US Christian group accused of covering up sexual abuse of minors

Lawsuits claim International Churches of Christ leaders failed to report as well as plotted to conceal abuse of women and children.

Michele “Chele” Roland was looking for salvation when she joined the International Churches of Christ. She never imagined that, three decades later, she would lead a legal battle accusing the controversial Christian religious organization of enabling and covering up the sexual molestation of children in its congregation, among other alleged abuses, but that’s exactly what she’s doing.

“They have covered the spectrum of abuse,” Roland said. “This is abuse of power – spiritually, physically, psychologically, financially and sexually.”

Roland and her attorney, Bobby Samini, have filed a series of lawsuits against the International Churches of Christ – abbreviated as ICOC – which allege that its leaders failed to report as well as plotted to conceal the sexual and emotional abuse of women and children who worshipped alongside them.

One of the lawsuits is from Roland herself. She accuses the church and its leaders of fostering an exploitative environment that resulted in her sexual assault by an ICOC recruit. Collectively, her complaint and the others accuse the ICOC of being a dangerous cult – the Los Angeles-based organization with about 118,000 congregants vehemently denies that characterization while saying it is on a fact-finding mission about the abuse allegations.

The lawsuits, which seek damages, describe disturbing instances of molestation against minors. And they accuse the ICOC, its founder, Thomas “Kip” McKean, and associated organizations of creating “a widespread culture of acceptance of the abuse of children”.

“What happened to your girls isn’t that big of a deal,” a church elder allegedly told a mother of two young girls who were sexually assaulted on church grounds, according to a February filing. “Most girls have been molested by the time they reach 18.”

Five women filed a complaint in December that said the ICOC failed to stop convicted pedophile and church member David Saracino from sexually assaulting them when they were between the ages of four and 17. According to the legal documents, Saracino received a 40-year prison sentence for raping a four-year-old in 2004.

“They’re so brazen because they’ve gotten away with it,” Roland said of the lawsuits. Adding that other instances of abuse drove victims to suicide, Roland added: “They didn’t think they were going to get caught because of the statute of limitations. They’re like, ‘It’s been ten years! We’re all safe, right?’ No, dumbasses. You’re not.”

For years accusers were held back from seeking legal action against the ICOC because of statutes of limitation that generally prohibit suing for long ago harm. But two newly enacted California laws helped set the stage for the cases against the ICOC.

California State University sociology professor emerita Janja Lalich, who leads the Knowledge Center on Cults and Coercion, said she believes the ICOC has at least some of the “hallmarks of a cult”. One aspect that she specifically mentioned was the lawsuits’ description of a religious culture that was permissive of molestation and never reported it to authorities ostensibly to avoid scandal.

“Anything can be done in the name of the belief system – that’s where the abuse comes in,” Lalich said.

ICOC officials have publicly denied that their organization, which they described as decentralized, is a cult. But otherwise they haven’t addressed the lawsuits.


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