A youth pastor accused; a pastor’s response
Terry Kizer, the pastor of Alliance Baptist Church, found the witness stand had turned hot seat in a Tarrant County courtroom.
Kizer was testifying in the sentencing hearing of his church’s former youth pastor, John Cordero, in August. Cordero had pleaded guilty months earlier to having sex with a 16-year-old girl from the congregation.
But it was Kizer’s actions after he learned Cordero was under investigation that caused even State District Judge Scott Wisch to express disbelief.
Kizer had never told his congregation about the allegations against Cordero. And though he removed Cordero as youth pastor, Kizer let Cordero return to the church two months later, before the case was resolved.
“You didn’t take a fraction of the efforts that I would call traditional and appropriate and, in hindsight, not compassionate,” Wisch told Kizer from his bench. “... When there are minors involved and it’s clearly a crime, sometimes you have to quarantine part of the flock until you find out if it’s rabies or something weird and go from there.”
The Star-Telegram sought transcripts of the hearing after being contacted by someone who had attended the church who said Kizer had a history of mishandling sex abuse complaints.
Some former church members contacted by the Star-Telegram say Kizer has shown a pattern of putting the church’s reputation over the safety of his congregation regarding instances of sexual misconduct.
They say Kizer appointed Cordero as youth pastor even though a 17-year-old church member had told the pastor six years earlier that Cordero made inappropriate sexual contact with her. He also withheld information or gave misleading or inaccurate information regarding the latest allegations against Cordero and about two other sex offenders who attended the church, they say.
A police detective said she told Kizer about the Cordero investigation in October 2017 “so that he could take appropriate actions to safeguard other children in his congregation.” But she learned in April 2018 that Cordero was still active in the church and in direct contact with children.
The woman who alleges Cordero sexually assaulted her when she was 17 recently told the Star-Telegram that Kizer just wants to protect himself, his income and his church’s reputation.
“He tells everybody that he loves them, that he’ll be there for them,” she said. “Then he just protects the people that he shouldn’t.”
Kizer disputes how he has been characterized by the former members but admits he has some regrets with how things were handled.
Kizer said he didn’t tell the entire congregation about Cordero based on legal advice. He said he believed he couldn’t legally tell the congregation until after Cordero had gone to trial but would do things differently in the future.
“We had three men incarcerated in one year that were associated with our church,” Kizer said. “I don’t know of anyone, anywhere ever, that has ever dealt with anything like that. I hate that our church is being attacked over it.”
The behavior exhibited by Kizer is remarkably similar to a pattern revealed in a Star-Telegram investigation published in December that focused on independent fundamental Baptist churches across the country. Many of those churches, the Star-Telegram found, have a history of covering up sexual abuse allegations and allowing abusers to continue their work.
Alliance Baptist Church once operated as part of the independent fundamental Baptist movement but is now affiliated with the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention, which partners with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Families leave church
Kizer and his wife, Cheryl, started Alliance Baptist Church in October 1986, and at its height, the congregation grew to more than 400. The church, which recently changed its name to simply Alliance Church, is at 8400 Park Vista Blvd. in north Fort Worth.
Kizer is also chairman of the Texas Baptist Bible Fellowship, according to its website.
Numerous families have left the church in the last several months after revelations that Kizer withheld information from the congregation about accused sex offenders — men whose roles in the church gave them access to children.
Lance Rowe frequently breaks into tears as he talks about Alliance Church and the pastor whom he once considered his best friend.
Though he was brought up in church life, Rowe said he moved away from it as an adult. He decided to return after a serious illness nine years ago.
“When we walked into Alliance and, man, it’s just a beautiful church with just lovely people,” he said. “They welcomed us in, and Terry started teaching us everything we know about the Bible and how to do ministry. We just jumped in with both feet and started serving.”
Rowe would later become an associate pastor at Alliance. As Kizer’s right-hand man, Rowe said, the pastor confided in him.
Investigation of abuse
In October 2017, Kizer met with Rowe and a church board member about a recent discussion he’d had with a Watauga police detective. Kizer told them accusations had been made against Cordero, the church’s youth pastor.
“Basically, what we got is, ‘There’s been some accusations that have been made against John by one of the students in the student ministry, and we think that they’re completely unfounded,’ ” Rowe said. “We were told that the parents did not believe that the daughter was telling the truth — that she was lying.”
Rowe said Kizer told them the only reason police were involved was because the girl said something to a school counselor, who was obligated to contact authorities.
Watauga police Detective H. Tank-Holland said she talked to Kizer on Oct. 10, 2017, to inform him of the investigation of Cordero. She said while she did not divulge specific details to Kizer, she told him it was a “serious” allegation involving a child.
“Based on the allegations and what was already disclosed by the victim at the time, I called Kizer,” Tank-Holland said. “I felt it prudent to advise him so that he could take appropriate actions to safeguard other children in his congregation. If I had any inclination to believe the allegations were unfounded or untrue or baseless, I would have never contacted Kizer and informed him of the investigation against his staff member.”
Tank-Holland said she also advised Kizer during their conversation, “that I couldn’t tell him what to do but that if it were me, Cordero would be removed from his position pending the outcome of the investigation.”
She said she noticed Cordero’s name was removed from the church’s website that day.
But while Cordero was removed from the youth pastor position, few knew why.
In the October meeting with Rowe, Kizer asked what the church should do about the accusations. Rowe said he first wanted to talk to Cordero.
As the men stood there, Rowe called Cordero on speaker phone and asked him if he had done the things of which he’d been accused. Cordero said he’d been advised by his attorney not to talk about the matter. After the phone call, Rowe said, he recommended to Kizer that the congregation be told about the investigation.
“I said, ‘Even if these accusations are unfounded, if you don’t tell the church what’s going on, once it comes out, you’re going to have all this damage control and you’re going to look like you’re trying to hide things.’ ”
But Rowe said Kizer was emphatic that they wouldn’t tell anyone. Rowe said he pleaded with Kizer to at least seek the advice of a legal expert. He said Kizer agreed and later reported that the attorney who he spoke with advised him not to say anything until Cordero was arrested.
Kizer said he removed Cordero from the youth pastor position immediately and, along with his wife, met with Cordero and Cordero’s wife the next day. He said Cordero described the investigation as a witch hunt.
“He denied everything to all three of us,” Kizer said. “He did until the day of the trial. He denied it. The night before to me, he denied it.”
Kizer said he contacted an attorney with the Christian Law Association. The organization describes its mission as “providing free legal assistance to Bible-believing churches and Christians who are experiencing difficulty in practicing their religious faith because of governmental regulation, intrusion, or prohibition in one form or another.”
Kizer said the attorney told him to only tell the church leaders.
“Then all you say to anyone else who asks is that he’s under investigation and we’re cooperating,” Kizer said he was told. “... He says absolutely you don’t do anything to defame his character.”
As months passed with no update from Kizer, Rowe and his wife, Julie, assumed Cordero had never been arrested and that he must be innocent.
In reality, Cordero was arrested on Oct. 20, 2017, the same month as Kizer’s discussion with Rowe.
‘Protect the lambs’
While Cordero left the church for a time, he returned about two months later and was placed on the worship team, which included two high school students, Rowe said.
“Make a public plea, please,” Rowe said he told Kizer. “... Get him out of the body so we can protect the lambs.”
Tank-Holland, the Watauga detective, said she called Kizer on April 24 after receiving information that Cordero “was still active in the church and still in direct contact with children attending Alliance Baptist.”
“At that time, Kizer advised that John was still a member and attending church,” she said.
Kizer said the decision to let Cordero return to the church was “a stupid decision that I made.”
“His momma attends our church, his wife attends our church,” Kizer said. “... There’s not a set of rules on how you minister to people who are in that situation.”
Kizer said he asked Cordero at the end of April to stop coming to the church.
But Cordero was still attending in May— seven months after his arrest — when a friend of the girl Cordero abused told her mother, Carrie Hubbard, about Cordero’s relationship with the girl and his subsequent arrest.
“She came to me. She said, ‘Mom, I feel like I need to tell you what’s going on. I don’t want to go to church anymore. I’m not comfortable being around him. He’s up on the platform leading worship. I can’t look at him without feeling sick to my stomach knowing what is happening. I don’t want to go there anymore.’ ”
Texts show a sexual relationship
Hubbard said her daughter showed her screen shots of texts Cordero had exchanged with her friend, which clearly indicated Cordero and the 16-year-old girl had sexual intercourse.
She told her mother that since his removal as youth pastor, Cordero had begun using her as a go-between to communicate with the girl because he wasn’t supposed to have contact with her.
The screen shots were shared with Kizer on May 10.
“I went to the pastor with screen shots and exact conversations and said, ‘How did you not tell me this?’ ” Hubbard said.
Kizer acknowledges receiving the text messages from Hubbard. “I didn’t know if the text messages were real or not,” he said.
Hubbard also shared the screen shots with Rowe, who had left the church the previous month over concerns about Kizer’s leadership and credibility. Kizer says Rowe’s family left because they were upset he had moved another couple over the youth ministry.
Rowe said that when he saw the messages Cordero had exchanged with the girl, he realized “something terrible has happened.”
Rowe said he met with the Watauga detective to make sure she had the screen shots.
He also told the detective everything he’d been told about the case by Kizer, only to learn that much of it was incorrect.
On May 21 — the same day Rowe met with the detective — Cordero was in a Tarrant County courtroom, where he pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault of a child and one count of indecency with a child.
‘I never went back’
Rowe’s niece, Courtney Thomson, was a student leader at the church who also tried to persuade Kizer to tell church members.
Kizer later asked Thomson to a meeting at the church in June 2018, implying it was to discuss how best to tell the congregation.
Instead, Thomson said, the meeting was attended by prominent women in the church, who, along with Kizer, tried to convince her no announcement should be made.
“They were all telling me, ‘What good could come of this? What’s it going to hurt? We’ll just drag our name through the mud, and we don’t need that for the church.’ ”
Thomson said she showed Kizer copies of Cordero’s indictment and his guilty plea from the month prior.
“He said, ‘This doesn’t change anything,’ ” Thomson said. “At that point I told him, ‘If this doesn’t mean anything to you, if this doesn’t change anything for you, I can’t be a part of Alliance anymore,’ and I never went back.”
Kizer said he asked Cordero about the documents shown to him by Thomson, but Cordero “explained those away.”
“When we asked him about it, he said you have to do that so you can get to the hearing,” Kizer said. “On several occasions, it was explained, ‘When you get pulled over, get a ticket and you sign that ticket, that’s not a plea of guilty.”
Hubbard, whose daughter is friends with the girl Cordero abused, also asked Kizer to tell the congregation about Cordero.
“I just keep thinking there could be someone else out there, and we are doing them a terrible disservice by keeping this quiet,” Hubbard wrote Kizer in an exchange of text messages in July 2018.
“It’s not being kept quiet,” Kizer responded. “It’s definitely out for people to know. My regret is some have said too much and not protected the privacy that needs to be protected. It’s just so tragic.”
Convinced many still did not know, Hubbard posted about the case on her Facebook page in July 2018. She initially did not name Cordero but posted that a former youth pastor had pleaded guilty to several felony counts for sexually assaulting a student from the church while on staff.
”I have more information if you feel like you need proof, but my sole purpose for sharing this is so that parents can talk with their kids and make sure that they haven’t been a victim,” Hubbard wrote. “I do not want you to be ignorant, or in denial …”
Improper behavior reported
Among those who saw Hubbard’s post was a 24-year-old former member of the church.
“I immediately messaged her because she didn’t name any names,” the woman said in a recent interview with the Star-Telegram.
“Because he was acting like that with me before,” the woman said.
The woman said she had gotten to know Cordero while still a high school student. He was leading the church’s college-age students at the time.
The woman, who had been homeschooled and graduated early, later joined Cordero’s college group. Soon, the hanging out they did as a group became more one-on-one meetings, she said.
She had just turned 17 in March 2011 when Cordero came to pick her up at her house one day. They kissed as they sat on the couch, then he quickly put his hand down her pants, she said. The woman said she pushed Cordero away and he soon left.
While she didn’t report the encounter to police, the woman said she felt so uncomfortable about it that during a gathering at Kizer’s home, she told the church’s youth pastor at the time, who then told Kizer.
The woman said she then discussed it herself with Kizer.
“I told him everything,” the woman said. “He had been like my Dad so I went and talked to him about it and told him it made me uncomfortable and I wasn’t going to go to the college group anymore if he was still over it. And then they ultimately removed John from the college position. He wasn’t the teacher anymore because of it.”
The woman said she continued to attend the church for a few weeks but soon left. Seeing Cordero there was difficult, she said, and she’d begun to notice that the pastor and a few others who knew what happened were now standoffish to her.
“They were acting like it was all my fault. Kind of treating me like a slut,” the woman said. “Everyone who knew about it, they were just not talking to me anymore. Not inviting me places and just inviting John.”
The woman said she only learned much later from friends that Kizer had made Cordero youth pastor.
“They just gave him a higher position, which I don’t get at all,” said the woman, who testified about the encounter during Cordero’s sentencing hearing. “They kept everything quiet.”
Kizer says he doesn’t recall that conversation with the woman. He said he remembers learning that Cordero had gone out on a date with the teen and that he’d instructed the youth pastor at that time to talk to Cordero and put a stop to it.
“Her memory of that and my memory of that is different,” Kizer said.
Kizer admonished by judge
Kizer said he had gone to Cordero’s sentencing hearing in August 2018, believing that he was to testify in a trial to determine Cordero’s guilt or innocence.
It was only when called to testify, he said, that he learned Cordero’s guilt wasn’t in dispute and that the hearing was to determine his punishment. He said it was also the first time he heard the specific details of Cordero’s crime.
“There was a whole bunch of us who walked out of the courtroom completely shocked and heartbroken,” Kizer said.
Cordero was sentenced to six years in prison to be followed by 10 years deferred adjudication probation once he’s released.
Kizer admits he believed Cordero’s statements that he was innocent, despite what others had said, until that moment.
“I definitely took him at his word, which is foolish,” said Kizer, who had even written a reference letter for Cordero that was presented to the court.
At the sentencing hearing, prosecutor Darren DeLaCruz questioned Kizer.
“So now, knowing what you know, does this change anything about the support that you have … here today for the defendant?” DeLaCruz asked..
“So it doesn’t change what I put in the letter,” Kizer answered. “I do know John to be a very loving husband, very respectful to other people in the church, and never saw any — any sign ever — of anything inappropriate. Ever. Or we would have responded to that.”
But it was Kizer’s response to learning Cordero was under investigation in October 2017 that even Judge Wisch questioned.
Wisch asked why Kizer didn’t tell parents about the accusations against Cordero in case there were other victims.
“Definitely there were concerns,” Kizer replied.
“But he was allowed to return to the church as a member as opposed to until this is cleared up,” the judge pointed out. “Jesus loves you, but common sense, this is not something that the All Mighty frowns on until this matter is resolved by the court system. And he is under indictment for four counts of sexual assault of a minor in some form.”
Kizer said he did not tell the congregation about the investigation on the advice of the lawyer with the Christian Law Association.
“Did they tell you, ‘Oh, it’s no problem. Let him continue to be in the congregation?’ ” Wisch asked.
“No, they did not tell me that,” Kizer acknowledged.
Wisch scolded Kizer for not following up on the case against Cordero and for not removing him from the church until the case had been resolved.
”You think a school district would take that position if some high school teacher is accused of having a sexual relationship with one of their students?” Wisch asked “You think they would say, ‘Go teach a different grade while we figure this out even if it turned out in hindsight to be unfair or unjust?’ ”
Parents notified of abuser
On Sept. 1, 2018 — 20 days after Cordero was sentenced to prison — Kizer sent an email, not to the entire congregation but to select parents.
“If your student was part of our StudentLife during his tenure or if they had contact with him outside of our ministry, please speak with your student about their relationship with John. If there is any way we can minister to your students or you, please let us know, “ Kizer wrote.
The letter stated inaccurately that Cordero had been arrested in January 2018.
Because he’d only sent the email to a limited audience, Hubbard shared it on her Facebook page along with a correction.
“Unfortunately there are errors in the letter. John was initially arrested in October of 2017 while he was still on staff for incidents that happened in the summer and fall of 2017. I don’t know why Terry would lie about the arrest date other than to make it look like a member of his staff was NOT sexually assaulting students,” she posted. “I would also like to point out that John was in leadership positions throughout his time at Alliance, spanning around 10 years.”
Kizer says he had been told the incorrect arrest date and denied any intent to mislead.
History of secrecy
Cordero’s case, former church members say, was only the latest example of Kizer keeping secrets about sexual abusers.
In 2008, Jay Virtue Robinson was sentenced to 10 years deferred adjudication probation after admitting he had sex with a 16-year-old church member while he was the lead pastor at Southwood Baptist Church. As part of his probation, he was not allowed to be around children other than his own unless a court-approved chaperone was present.
Robinson, previously a student of Kizer’s, later joined Alliance.
Hubbard, then a church staff member, said Kizer told staff members that Robinson wasn’t allowed to be around children based on accusations made by a teenage girl.
“I’m like, ‘OK, great. What do I need to know? Do I need to be worried?’ ” Hubbard said she asked Kizer. “It was kind of glossed over — pretty much that it was the girl making things up.”
Kizer says he never told anyone that the victim in Robinson’s case was making it up.
Kizer said he told the congregation about Robinson’s past when he first joined. Later, Kizer said, he shared it again with older members of the church before allowing Robinson to lead their senior citizen Sunday school group.
Because of member turnover, Kizer said he also told new member classes about Robinson’s “several moral failures” but can’t recall if he always told the classes that Robinson’s victim had been a minor.
Kizer said he was among those who went through training to become one of Robinson’s court-approved chaperones.
Robinson eventually began doing administrative work for Alliance. In 2017, while still on probation, Robinson was chosen by Alliance leadership to be part of a team starting a new church.
Kizer said Robinson had asked to be part of the team and said he had gotten approval by his probation officer.
Robinson was six months away from completing his probation when Tarrant County officials learned he was a leader of the new church, Refuge Place, and had unchaperoned access to children.
Based on that and other violations, Robinson’s probation was revoked, and he was sentenced in December to 10 years in prison.
Kizer said he didn’t know until Robinson’s hearing in December that he should not have been allowed to lead the church.
“We’re all operating with one list of understandings and then, in the courtroom the day he was tried recently, that’s when it came out that we should have said. ‘No more church leadership,’ ” Kizer said.
In February 2018, another Alliance member, James Earl Busby, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for sexually assaulting a 6-year-old girl. Rowe said Kizer told him a different story regarding Busby.
“We were told that he went home and he got his computer, which he had been looking at child pornography on, and took it to the police station, and says, ‘I’ve been looking at child pornography. I’m repenting. I’m a Christian. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m throwing myself on your mercy.’ ”
In reality, an arrest warrant affidavit shows Busby walked into the Watauga police lobby in September 2016 and said he wanted to confess that he’d been sexually molesting a 6-year-old girl.
In their investigation, Watauga police also learned Busby had been sexually abusing the girl’s 4-year-old sister. They found child pornography on Busby’s computer and phone, including images of the two sisters, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.
Rowe said he looked Busby up on the Internet and was shocked to see he’d been sentenced to 35 years in prison - not for child pornography, but aggravated sexual assault of a child.
“So I called Terry Kizer and I said, ‘I don’t know where you got your story. But this is what I’m looking at and this is what I’m reading.’ And he says, ‘Well I was in the courtroom, and they read everything that he did, and I didn’t hear any of that.’ ”
Kizer said Busby had admitted to him that he’d sexually assaulted a young girl and denies that he withheld that information from Rowe.
“I told Lance the same thing I told all the other leaders. That he had assaulted (the girl),” Kizer said.
Again, no public announcement was made about Busby to the church by Kizer.
Kizer said he didn’t seek legal advice regarding Busby but decided not to tell the congregation. He said he also allowed Busby to continue attending the church up until he was sentenced to 35 years in prison in February 2018.
“In my experience and training that I had as a chaperone, anyone has the right to go to church. That’s what they would say in chaperone training,” Kizer said. “You just have to create parameters by which they can attend.”
But as word spread about Cordero’s case, Hubbard and others made sure word also got out about Busby.
When a parent later expressed concern, Kizer sent a text message trying to reassure her.
“There were no times when James was allowed to enter and serve in the KidsLife Building,” the text message stated.
Others say that’s not true. At least two women said Busby and his wife led a group of 2- and 3-year-old children and that he was also often in the KidsLife building as a member of the church’s security team.
Another former church member, Shanna Mitchell, said Busby was in a Bible study group with her family and others that met on Wednesday nights in various church members’ homes.
“It’s mind blowing. I think that was really the icing on the cake for everybody,” Mitchell said. “I think that was when we were like, ‘We’ve got a problem.’ They knew. They knew, and this man is going into people’s homes for small group Bible study, where we have small children and nobody said anything.”
Kizer says Busby never had a role with children at the church or “stepped foot in the kids’ building.”
“He wasn’t there long enough to even have an opportunity to be in the kids’ building. They weren’t there 10 weeks when he confessed, so, no, none of that’s true,” Kizer said.
Kizer said the church’s membership is now down to about 175 members but attributes the split to Rowe’s departure, not his handling of the accusations against Cordero or the others.
Kizer said that in the future he will tell the entire congregation if a member is arrested in such a case. He said he also plans to talk to his church board about removing members accused of such crimes after their arrest but continuing to minister to them outside of the church.
But Kizer’s prior decisions have left a lasting impression with former members.
“When you turn our church into a safe haven for pedophiles, there’s a lot of us that are going to go, ‘No. This isn’t OK,’” said one former church member. “Half of our congregation walks around with pistols on their hip, ready to protect and serve. For you not to tell us we’re supposed to be protecting ourselves from each other, it’s a problem.”