Crime

This church has a history of sexual abuse and coverups. Ex-members blame the culture

The pastor of Open Door Church in Mesquite was arrested Tuesday on charges that he covered up allegations of sexual abuse.
The pastor of Open Door Church in Mesquite was arrested Tuesday on charges that he covered up allegations of sexual abuse. Special to the Star-Telegram

A fundamentalist Baptist church with two high-ranking members facing sexual abuse charges and a pastor charged with not reporting it has a decadeslong history of similar problems.

Robert A. Ross, the pastor of Open Door Baptist Church in Mesquite, was arrested Tuesday on charges of failing to report child abuse. He posted his $2,500 bond. Ross learned, on Feb. 1, of allegations that church member Steven Winn was sexually assaulting a 15-year-old and failed to immediately report it to police, according to a release from the Mesquite Police Department.

Open Door Baptist Church in Mesquite has had four members accused of sexual abuse in its 50-year history. Members and ex-members say a strict culture that reveres church authorities as nearly unquestionable has led to an environment conducive to ongoing abuse.

Robert Ross.jpg
Robert Ross Mesquite Police Department

A tipster reported the most recent sexual abuse allegations to Mesquite police in late February. They involved a father-son pair described as belonging to a family deeply involved in the church.

Police arrested Steven Winn, 33, who volunteered with Open Door’s youth ministry, and charged him with three counts of sexual assault of a child on Feb. 22.

Larry Winn, who is Steven Winn's father and the church’s 65-year-old bus minister, was arrested a few days later and charged with sexual assault of a child. The cases involve different victims.

In 2011, the church’s then-pastor, Matt Jarrell, committed suicide in a West Virginia jail cell, where he was being held on rape charges. He had a history of sexual assault arrests, at least one of which was known to the church's assistant pastor, per news reports at the time.

Back in 1988, Donald Lewis — another bus minister — pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child. He died while on probation. One of Lewis’ victims claims that the church's pastor, Sylvester Matthews, knew of the abuse before his arrest.

The Star-Telegram left multiple messages, emails and letters with officials from Open Door asking for comments on specific allegations. No one from Open Door has replied, nor did the Winns’ attorney.

Open Door is an independent fundamentalist Baptist congregation. It reads the King James Bible and believes each word of the Bible was directly inspired by God. Its website contains this passage:

“We hold that the local church has the right of self-government, free from the interference of any hierarchy of individuals or organizations. … We believe that Christians are prohibited from bringing civil lawsuits against other Christian individuals or the church to resolve personal disputes. We believe that the church possesses all the resources necessary to resolve personal disputes between members.”

The father and the son

Steven Winn is accused of having a 14-month sexual relationship with a minor that began when the girl was 15 and a student at the church’s school, Mesquite Bible Academy. Winn volunteered with the church’s youth ministry.

Several congregants said they were long concerned about what they say looked like an obviously inappropriate relationship between a 33-year-old man in power and a teenager.

One former member put it like this: “Anyone with two eyes and an Instagram account could have seen that things didn’t look right.”

The girl, who is still a minor and isn’t being identified by the Star-Telegram, posted pictures of herself and Winn on her page, which the Star-Telegram reviewed. The two sat close — much closer than Open Door usually allows even dating couples —and were spending an excessive amount of time together, said the former member.

“I talked to her a couple times on my phone,” another member said. “I was like ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be calling this guy your daddy, he’s just some guy at church.’ And she’s like, ‘You know, it’s none of your business.’ ”

He said he discussed it with friends but ultimately chose not to bring it up to anyone else.

“When you’re in the church, you believe that the pastors are the authorities,” he said. “They know what’s going on. So you would just automatically figure, it’s probably not right that they’re doing that, but I don’t think there’s anything super wrong going on, you know?”

The girl did not respond to a request for comment. The girl's mother, reached by phone, declined to comment.

After Steven Winn’s arrest, Ross, the pastor, called a members’ meeting, longtime member Austin Guthrie said. Ross gave no details beyond the charges and said that Steven Winn had turned himself into police.

Lt. Brian Parrish, the Mesquite Police Department’s public relations officer, said Steven Winn and his father voluntarily surrendered to police. However, he said, Steven Winn did not come forward and confess of his own accord. Police received a tip on Feb. 18 — four days before Winn’s arrest. The tipster did not know the extent of the assaults, but was concerned about the relationship.

The same tipster who contacted police about Steven Winn spoke to police about Larry Winn, the bus minister for Open Door, in charge of the fleet of school buses painted with the church logo that shepherds children to and from services. When police contacted the alleged victim, she told them that Larry Winn had assaulted her three years ago, when she was 16.

Past abuses

The accusations against Larry Winn are similar to those in a case involving Sherry May Sims in the 1980s.

Sims is 46 now, but when she was 12, an Open Door bus minister raped her. The assaults went on for four years, from 1984 to 1988, she said.

Donald Lewis was the bus driver. Lori Clark, who attended Open Door at the time, remembered Lewis as heavyset and graying, always in a suit. Kids nicknamed him the “Candy Man” for the brown paper bag of hard candy he carried.

A different victim, also a minor female, reported Lewis to the Mesquite police in 1988. When the news about Lewis broke, Sims’ parents asked her if anything happened. She said she told them the truth. On May 18, 1988, Sims told her story to the Mesquite police. Later, she told it to a grand jury.

She said she never thought to report it herself.

“He was an authority figure and you didn’t say anything bad about authority figures,” Sims said.

Donald Lewis pleaded guilty. He died while on probation in 1994.

When Sims told her parents what happened, her father met with the pastor, Matthews. Her father, who died last year, told Sims that Matthews said there had been other allegations made to him prior to Lewis' arrest. Nothing was done.

Matthews is still employed at Open Door. He serves as a senior pastor and a math teacher at Open Door’s school.

Matthews did not respond to multiple voicemails, emails and letters seeking comment.

“I don’t feel bad about speaking out,” Sims said. “They let it happen three times since me. I don’t usually tell people but I think kids need to be protected.”

Before his 2011 arrest and death, Open Door pastor Matt Jarrell had a record of sexual abuse charges that were known to church leadership. In 2003, he was arrested on charges of soliciting a prostitute and illegal possession of a handgun. Four years later, he was arrested in San Antonio on a sexual assault charge. At the time, the church was told he had gallstones and had to be hospitalized.

The assistant pastor at the time, Rik Parcell, told The Dallas Morning News he believed the assault was something to do with guns. He then told the News the story was something to do with kidney stones.

When reached by the Star-Telegram, Parcell said he was “shocked’ over the allegations against the Winns. He excused himself and hung up when the conversation turned to Jarrell and did not respond to further requests for comment.

Church culture

Open Door takes its name literally. On any Sunday, greeters stand at the door to shake people’s hands. Members surround guests, asking what brought them to Open Door, to Mesquite, saying hello. Evangelizing — or, as the church calls it, “soul-winning” — is a core part of the mission. Every soul counts.

On March 25, when the pastor was in Mexico, another member took over. He offered up prayers for various congregants, including the Winn families. His sermon outlined a central theme for Open Door: Christianity does not end after church. Christianity is a way of life, and Christians must go above and beyond in their actions and intentions.

For 21-year-old Austin Guthrie, who has attended Open Door since he was 5, sports and family events come second to church. He went to Open Door’s school, where the Bible was an integral part of each class. Guthrie’s story isn’t unusual: Open Door members are devoted to the church.

The Bible, he said, has a scripture to apply to anything, even dating. Someone like him, who’s been saved, has an easier time understanding it, and the pastor can always properly interpret it, he said.

But a 25-year-old former member said he tried to look to the pastor, and he failed him.

This year, the young man's mother was allegedly sexually harassed by another member while in the church. (He requested anonymity to protect his mother.) When his mother told him what happened, he went to Fransisco Mendoza, the Spanish pastor, to ask for help.

Mendoza first said he was going to pray about it. Months passed. Nothing happened. When the young man went back and asked what was going on, Mendoza, the young man said, was still praying.

“I was like, ‘No, man, this is a sexual harassment case, you’re the pastor, you gotta do something,’ ” he said. The pastor responded that the alleged harasser didn’t come to church often, so it wasn’t a problem. Mendoza suggested forgiveness, the young man said.

Mendoza did not respond to multiple emails, voicemails and letters seeking comment.

As in many orthodox religions, women at Open Door are expected to show modesty. Back in Lori Clark’s day, women wore skirts or gauchos. During the March 25 Sunday service, some women wore slacks. A group in a middle pew wore jeans. One tank top stood out. But most wore dresses or skirts and covered their shoulders.

While there’s no official dress code, women say their looks have drawn sharp critiques. A church mother called Clark a “whore” for wearing blue eye shadow. Rachel Almand, who attended the church until 2012, was told she was seeking attention from men when she wore too-high heels. Even Guthrie said girls he’s dated are reluctant to wear pants to church because of how people react.

Rules extend outside church. In the 1980s, members were discouraged from watching both R-rated and PG movies in theaters — the PG movies, the reasoning went, financed the R-rated movies. Today, couples are encouraged to bring a chaperone on dates. Almand said once the volleyball team forfeited a game because the opposing team wore shorts.

The latest round of allegations has caused such a schism that a few former members, led by Almand, formed a Facebook group calling for the church to shut down and urging any other victims to come forward. The church culture, she contended, is too toxic.

The group brought equal pushback from members who still call the church home and have done so for decades. Almand said she is bombarded by angry messages from people she hasn’t spoken to in years.

“I’m not trying to scratch people’s wounds open,” Almand said. “But it’s nothing but the truth.”

State District Judge George Gallagher sentenced Emiliano Patino, founder of Freedom in Worship Church, to 10 years in prison for child sexual abuse.

Anyone with information on church abuses should contact Sarah Smith at ssmith@star-telegram.com.
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