A Washington woman is claiming she was molested by an evangelical youth pastor decades ago ― and that even though she told church leaders about the abuse, the man has enjoyed a long career in ministry ever since.
Jennifer Roach is a 47-year-old Anglican deacon and mental health therapist from Seattle. She said that in the mid-1980s, she was sexually abused by a pastor at the former First Baptist Church in Modesto, California. Roach said that when she brought up the accusations to the church community, she was first met with doubt and then pressured into forgiving her abuser.
Years later, Roach said she’s been inspired by the viral #MeToo movement and the related #ChurchToo movement, hashtags that people have used to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.
“Seeing that anybody even understood or cared about this issue is incredible,” Roach told HuffPost about the #MeToo movement. “Those people were so few and far between for my entire adulthood, and it’s probably been that way forever.”
Roach hopes that speaking up about her experience now will contribute to the ongoing conversation about how allegations of sexual abuse are handled in American Protestant churches.
Because Roach spoke out about her experiences at the First Baptist Church, the accused pastor was placed on administrative leave from his current church.
“I feel like this was a dirty little secret in the nice evangelical or mainline churches that people haven’t been talking about,” she said. “I am thrilled that it’s getting talked about now.”
A Vulnerable Child
Roach, who first told her story to The Modesto Bee, said that the abuse began in 1986, when she was 14 years old. Her father had just died and she didn’t have a good relationship with her mother at the time. Then a youth pastor at the evangelical First Baptist Church, which changed its name to CrossPoint Community Church in 2010, began to take an interest in her. The married pastor, Brad Tebbutt, reportedly invited the young girl to stay at his apartment to get away from a difficult situation at home.
At first, Roach said, she thought it was “wonderful” that an adult like Tebbutt was showing her so much attention and care. Then, Tebbutt began to take advantage of her vulnerability by sexually assaulting her, Roach said.
“It was a disorienting experience,” she told HuffPost. “He’d kiss me and say he was worried and that it would never happen again, but of course it does.”
The abuse lasted for about two and a half years, Roach said. She would go back and forth between living at her own house and the pastor’s house.
“Sometimes, I would just feel like it was from the frying pan into the fire, which one do I want,” Roach said about deciding where to stay.
Then, a few months before Roach started her senior year of high school, Tebbutt and his wife moved away from Modesto. (Attempts to contact Tebbutt for this story were unsuccessful.)
In December 1988, Roach decided to tell an intern at First Baptist, Scott Mills, about the abuse. Mills reported the allegations to his supervisor, and from that point on, Roach said, church leaders failed to give her the kind of support she needed.
Mills, who is now a freelance marketer living in Medford, Oregon, confirmed to HuffPost that he was an intern at First Baptist Church from 1986 to 1991. He said that Roach told him in 1988 about the abuse she faced from Tebbutt. He reported it to pastors in charge of the youth group at First Baptist.
He said he now feels the church should have reported the abuse to police. He also said he wishes he had done more for Roach.
“Knowing what I know now about abuse, I wish I would have followed up more with Jennifer to see how she was doing to [ensure] she was getting the support she needed,” Mills told HuffPost in an email. “And I wish I would have done more to hold Brad responsible for his actions.”
Mills said he hopes others are encouraged by Roach’s decision to speak up.
″I hope it gives other victims of abuse courage and that it helps change policies at churches and nonprofits — or ANY organization — for how they handle cases of abuse,” he said.
The Church’s Response
Roach said that leaders at First Baptist Church didn’t report the incident to her mother or to the police. (Members of the clergy weren’t added to California’s list of mandated reporters of suspected child abuse until 1997.)
The leaders initially doubted her story, she said, and asked if she was just seeking attention. Then, they reportedly told her she was “never allowed to speak about this” and that it would ruin the church’s reputation if she did so.
At one point, Roach said, she was placed alone in a room with about five adult men who asked her to describe the abuse in graphic detail. She was only 17 at the time.
“I didn’t have anybody with me,” she said about that meeting. “It was probably the most intimidating thing I’d ever had to do.”
According to The Modesto Bee, Bill Yaeger, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church at that time, died in 2005. Another person involved in the church’s response to Roach’s claims, Marvin Jacobo, continued working as a youth pastor in Modesto for years. Since 2014, he has been working as the executive director of the Modesto’s City Ministry Network, a religious nonprofit.
Roach claimed that Jacobo was the one who directed the church’s response to her allegations.
Jacobo didn’t respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment. He told The Modesto Bee that he reached out to Tebbutt after Roach came forward and that Tebbutt confessed that he had in fact abused the teen. Jacobo said he contacted Tebbutt’s wife and employer at the time.
However, he said he didn’t approach police because Roach “did not want to press charges. We wanted to honor her wishes in that and begin her process of healing.”
First Baptist leaders also reportedly arranged a meeting between Tebbutt and Roach a few years after the abuse ended. During that meeting, Tebbutt apologized about the abuse.
Jacobo told The Modesto Bee that Roach “seemed satisfied with the process and the results. I feel like we did everything we knew to do in addressing it. If she now feels this was insufficient, then we sincerely apologize.”
But Roach told HuffPost that First Baptist pastors pressured her into accepting Tebbutt’s apology.
“They kept saying, ‘We’re doing this for you, you’re going to be able to move on after this, you’re going to be able to forgive after this,’” Roach said. “So of course, I played my role too and accepted the apology. They had already told me what was expected of me. And I was in a frame of mind where doing what was expected of me was important.”
Roach told HuffPost that she felt First Baptist and its leaders were mainly focused on “protecting their own reputation.”
“There was a lot of heavy-handedness, and compulsion to get me to forgive him and move on,” Roach said. “They tried to tie a nice pretty bow on this story, make it a story of redemption and goodness. But in order to do that, you have to go through the bad part first, you can’t just sidestep.”
A Pastor’s Long Career
Roach said that Tebbutt sent her a detailed apology letter in 2005, as part of a Christian therapy program. She said the letter, which she forwarded to HuffPost, was Tebbutt’s attempt to take responsibility for his actions.
“A lot of victims of sexual abuse really long for a letter like that, really want an apology, really want it to be recognized. I kind of thought that was going to be my situation, too,” she said.
But she said that ultimately, the letter was not satisfying to her.
“I appreciate that he sent it, but it doesn’t change anything,” she said. “It doesn’t change any of my reality.”
After moving away from Modesto, Tebbutt continued to work in Christian churches. According to his bio, he was involved in youth ministry for over 30 years.
He now works at the International House of Prayer of Kansas City, an evangelical organization and worship center in Missouri. At IHOPKC, he leads the Simeon Company Internship, a mentoring community for Christians 50 years and older.
Roach was hesitant to say whether she wants Tebbutt fired from his current job. She said she’s not looking for a specific outcome for Brad because she doesn’t want “anything to do with him.”
But generally, she said she believes anyone who commits sexual abuse should be immediately disqualified from being able to care for vulnerable people in any capacity.
“I think anybody who has done what he has done shouldn’t be in ministry,” she said.
IHOPKC told HuffPost that it is “firmly committed” to the safety of its members.
“In light of the recent accusations against one of our staff that took place over 30 years ago, as is typical in situations of these type of accusations, the staff member is on administrative leave while the veracity of these accusations is ascertained,” a representative for the church told HuffPost in an email.
Roach told HuffPost that she hopes that the organization is taking the accusations seriously. For her, that doesn’t mean investigating what happened more than 30 years ago. It means focusing on Tebbutt’s record at IHOPKC and what kind of contact he’s had with young people there.
“I hope they spend time looking at who he had contact with, young women especially, and whether that might have been inappropriate,” she said about IHOPKC.
The Way Forward
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, survivors of sexual abuse in church communities began to come forward with their own stories on social media. Using the hashtag #ChurchToo, women discussed being mentored and groomed for abuse by church leaders ― then censured and ostracized by their spiritual communities when they came forward with their experiences.
Over and over again, women spoke about how an emphasis on grace and redemption in Christian theology was often weaponized against victims, pressuring survivors to quickly offer forgiveness to abusers.
Earlier this month, Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, turned a critical eye on how sexual abuse allegations are handled in evangelical communities. The advocate said she believes church is one of the “worst places” for survivors to go for help.
″[Christians] can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works all things together for good or God is sovereign,” Denhollander, who identifies as evangelical, told Christianity Today. “Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God.”
Experts on clergy sexual abuse say it’s important for churches to prioritize the needs of survivors, instead of worrying about the damage the accusations could cause to institution’s reputation. Ashley Easter, an advocate for abuse victims, told HuffPost earlier this month that when victims come forward, churches should immediately get outside professionals involved ― law enforcement, licensed counselors, justice attorneys for victims and unbiased investigators.
“For the church to become a safe place for abuse survivors, it must repent of its sin of shielding perpetrators in their ranks,” Easter said. “The church needs to reevaluate its patriarchal shaming and silencing of victims and create an environment where abuse disclosure is encouraged and met with belief and compassion.”
Roach said that many churches today rely on criminal background checks to weed out employees who may be a threat to children. But, remembering what happened to her years ago, she said that clergy who commit abuse don’t necessarily have a criminal record and may have already earned parents’ trust.
Protecting children is an ongoing process that doesn’t stop after a criminal background check is completed, Roach said. It requires church leaders to constantly monitor employees’ interactions with children and to “follow their own instincts” when they suspect criminal behavior.
“Many church leaders have a failure of nerve,” Roach said. “They’re afraid of what would happen if they tell the person, ‘I don’t feel OK with you being around kids.’”
“This failure of nerve allows [predators] to continue working in situations they shouldn’t be in.”
As for her own case, Roach said that she’s spent years healing from the abuse she went through. Through her work as a therapist, she said she’s had the chance to help others who have been abused in religious settings.
When it comes to counseling victims of clergy sex abuse, she said that forgiveness should never be rushed. And the process should always be led by the victim.
“It shouldn’t be on the timing of the people who want to manage the situation or by the church or by the person who did the abuse,” she said. “It has to go on the victim’s timing. And they can’t be made to feel bad that it’s slower than somebody else would like.”