Dec 31, 2022

Not Your ‘Church Next Door’: ‘Cult’ Ignored Abuse, Ran ‘Pyramid Scheme,’ Lawsuit Claims

Andrea Marks
Rolling Stone
December 31, 2022

FIVE WOMEN IN California have sued a network of organizations associated with the International Churches of Christ and two of its leaders, claiming they are victims of childhood sexual abuse and a financial pyramid scheme perpetrated by a “cult.” The federal claim, filed Friday night in the Central District of California and obtained by Rolling Stone, comes amid a flood of litigation in the state’s final days of a three-year window that gave adults additional time to sue over childhood sexual abuse.

The plaintiffs allege the ICOC and its affiliated organizations — Hope Worldwide; Mercyworldwild; and a splinter group known as the International Christian Church along with its Los Angeles headquarters, the City of Angels International Christian Church — “indoctrinated” members into a “rigid” belief system that isolated them from the outside world, then “facilitated and actively concealed” incidents of sexual abuse and trafficking while they were minors. The suit also names church founder Kip McKean and the estate of another leader, the late Charles “Chuck” Lucas, as defendants. Additionally, the women claim, the churches and their leaders created a “system of exploitation that extracts any and all value it can from members,” straining members financially, while silencing any dissenters.

Founded in 1979 in Boston by the evangelist McKean, the International Churches of Christ — then known as the Boston Movement — soon became one of the fastest-growing Christian movements of its time. Today, the ICOC, by its own estimates, has more than 120,000 members across 144 countries, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs claim Lucas co-led the church from its founding. “It is commonly understood that McKean was acutely aware of the physical, psychological, and sexual abuses Lucas and other church members wrought upon both children and adult parishioners of the church,” the lawsuit reads.

The ICOC, ICC, City of Angels ICC, Hope Worldwide, and Mercyworldwide did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s requests for comment. Attempts to reach a rep of Lucas’ estate were unsuccessful.

Sisters Darleen Diaz, 33, and Bernice Perez, 31, and a third woman, Ashley Ruiz, 31, claim that they were abused as minors by the same man, David Saracino, now a convicted pedophile, and they allege that the church did nothing to stop it. Saracino would invite children to his house to go swimming, according to the complaint. Once they’d undressed, “he told the girls that they needed a bath and he used that opportunity to heavily fondle their naked bodies while they were bathing,” the lawsuit states. Ruiz claimed he performed oral sex on her. The sisters claim their mother reported Saracino to the church leaders, but, they allege, the church “tipped off” Saracino, who fled town before the police could arrest him. In 2012, Saracino was sentenced to 40 years in prison for raping a four-year-old child. Diaz said she attempted suicide when she was a teenager.

“Even though the sexual abuse happened to me in the ICOC at around age five and robbed me of my childhood, the trauma also followed me into my adulthood, where I feel like I am always in survival mode,” Ruiz tells Rolling Stone. “Having some sort of legal closure and acknowledgment about what happened to me as a child will… be tremendously helpful!”

Salud Gonzelez, 30, claims she was sexually assaulted by the head Sunday School teacher at the ICOC church she attended for five years, starting when she was four. She claims that when her parents reported the abuse, the church let the man continue to lead the Sunday School program, and that a church leader told her father, “What do you want me to do about it?” She alleges she was abused again as a 15-year-old by the leader of a rehab program run through the ICC and again as a 17-year-old when she was paired by the ICC with a 30-year-old to be her boyfriend. Gonzalez said she attempted suicide as a result of the abuses.

Elena Peltola, 23, claims she was raped by an ICOC member in 2012, when she was 13, on a mission trip to Honduras organized by Hope Worldwide. According to the complaint, after Peltola reported what had happened to her, ICOC and Hope Worldwide leaders “victim-blamed her and called her a ‘slut’ for several months” before kicking her out of the church for being “a liability.”

Bobby Samini, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Friday’s lawsuit marks a turning point after years of alleged abuse in the organizations. “For decades, members of the ICOC/ICC and its affiliates groomed and sexually abused children as young as three years old,” Samini tells Rolling Stone in a statement. “Instead of reporting the sexual abuse to law enforcement, ‘church’ leaders shamelessly targeted and blamed the survivors, admonishing them that they ‘risked losing their salvation’ unless they forgave their abusers. The lawsuit filed today will expose the perpetrators at the ICOC/ICC and its affiliates who claim piety, all the while enabling the sexual abuse of children.”

Michele “Chele” Roland, a former ICOC member, has been connecting with other former members in recent years on social media and helped organize this legal action, which she says will be the first of many.

“There are hundreds of thousands of defectors from the ICOC/ICC, and there’s a reason for that — we had all been emotionally, spiritually, financially, physically, and in some cases sexually abused,” she tells Rolling Stone in a statement. “The ICOC/ICC effectively silenced us for decades, but these court cases are the beginning of the end to that silence.”

According to the lawsuit, the ICOC “masquerad[es] as the Christian church next door” to attract followers. Then, it subjects new members to “indoctrination of rigid fundamentalist teachings, unyielding compliance with instruction and strict social separatism.” The complaint compares the conversion process to “systemic brainwashing.”

The lawsuit is not the first time the church has attracted national attention. When ICOC’s membership numbers were growing in the early Nineties, national news outlets began raising concerns from former members that the church was a “cult” that manipulated people into joining, tithing large amounts of money, and cutting ties with their families outside the organization.

In 1993, 20/20 investigated allegations of “coercion, brainwashing, and scare tactics” after several viewers wrote in to the network about the organization. According to the investigation, 4,000 people sent letters of support for the church after a church elder told his congregants ABC was planning to portray the ICOC in a negative light. The same elder appeared on the episode, denying allegations of mind control and coercion and promising that the church helped many people.

A Time magazine article from the same time period said colleges and universities had begun banning the church from recruiting students on their campuses — a focus of the church’s recruitment strategies, according to the complaint, which describes campuses as the ICOC’s “primary hunting grounds.”

The suit cites the 20/20 episode, along with exposés by Inside Edition, Fox News, the BBC, and MTV, claiming that concerned parents had helped bring the ICOC under scrutiny. “Many parents were crying out to the media for help because their college-aged children were being brainwashed by a cult,” the complaint alleges.

Previous news reports have also detailed some of the church’s practices, including “discipling,” whereby each new member — after being baptized — is assigned a “discipler” who gives spiritual advice that reportedly extends into personal life advice, including who to marry, what to eat, how often to have sex, and how much money to give the church. The complaint likens disciplers to “a sort of mentor and jailor” who maintain a “micromanaged degree of control over every aspect of every member’s life,” isolating them from the outside world, requiring them to confess “sins” every day and then using them as “emotional blackmail.”

In addition to sexual abuses, the lawsuit alleges the organizations and their leaders forced members to tithe 10 percent of their income to the church and to donate to special mission trips twice yearly. “If the tithing budget was not satisfied, leaders or ‘disciplers’ were forced to contribute the financial shortfall themselves, or members were required to locate the offending member who failed to tithe and sit on their porch until they arrived home in an attempt to obtain their tithe funds before Sunday evening was over,” the complaint reads. “The pressure to comply with the church’s rigid demands was a source of anxiety and depression for many members. So much so that several ex-members committed suicide.”

The lawsuit alleges that “McKean, along with other ICOC leaders, were obsessed with growing church membership and, therefore, imposed recruiting quotas on members.” The recruitment efforts combined with tithing requirements amounts to a “highly profitable pyramid scheme supported by a web of paper corporations and sham 501(c)(3) entities, culminating in hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit gains,” according to the complaint.

Samini says former members of the ICOC and its affiliates will file another suit before the childhood sexual abuse litigation window closes Saturday night, and he believes these are just the first of several lawsuits that will follow. “We know there are hundreds, if not thousands of others out there,” he tells Rolling Stone. “And we know they’ll come forward once they see a handful of people take the step.”

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