The women say an older church member touched them inappropriately when they were teens, and that church leaders kept it quiet. Now, years later, the man has been convicted on charges of child porn and online solicitation of a minor.

Church leaders referred to it as “spiritual discipline.”

Two young teen girls were called into separate meetings with their parents and the three church elders of Heritage Baptist Church in Mansfield.

Both were grilled about their relationships with an older church member, Benjamin Cole.

At the time, neither girl knew about each other’s experience. And they didn't know about a third young teen who had also been “involved” with Cole and whose mother had filed a police report that actually led to Cole’s arrest for sexual assault of a child under 17. He was not indicted, but the victims allege the sexual misconduct continued.

And they allege that church leaders at Heritage Baptist knew.

Instead, however, of sharing what they knew with the two girls, their parents, or reporting concerns about Cole’s behavior to police, they say the three pastors chose to handle the situation in-house.

“I remember they told me that I was a pretty girl and that I would need to be careful around boys. That I needed to obey my parents and that I should not talk about it to anybody,” recalled Marybeth Arnold, who said she was 13 when Cole, then 19, first pursued her.

But heartened by the #MeToo movement and after learning that Cole, now 35, was recently sentenced to eight years in prison for online solicitation and possession of child pornography, the women, now in their late 20s, are speaking out.

Benjamin Cole in an August 2017 mugshot Courtesy Smith County Sheriff's Office

Marybeth and Amanda Hodson recently filed reports with Mansfield police about Cole’s sexual contact with them, prompting an investigation. They’re talking to attorneys about possible civil litigation and pushing for the pastors to be held accountable for what they didn’t do all those years ago.

“I want the pastors to realize that they are culpable for all the abuse that Ben inflicted on people since they knew that he preyed on children,” said Marybeth, now a 28-year-old nurse living in San Antonio. “... They protected him and they allowed it to continue.”

Two of the pastors, Larry Vincent and Jarrett Downs, are still at the church. The third, Steve Garrick, is now pastor at a different church in Georgetown.

Church elders from Heritage Baptist denied the claims in an email to the Star-Telegram.

Because many people have been deeply wounded by these false allegations we believe the following statements will clarify the issues for you. In 2003, an allegation of sexual misconduct was made against Mr. Ben Cole by a young lady in our church. With our involvement and our encouragement, a complaint was made to the Mansfield Police Department. Mr. Cole was arrested and later no-billed by the Tarrant County DA and Grand Jury.

In subsequent years we never received another allegation from anyone in the church alleging sexual misconduct on the part of Mr. Ben Cole. Any allegations to the contrary are entirely false.

Cole's recent arrest and conviction came in Smith County in East Texas and authorities at the county jail prohibit media interviews with inmates awaiting transfer to state prison. Through a relative still in contact with Cole, however, he has declined to comment.

'That's where the abuse started'

Heritage Baptist in Mansfield is a Reformed Baptist church — one centered around biblical and historical roots, not influenced by culture, its website states.

The church believes God ordained men to take the leading roles in the home, state and church.

“When the Bible speaks of men leading in prayer, teaching, preaching, and serving as elders and deacons (see 1 Tim 2 and 3), we must bow with submissive and dutiful hearts,” the website reads.

Arnold said she and her family began attending Heritage Baptist when she was around 11.

Amanda’s family had known Pastor Vincent for years, as both had previously lived in California.

“I’ve known him since the day I was born,” Amanda said.

When Amanda was about 8, the family relocated to Texas and started attending Heritage, where Vincent had just taken over as pastor.

For their two families and many other members of the congregation, life revolved around the church. They say the church encouraged members to home-school their children. When they reached high school age and needed outside classes, the children would enter into a co-op type program that was taught by other church members.

“So you’re still intermixed with all these people. So it was almost like you were never really without another member, or 10, of the church, wherever you were,” Amanda said.

As a result, both girls say they were close to Cole’s family.

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Amanda Hodson, left, and Marybeth Arnold, outside Heritage Baptist Church when they were younger. Courtesy Marybeth Arnold

The Hodsons and Coles went on vacations together.

Cole’s mother taught Marybeth flute lessons. Her father helped Cole, whose parents had divorced, work on his car. And Cole’s little sister was one of Marybeth’s best friends.

With eight siblings in her own home, Marybeth said sleepovers usually took place at the Cole home, where his sister — the only girl in the Cole family — had a room to herself.

“.... That's when the abuse started was during a sleepover at her house,” Marybeth said.

She said he touched her thigh as they drove back from a wedding to Cole's house, where she was spending the night with Cole's sister.

“He just had his hand in between us, just touching my thigh, and he told me to put my head on this shoulder and I was like, 'OK,' so I did,” Marybeth said.

Marybeth said because of the attention Cole was paying her, she began to develop a crush on him.

“Another time I spent the night at their house and he told me to come in his room after his sister went to sleep,” she said.

That night, Marybeth said, Cole only held her hand and they talked for hours.

But during other visits, she said he started covertly groping her, sometimes as they sat in the dark watching a movie with his sister. Marybeth said he would touch her breasts under her clothing, which made her uncomfortable and scared, but she convinced herself it was normal.

“... It must be OK. We go to church together. He’s friends with my family. Other people like him. So if I’m uncomfortable, that’s a problem with me; it’s not a problem with him," Marybeth said.

Marybeth said the secret contact between them would go on for about five months.

She said Cole would send her instant messages, asking questions like where she’d let him touch her, and telling her to meet him in an empty Sunday school classroom while everyone else was at the Sunday potluck lunch.

In a diary that she kept back then and still has, she chronicled her insecurities about the relationship, even writing out notes that she said Cole had slipped her. In one, he cautions that he doesn’t want to get into an emotional relationship, because he fears she might get hurt, but that he’s asking for a “casual physical relationship.”

“I mean, right now I don’t want this to be anything really big, but I was kinda hoping you could help me out — cause I’m feeling kinda lost right now,” she quotes Cole’s letter in her diary. “... I’m just kinda hoping that maybe I can satisfy some of your desires while you satisfy mine but I don’t mean casual like I want to use you or something.”

'I was just shocked'

Their secret would be found out after the mother of another church member came across emails between her own 14-year-old daughter and Cole, one of which referenced Marybeth.

Though he was years older, Benjamin Cole would attend out-of-state church camp with the younger church members. Courtesy Marybeth Arnold

That mother immediately contacted the elders of the church about Cole's behavior with her own daughter. One even accompanied her to the Mansfield Police Department to file a police report.

Based on that report, Cole, then 19, was arrested in August 2003 and charged with sexual assault of a child under 17. According to the court complaint, Cole was accused of penetrating the 14-year-old with his finger and touching her breast or part of her genitals.

A Tarrant County grand jury, however, declined to indict Cole that November.

Because one of the emails had mentioned Marybeth, the three pastors called her parents, Eddie and Joan Arnold, into a July 2003 meeting.

“They told us that Marybeth had a secret email account that we didn’t know about,” recalled Eddie Arnold, who had been a deacon in the church. “Another mother was looking over her daughter’s shoulder when she was on the computer and she saw she had an email about Marybeth and another fellow.”

When Eddie Arnold asked who the fellow was, the elders replied it was Cole.

“I was just shocked. That doesn’t sound like him. I thought he was a real nice, outstanding young man,” Eddie Arnold said.

The Coles were encouraged to get the password to their daughter’s email account, then bring the information to the pastors. Marybeth said she was embarrassed and ashamed when her parents confronted her and reluctantly gave them the password.

She said the next week she was called into a meeting with the pastors and her parents. There, she said the pastors told her they knew there was something between her and Cole and that she needed to give them the details. Embarrassed and ashamed, and still believing she loved Cole, Marybeth said she only provided the pastors some of the details.

“I told them we had been physically involved. He had touched me, he had held my hand. He had hugged me but I didn’t go into details about like the groping and stuff just because I was so embarrassed," Marybeth recalled.

Joan Arnold remembers feeling angry at her daughter.

‘Why is she doing that? My response was blaming her,” Joan Arnold said. “Beyond that, just stay away from him. Don’t have any more contact with him, that sort of thing.”

It never crossed her parents' minds to contact police. That an interview with a trained investigator might uncover even more had happened. That church leaders weren’t telling them all they knew — including that Marybeth had not been the first young teen to garner the attention of Cole.

'He took advantage of me'

Both parents say the pastors instructed them not to discuss the matter with anyone, not even Cole’s family. Shortly thereafter, the pastors did install a set of new doors with locks to prevent anyone from sneaking into the Sunday school classrooms.

“I feel real at fault for not pursuing this but I just thought that nothing had happened and that they had nipped it in the bud and I was content to let it go,” Joan Arnold said.

The Arnolds would later leave the church in 2011 after they say the pastors tried to get them to shut down a Bible study they were holding inside their home.

Marybeth Arnold, front left, with her family. Courtesy Marybeth Arnold

Marybeth said she didn’t realize then that the contact the two had shared might be against the law. Under Texas law, a 13-year-old girl cannot consent to sexual contact with a 19-year-old man.

“I didn’t even have the vocabulary to realize that what happened was assault and it was sexual abuse,” Marybeth said.

“He took advantage of me. I was just a child and that should have never happened,” she said.

Eddie Arnold said he was confused when his daughter, while in her 20s, spent time in counseling. It was only a few weeks ago, when his daughter opened up to her parents and siblings about being groped by Cole as a young teen, that it made sense, he said.

"All of a sudden, this breaks loose and it's a whole lot more understandable," Eddie Arnold said.

Only Andrew Arnold, one of Marybeth's older brothers, had noticed Cole being “overly flirtatious” with younger girls at the church, including his own little sister.

“The way he was interacting with the young ladies at the church, I didn’t like it,” Andrew Arnold said.

He said he warned Cole to stay away from Marybeth and began to warn his friends at the church to keep an eye on their younger sisters when around Cole — advice that got back to the church elders and prompted them to call him in for a meeting.

“I got told by the elders in a closed-door meeting that they’re aware of him and his behavior and they’re dealing with it. Basically they told me to pretty much mind my own business," Andrew Arnold said. "I told them to piss off.”

Andrew Arnold said he stopped going to Heritage after the meeting.

“It’s a really messed-up thing,” Andrew Arnold said. “They were allegedly the leaders of this congregation. And people looked to them to lead and keep them somewhat safe. … Somebody not reporting actual crimes and trying to just keep that silent and all in-house ... that’s pretty damn disgusting."

'Maybe I'll kill you'

Amanda Hodson said she was 13, riding in a van next to Cole as they headed to a church camp in Missouri in the summer of 2002 when Cole, then 18, began rubbing her thigh under a pillow she had on her lap.

Amanda's sister — older by three years — remembers how Cole had seemed attentive to Amanda, even when she was younger.

"I did always notice that Ben was a little more interested in Amanda, even from a very young age, which didn't strike me as that weird," said Jessica Walls, the older sister.

"I mean, our families went on vacation actually when I was 13 and Amanda was 10. I remember him, even then, giving her more attention than was probably appropriate for a 16-year-old and a 10-year-old."

Walls , the only sibling who knew about Amanda's relationship with Cole, said she didn't realize it was something she should be concerned about.

"Especially in a setting like that, where pretty much men could do no wrong and you went straight from being under your dad's control to being under another man’s control," Walls said.

Amanda said things would not escalate between her and Cole until 2004, when his continued attention led her to develop a crush on him.

"I just wanted someone to be my boyfriend from really far away. You didn't really want actual physical contact with somebody, especially the way we were raised," Amanda said. "... No one is even supposed to hug me."

Ben and Amanda
Benjamin Cole with Amanda Hodson Courtesy Amanda Hodson

When she was 15, Cole began pursuing a physical relationship with Amanda, exchanging secret emails and instant messages with her just as he had previously done with Marybeth. By then, he was in his early 20s and in college studying criminal justice.

"His main goal in life was to be a cop," Amanda said.

Amanda remembers Cole later becoming more controlling. When she started a job at a Chick-Fil-A, he would park outside the restaurant to make sure she was there. He would watch her house.

Walls had a fiance at the time and when Walls wasn't allowed to be alone with him in his apartment, Amanda was sent to chaperone. To keep Amanda out of the way, her sister and fiance invited Cole over.

"That was when it started to escalate was those times when we were at the apartment and he got me completely alone," Amanda said.

It was at her sister’s fiance’s apartment that Amanda said Cole frightened her enough to where she tried to break off their relationship.

"“I remember that day, he was on top of me and I kept telling him to stop. I kept telling him I didn’t want to do it," Amanda said.

Amanda said Cole responded by threatening to kill her sister and her parents.

“He told me if any guy ever loved me or ever touched me, that he would kill them too,” Amanda said. “I believed him. I thought he was going to kill me.”

“I remember pushing him off of me. We were still upstairs and he went over to her fiance’s closet and he pulled out a gun. And he said, 'If you’re not going to love me, then I’m just going to kill myself or maybe I’ll kill you.'”

Cole continued to pursue Amanda, sending her messages and showing up at her work. Scared, she remembers crying as she told her dad.

She said her father said he’d make some phone calls, which she now realizes was to the church’s elders. She and her dad were later brought before the three elders in a closed-door meeting in the fall of 2005. She remembers the elders asking her questions about what she had done to encourage Cole's actions.

"It was basically just all this counseling about why I should be ashamed for my part in it," she added. "And they said, 'Don't talk to anybody about this. We will handle him. We will discipline him; that's not up to you.'”

Marybeth Arnold, left, and Amanda Hodson, say they're now on a mission to expose a 15-year secret. Courtesy Marybeth Arnold

Amanda said what infuriates her now is knowing the pastors were aware that Cole had been involved with two other underage girls before her.

"The fact that they didn't jump out of their chairs right then and pick up a phone and call police is what now just sickens me,“ she said.

Even more troubling, she said, is that one of the pastors, Jarrett Downs, was a police officer, working with the Burleson Police Department between July 2004 and June 2008.

Burleson Police Chief Billy Cordell said Downs had left the department in good standing to work full-time at Heritage.

'A little inappropriate horseplay'

Amanda's parents, Paul and Michelle Hodson, still attend Heritage Baptist Church.

In a telephone interview, Paul Hodson disputes that he, or the church leaders, were told of any "criminal" behavior between his daughter and Cole those many years ago.

“At no time was anything stated by my daughter that had any type of criminal intent,” Paul Hodson said. “There was nothing that could be acted upon criminally at all. Nor did she ever share anything with me privately.”

Though Hodson would not detail the contact his daughter did describe back then — saying he wanted to respect her privacy — he said it was nothing “salacious,” and what he would term as "horseplay."

“That’s not the word she used. I want to be clear on that,” Paul Hodson said. “But if somebody were to be watching what she described, that’s kind of what it would have looked like. Maybe a little inappropriate horseplay between a man who was of age and a young lady who was not of age, but from what she described — I’m not saying what actually happened — that’s what it would have looked like.”

Paul Hodson said had the contact described by his daughter back then risen to the criminal level, he believes the pastors would have contacted police as they had with the other alleged victim.

"We would have as well," Paul Hodson said. "There is no doubt the response would have been the same. I wish she had told us. I wish she had told us and she did not. "

Because of what she perceives as her parent's lack of action, Amanda and her parents haven't spoken in years.

Amanda said her parents and the pastors shouldn’t have judged for themselves whether there was sufficient evidence that a crime had been committed. They should have informed police and let trained investigators determine what had occurred, she said.

“That’s enough. That’s more than enough,” she said.

'Tyler man arrested'

On March 17 — a Sunday when her family would usually be at Heritage Bapist Church — Amanda said her mother sent her a cryptic message that seemed to refer to what happened between her and Cole more than a dozen years earlier.

Confused about why her mother was suddenly bringing the topic back up after all these years, Amanda called her older sister, who is still in contact with their parents, looking for answers.

As they chatted on the phone, Amanda plugged Cole’s name into Google.

“The second hit on Google said Tyler man arrested,” Hodson said.

Hodson clicked on the story, which had first been posted in the fall of 2017. Even as she read it, she still didn’t suspect that the Cole the article was referring to was the same Cole from her church.

“I scroll down. His mug shot is there,” Hodson recalled. “... It probably took me a full 30 to 45 seconds of staring at it to realize that was him.”

The Department of Public Safety had begun investigating Cole — then married and living in Tyler with children of his own — after being alerted last year by the father of a 16-year-old girl that he’d found inappropriate exchanges between Cole and the teen on the girl’s phone.

The contact had started when the girl was 15, court documents state.

Sgt. Jean Dark, a DPS spokeswoman, said the investigation morphed into an undercover sting in which an investigator posed as a 15-year-old friend of the teen girl.

Dark said Cole attempted to meet with the 15-year-old friend for a sexual act. Court documents show he even sent her a photograph of his erect penis.

When he arrived at the meeting location, however, he was met by a DPS investigator and arrested for online solicitation of a minor.

A search of his phone uncovered a nude photograph of the 16-year-old, according to court documents.

Cole admitted to investigators exchanging nude photographs with the girl. Investigators found that Cole and the girl had been engaged in sexually explicit conversations through an app known as Whisper.

After Amanda found the story about Cole's arrest, she also spotted a link to a more recent story about Cole. Just days before, on March 19, Cole had pleaded guilty to two charges of possession of child pornography and a charge of online solicitation of a minor in exchange for an 8-year prison sentence.

“My sister started crying and I was like, 'Why are you even crying?' I couldn't even process it," Amanda said. "And she was like, 'Because now everybody’s going to know that they should have believed you this whole time.' And then I started bawling.”