Clergy as mandated reporters? Christian Fellowship Center sees exodus over handling of sex abuse allegations
Updated Oct. 21 to include the current Assembly Bill and sponsors.
BY JIMMY LAWTON
North Country This Week
Should clergy members in New York be added to a list of mandated reporters of sexual abuse?
That’s a question being raised by a group of former Christian Fellowship Center members who are calling on state officials to make the change after leaders in the church opted not to report allegations of sexual abuse by one of its members.The CFC operates fundamentalist churches in Madrid, Potsdam, Canton, Gouverneur and Moira and has several hundred members. A number of local business owners in the Potsdam area are members of the church, which actively recruits college students and runs a Friday school, used by members and non-members for homeschooling support.
Additionally, Ben Hull, a Deacon at the Madrid church, is running to represent the Madrid area in the St. Lawrence County Legislature.
But recently, the church – which has successfully been growing membership and expanding since the 1970s – has seen a wave of people leaving.
The catalyst for departures, as corroborated by several members of the church, was a decision by clergy not to report sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse allegation
In May, a church member named Sean Ferguson was charged with sexually abusing children for an incident that occurred in 2015. The charges weren’t filed until seven years later after the allegations were brought to police by St. Lawrence County Child Protection Services in 2021.
Troubling to some members of the church who reached out to North Country This Week was a revelation that top church members, including Senior Pastor Rick Sinclair, were aware of the allegations in 2017, but chose not to report them to authorities or fellow members of the church. Ferguson also remains in proximity to the victims on a daily basis, which raised further concerns for some members who reached out to the newspaper.
It should be noted Ferguson has not been convicted of the charges and that the church leadership’s decision not to report allegations is not a crime in New York State, though it would be in roughly 34 other states.
St. Lawrence County District Attorney Gary Pasqua said that typically in a sexual abuse case the victims are granted an order of protection. In this case an order of protection was granted, but Pasqua said it wasn’t a “stay away order.” It was “a refrain” order, which still allows the accused to be near and around the victim, he said.
Pasqua said the decision on the type of order issued would have been determined by a judge, but typically his office would seek a “stay away” order in a sexual abuse case.
Shortly after Ferguson was charged, a church meeting was called by Sinclair, who leads the organization, to address concerns by members about the decision not to report the incident. The meeting was recorded and shared with North Country This Week.
The exodus of church members turned into a call to action for some who had departed the church years prior.
Abigail Nye, a former member of the CFC, who was raised in the church but has since moved to Wisconsin, helped found a support group aimed at helping those who had lived within the church transition to life outside of the CFC. The group was founded in direct response to the church’s handling of the Ferguson allegations.
She and other former members created a website called CFCtoo.com which offers support to church members who have suffered as members of the church.
The website includes what Nye refers to as “survivor stories” from past members who share their experiences during their time as members there. The stories include a variety of allegations ranging from cult-like behavior, domestic abuse, physical abuse, spiritual abuse and sexual abuse.
The website’s creation and outreach from disenchanted church members and former members prompted an investigation by North Country This Week, which is ongoing.
It also prompted an article of a similar nature from the Religion News Service, a global news service which reports primarily on theological organizations.
Nye says CFCtoo supports abuse survivors who have left CFC and seeks to educate the North Country community on how to prevent and respond to abuse. However, a more short-term goal for the group is ensuring that clergy be added to the mandated reporting list in New York State.
Attempts to reach Sinclair for comment on the matter have been unsuccessful; however at the members meeting, he shared his views on mandated reporting at length.
Sinclair said that while he would be open to hearing other opinions on the matter, he believes that the clergy members should not be mandated reporters.
“In my own opinion I think New York State has it right on this one. I really do,” he said. “I think that having someone who feels when they are facing their own sin issues that they can come to me and that there won't be an automatic turning of them over to authority, I actually think they have it right.”
But Nye and several other former members of the church believe it’s time to change that law. Nye says the proposals would help protect a vulnerable segment of the population.
“In the homeschooling community in which I grew up, pastors were some of the only authority figures who observed children on a regular basis. Doctors? We only saw them irregularly at best. Teachers? They were our parents. Police, social workers, or other mandated reporters? We were taught to fear them. Pastors were some of the only people who might have noticed child abuse and neglect. And in New York, they’re not required to report it,” she said.
Nye also says that from a religious standpoint, failing to report sexual abuse seems counter-intuitive.
“Trying to use the sacrament of confession or confidential counsel with clergy as a way to not protect vulnerable children goes against the gospel,” she said. “Jesus would be appalled by the act of clergy not reporting sexual abuse.”
Legislative candidate Hull, who is the son-in-law of Sinclair, disagreed, though. In a prepared statement, which can be read in full here, he shared his thoughts on the subject.
“We want to create environments for children where responsible adults observe and respond to signs and symptoms of abuse. ‘Mandatory reporting,’ as it is known, creates a broad network of vigilant advocates who are watching out for our kids and are compelled to report concerns to governmental authorities tasked to investigate potential abuse. The list of mandated reporters includes teachers, psychologists, medical providers, and many more in the lives of our children. This is a good thing, and I wholeheartedly support it,” he said.
“As a society, we also have a compelling interest in preserving safe places where children can speak in confidence to a responsible adult about their life, a place outside of which their words can never be repeated. Sadly, most child abuse occurs within existing relationships. And whether or not it's rational, abused children often feel a strong desire to protect the identity of their abuser.”
Hull said he believes the proposed state bills requiring mandated reporting are “well-intended” but says they could bring about unintended consequences.
“If a child suspects that her cleric will turn around and call the State Police, she will likely be unwilling to speak a word of her abuse to her spiritual advisor. I am close friends with multiple adults who experienced sexual abuse as children and felt this way. The only person on the planet they were initially comfortable confiding in was their pastor, and that conversation initiated a profound process of healing and recovery.”
Nye says she’s heard that argument before, but said the alternative remains more dangerous.
“It’s a concern that people raise, but from our stance the risk of people not talking to a pastor about sexual abuse, is less of a risk than abuse going unreported by clergy,” she said, pointing out that abuse allegations went unreported for years in the Ferguson case.
A former pastor at the Christian Fellowship Center, Justus Martin, who now serves as a pastor at Living Hope Church in Malone, said he also supports the bills that would mandate members of clergy to report child sex abuse.
“While the Church is foremost a place of healing and redemption, the church does not have the power to remove the abuser from the home. To properly protect the innocent victim and position them for healing, the church must work with civil authorities. God has appointed them to investigate, determine the amount and type of abuse, and make decisions to protect the victim while holding the abuser accountable,” he said adding a Bible passage.
“The (civil) authorities are God’s servants……… They are…… sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong.” (Romans 13:4 NLT)
Regardless of the local take, the bill's aimed at making clergy mandated reporters appear to be languishing in Rules Committees and will need to pass there before they can be acted on as law.
Senate Bill S1399 titled “Child Abuse Reporting Expansion Act” is sponsored by Sen. Brad Holyman and is co-sponsored by Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, both of whom are Democrats.
The Assembly version, A888 and is sponsored by Monica Wallace (D-Lancaster). The co-sponsors are Assemblymembers Simon, Stirpe, Buttenschon, Fahy, Fernandez, Galef, Woerner, and Glick.
Although the bill lacks Republican co-sponsors, both the Senate and Assembly are controlled by Democratic majorities.