Los Angeles Times

Church leaders accused of hiding sex abuse

More than a dozen plaintiffs say ICOC and ICC knew staff had targeted children.

- By Ngai Yeung and Sam Moskow

Two churches with congregati­ons scattered across Southern California covered up sexual abuse of children as young as 3 and financiall­y exploited church members, according to multiple federal lawsuits filed since December.

Sixteen plaintiffs allege that leaders within the Internatio­nal Churches of Christ, or ICOC, and the Internatio­nal Christian Church, or ICC, knew that their members had sexually abused adults and children, but instead of alerting the authoritie­s they often “actively concealed” the abuse to “avert discovery by child protective services and the police.”

Kids Kingdom, the ICOC’s children’s ministry, “served as a demented playground for sexual abuse,” the suits charge. The allegation­s span 25 years, from 1987 to 2012, and some of the accused abusers remain active church leaders, according to the suits and church websites.

Of the 16 plaintiffs who have sued claiming sexual abuse, 10 said at least some of their alleged abuse happened in Los Angeles.

The ICOC, a global network of nondenomin­ational Protestant churches cofounded in 1979 by evangelist Kip McKean, has about 5,000 members in the Los Angeles area, according to the church website.

In 2006, after resigning from the ICOC, McKean started the ICC, which has congregati­ons in Southern California from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Both churches are decentrali­zed networks of nondenomin­ational Christian congregati­ons, and in the Los Angeles area, most congregati­ons don’t own church buildings, five former Los Angeles-area ICOC and ICC members said. Instead, congregati­ons often meet for services in hotel conference rooms or similar venues.

The lawsuits accuse McKean of urging members to keep quiet about the alleged crimes, telling them, “We cannot report these abuses, because it would hurt our church, God’s Modern-Day Movement.”

One person whom ICOC leaders allegedly allowed to keep preying on children, David Saracino, is a nowconvict­ed pedophile. In the 1990s, Saracino was an ICOC member in Los Angeles and worked in the Kids Kingdom.

In the lawsuits, four women allege that Saracino

sexually assaulted them when they were between the ages of 3 and 9.

Plaintiff Ashley Ruiz says in court papers that when she was about 5 years old, Saracino would pick her up from school and force her to watch pornograph­y, then perform oral sex on her. Plaintiff Darleen Diaz alleges that Saracino would invite her and her sister, along with other girls, to swim at his house, which he shared with other ICOC members, then fondle them.

Darlene Diaz’s sister, Bernice Perez, claims in a lawsuit that their mother filed a police report — but church leaders had already “tipped off” Saracino, and he fled. Saracino’s alleged abuses in the lawsuits took place in the 1990s.

Saracino, who was eventually featured on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted,” would not be arrested for years after these alleged incidents. “Had ICOC assisted in his arrest or alerted their congregati­ons,” the suits allege, “David Saracino could not have continued abusing children.”

Saracino, who is serving time in a Louisiana prison, could not immediatel­y be reached for comment. His former attorney said she couldn’t comment because she is not familiar with these new allegation­s.

In addition to Saracino, seven other former members of ICC or ICOC churches across the country were ultimately arrested or convicted of charges involving child pornograph­y and other sexual misconduct with children, according to one of the lawsuits. Two of them taught or led at the children’s ministry, the suit claims.

The Los Angeles ICOC said in a statement that it could not comment on specific allegation­s because of the lawsuits, but noted that many of them “relate to issues in other states and organizati­ons.”

Still, the church is “horrified” by the allegation­s, the statement said, adding that “we do not tolerate any form of sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, or sexual coercion, and we will fully cooperate with the authoritie­s in any investigat­ions of this type of behavior.”

In addition, the L.A. ICOC church leadership said in a January letter to its staff and members that while it shares “common roots” with McKean, it has no affiliatio­n with him or the ICC.

Jason Dimitry, lead evangelist at the City of Angels ICC, declined to comment. “There will be a time for us to respond and clearly communicat­e what we are about as an organizati­on,” he said, “but at this time I would not be giving that response.”

An attorney for McKean, who is named as a defendant, said in an email that the allegation­s in the suits appear to “arise from times, events and circumstan­ces which have no connection to Dr. McKean or the ICC churches” and that “we are working to investigat­e the bases of the claims and determine the proper legal response.”

The Times sent a detailed list of the allegation­s included in this article to McKean’s lawyer, who declined to address them.

The lawsuits and The Times’ interviews with five plaintiffs and three former church leaders describe how the ICOC and ICC isolated members from the outside world, then “systematic­ally indoctrina­ted” them to believe that the churches and its leadership are the only true Christian authority. Parishione­rs were taught to protect the church’s reputation, lawsuits say, and dissenters were shunned.

In both churches, leaders set up dates and approved marriages between members, according to the lawsuits. Some members said they were asked to leave their jobs to take on roles within the church or relocate to serve in different church branches. In one case, a plaintiff said that ICOC leaders demanded she move 27 times in 17 years.

The ICOC imposed recruitmen­t quotas and forced members to give at least 10% of their gross income, the lawsuits allege, and the church also required a separate contributi­on twice a year for mission trips that were 40 times the usual tithe amount.

Leaders would sometimes demand to see members’ pay stubs and sit on members’ porches until they arrived home to collect their tithes before Sunday evening was over, the suits allege. The lawsuits also claim that McKean asked ICC members to turn over their COVID-19 relief money to the church.

“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 lawsuits say.

Past media reports have brought national attention to ICOC’s high-pressure tactics. The suits cite televised exposes conducted by “20/20 with Barbara Walters,” “Inside Edition,” Fox News, the BBC and MTV, which detailed the church’s aggressive recruitmen­t of college students, and Rolling Stone reported on the first of the recent lawsuits.

In 1994, when dozens of U.S. colleges banned the group from their campuses, an Associated Press article quoted some members defending the church, while former members accused the church of manipulati­ng students to join and then cutting them off from their families.

In one of the current lawsuits, Christy Miller, identified in court papers as Jane Roe 2, alleges that she was “brainwashe­d into believing she would be condemned if she did not forgive her alleged abuser,” former ICOC leader Joe Garmon Sr.

The plaintiff alleges that she was instructed to go to Garmon’s home to make amends, a visit that made her “sick to her stomach.” Garmon is the leader of the Thomasvill­e, Ga., and Tallahasse­e, Fla., ICC, according to the church website.

When reached by the phone, Garmon declined to comment and hung up. The Thomasvill­e Tallahasse­e ICC did not respond to emails requesting comment.

The Times generally does not name victims or alleged victims in sexual misconduct cases without their permission. Plaintiffs Ruiz, Diaz, Perez and Miller all agreed to be identified by name.

In another lawsuit, plaintiffs and sisters Jane Roe 1 and Jane Roe 2 allege that the leader of their church, San Antonio ICOC, lied about reporting their alleged abuse to child protective services, while other leaders told the sisters to forgive their alleged abusers, Nancy and Marty Wilkinson, siblings who were children of church leaders.

Jane Roe 2 alleges in the lawsuit that when she was 7, Nancy Wilkinson would rape her with foreign objects. Jane Roe 2 also claims that Wilkinson would lock her in a closet and force her to watch as Wilkinson molested Jane Roe 1, who was chronicall­y ill with cystic fibrosis.

Marty Wilkinson would molest and grope the sisters throughout their teenage years, the suit says. According to the lawsuit, Marty Wilkinson is in charge of overseeing all ICOC campus ministries in the United States today, while Nancy Wilkinson has worked in ICOC’s children ministries over the years.

Among the lawsuits lodged so far against the ICOC and the ICC, 13 plaintiffs were minors and three were adults at the time of their alleged abuse.

 ?? Robert Gauthier Los Angeles Times ?? ASHLEY RUIZ is among 16 plaintiffs who have claimed cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Internatio­nal Churches of Christ and the Internatio­nal Christian Church.
Robert Gauthier Los Angeles Times ASHLEY RUIZ is among 16 plaintiffs who have claimed cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Internatio­nal Churches of Christ and the Internatio­nal Christian Church.

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