A recent lawsuit by Heather Kool, 38, and a related new video documentary raise allegations of sexual abuse in the 1980s by members of the Jesus People USA evangelical commune. The lawsuit names the commune and the Chicago-based Evangelical Covenant Church that has considered the Jesus People one of its congregations since 1989. Kool’s lawsuit does not identify anyone who allegedly abused her.
Larry Eskridge, a Wheaton College professor and author of God’s Forever Family, a recent book about the movement, said the Chicago group formed in 1972 established its own identity as street evangelists. “Jesus People USA was emblematic of the movement. … Hardcore hippie converts, drug culture—they really fit that mold because they were full-time and communal. It was kind of a go-to group in the Jesus People movement.”
The legal action by Kool sets the stage for a new documentary in which she and a half-dozen others share their accounts of alleged abuse at the religious commune. In the film, Kool describes growing up in the commune and the alleged abuse. Referring to the allegation that she was ostracized for telling an adult, she added, “I didn’t know I would be isolated like I was. I probably never would have told anybody.”
Filmmaker Jaime Prater, 37, said he also was sexually abused while his family lived in the commune and was punished for reporting the abuse. In a letter obtained by the Tribune, Kool’s lawyers have warned the Evangelical Covenant Church that 17 others, including Prater, are considering legal action if leaders don’t agree to a private mediation. Kool’s lawyers did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Prater said his documentary began as a collective ode to growing up inside the commune. But when he interviewed Kool in 2011 and he realized he was not the only one who allegedly had been abused, its focus shifted. And as soon as he uploaded clips of the film to a private Facebook page for former members, other allegations poured in. In at least one case, multiple generations of the same family said they had been abused. That, he said, left him no choice. “It’s one thing if you have a church and a kid gets molested and you do the right thing,” he said in the film. “Jesus People did not do the right thing.”
Ed Gilbreath, executive director of communications for the Evangelical Covenant Church, said the denomination has not reviewed the documentary and can’t comment on specific allegations or pending litigation. “We are aware and concerned for all parties involved … We take these matters very seriously.” According to church officials, the denomination does not have the authority to remove leaders from member churches, which are considered autonomous. But it does reserve the right to revoke clergy credentials. Neil Taylor, a pastoral leader for Jesus People USA, said, “How we are having to respond is basically not to respond, based on advice we have received from lawyers.”
Eric Pement, a member of the commune from 1976 to 2000, recalls that sexual abuse allegations almost always resulted in the person being asked to leave. “I was extremely surprised by many of the allegations,” said Pement. “It would have been standard community policy that the person would be asked to leave. We always side with the victim. It was a just a standard policy there.” (Chicago Tribune, 2/27/14) [IT 5.2]