Ex-mem­bers ques­tion Mich. church’s mis­sion

At­ten­tion in­creases on reclu­sive group in Car­son City after it was vic­tim of van­dal­ism last Hal­loween

The Detroit News - - FRONT PAGE - BY FRAN­CIS X. DON­NELLY The De­troit News

Car­son City — Of the 11 churches near this small town in cen­tral Michi­gan, one stands apart.

At the Church at Car­son City, the men wear long beards and women fa­vor long dresses. Mem­bers rarely so­cial­ize with lo­cal res­i­dents. They eat, pray and love in iso­la­tion.

Res­i­dents have learned lit­tle about the reclu­sive group since it be­gan in the early 1970s.

That changed on Hal­loween when a for­mer mem­ber spray-painted ob­scene words and sym­bols on the homes and cars of church lead­ers.

Re­spond­ing to the ar­rest of Anna Mor­ris, who po­lice say ad­mit­ted to the van­dal­ism, for­mer mem­bers un­leashed a tor­rent of crit­i­cism of the group.

They de­scribed how for­mer fol­low­ers are shunned by their own fam­i­lies, chil­dren are pun­ished phys­i­cally and women are treated as sub­or­di­nates. The con­gre­ga­tion is dis­cour­aged from watch­ing tele­vi­sion, go­ing on the in­ter­net or cel­e­brat­ing birth­days and hol­i­days, ex-mem­bers said.

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dis­turbingly, they ac­cused

the

church of cov­er­ing up the sex­ual abuse of chil­dren by sev­eral mem­bers, in­clud­ing the late Lee Sher­man, one of the group’s founders.

They said it wasn’t a church but a cult, la­bel­ing the be­liev­ers Sher­man­ites. Group lead­ers have no sem­i­nary train­ing.

“It’s all about power and con­trol, and it’s sick­en­ing,” said Ch­eryl Ack­ley, 49, who left the church in 2013. “I felt like an empty shell with no mind of my own.”

Pas­tor Bill Hubler, 76, de­clined com­ment, hang­ing up the phone after a re­porter iden­ti­fied him­self.

Lawyer de­fends group

Bill Amadeo, a lawyer re­cently hired by the church, said Hubler had learned about the al­leged abuse by Sher­man in 1974 after catch­ing him com­ing out of the room of a 12-year-old girl. At the time, Sher­man, 65, led a Bi­ble study group that would later be­come the church.

But the girl’s par­ents de­cided not to press charges be­cause they didn’t want her to go through a trial, Amadeo said.

When the study group formed the church in 1977, Sher­man wasn’t named pas­tor be­cause of the al­leged abuse, the lawyer said. Sher­man re­mained a mem­ber of the church un­til his death in 1994.

“This great man (Hubler) stopped the abuse even when the abuse was com­ing at the hands of some­body he greatly ad­mired,” Amadeo said.

The group, which Amadeo says has 400 mem­bers, op­er­ates from a 10-acre lot out­side of town. An L-shaped se­ries of build­ings holds the church, school and lead­ers’ homes.

Its con­gre­ga­tion owns sev­eral dozen busi­nesses in and out­side Car­son City that em­ploy other church mem­bers, said for­mer mem­bers. They in­clude a quilt shop, den­tist of­fice, bed and break­fast, and used car lot.

The Hal­loween van­dal­ism is the lat­est skir­mish be­tween the group and its for­mer fol­low­ers.

In 2014, four for­mer mem­bers con­tacted the Mont­calm County Sher­iff’s Of­fice to com­plain the church had failed to re­port cases of sex­ual abuse to the po­lice.

One case in­volved mem­ber Tim Crater.

Crater, then 25, al­legedly be­gan fondling Jes­sica Moser, 7, in 1983 and con­tin­ued for two years, Moser told The De­troit News. Un­der the guise of tick­ling her, Crater reached un­der Moser’s skirt while they sat on a sofa in Moser’s home, she said.

When Moser’s fam­ily told Hubler, he kicked Crater out of the church but didn’t re­port the in­ci­dent to po­lice, Moser said.

In 2003, Crater was charged in an un­re­lated case in­volv­ing a 6year-old girl in nearby Oak­field Town­ship, ac­cord­ing to court records.

He was con­victed of two counts of crim­i­nal sex­ual con­duct, sen­tenced to 51 months in prison and placed on the Michi­gan sex of­fender reg­istry.

Crater, who now lives in Greenville, de­clined com­ment.

The 2004 in­ci­dent may not have hap­pened if the church had re­ported Crater to au­thor­i­ties, said Moser, who later left the church and now lives in Avon, Colorado.

“That’s on them,” she said. “If he had been pun­ished, that would have pre­vented fu­ture vic­tims.”

Through Amadeo, Hubler de­nied that Moser’s fam­ily had told him of the abuse. Hubler said Crater was kicked out of the church for not show­ing up for ser­vices and fail­ing to fol­low the Bi­ble’s teach­ings.

As for the other al­le­ga­tions made by the for­mer mem­bers in 2014, the sher­iff’s of­fice said the al­leged in­ci­dents had oc­curred long ago and none of the vic­tims wanted to press charges.

Also, none of the com­plainants wit­nessed the al­leged abuse but had learned about it sec­ond­hand, De­tec­tive Brian Sny­der wrote in a po­lice re­port.

Sny­der closed the five-month in­ves­ti­ga­tion in 2014 with­out fil­ing any charges, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

When church lead­ers awoke Nov. 1, they dis­cov­ered their homes and the church scarred with graf­fiti.

With or­ange and pur­ple spray paint, some­one wrote “fam­ily killers,” “false shep­herd” and “blind sheep,” ac­cord­ing to a Michi­gan State Po­lice re­port. The church en­trance sign had “church” crossed out and re­placed with “cult.” Sher­man’s grave­stone was de­faced with “pe­dophile.”

More omi­nously, “boom” was writ­ten on a propane tank be­hind one leader’s home and “dead” scrawled on the garage win­dow, the re­port said.

When a church of­fi­cial viewed footage from a se­cu­rity cam­era, he rec­og­nized the van­dal as his sis­ter, Anna Mor­ris, a for­mer mem­ber. She was ac­com­pa­nied by her 14-year-old nephew.

Con­fronted by po­lice, Mor­ris, 54, con­fessed but said the threats didn’t mean she planned to hurt any­one, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

“I wanted them to think about how bad they hurt oth­ers,” she told po­lice, ac­cord­ing to the po­lice re­port.

Mor­ris de­clined com­ment for this story.

She is await­ing trial, charged with two counts of ma­li­cious de­struc­tion of a build­ing.

In Novem­ber, she joked on Face­book about all the at­ten­tion the church was re­ceiv­ing after her ac­tion “with my pur­ple crayon,” fol­lowed by a laugh emoji.

“The lid has come off and the truth is show­ing in their igloo of koolaid,” she wrote.

Group’s start

In the early 1970s, peo­ple from other parts of Michi­gan be­gan com­ing to this ru­ral en­clave to hear Sher­man dis­cuss the Bi­ble. The body shop owner had a long white beard and large girth that re­minded some of Santa Claus.

Among the vis­i­tors was Hubler, a young car sales­man from Muskegon. He told a TV re­porter in Novem­ber he had never met any­one who knew more about the Bi­ble.

Hubler gave away his home and most of his pos­ses­sions, mov­ing here with his wife and two chil­dren. He be­gan at­tend­ing Bi­ble study ses­sions with Sher­man at a lo­cal res­i­dent’s home.

“Out­side of the thing that hap­pened with Lee (the al­leged abuse), I’ve never ever re­gret­ted it,” he told Fox 17 in Grand Rapids.

The church de­mands strict obe­di­ence to its lead­ers and their in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Bi­ble, whose writ­ings are taken lit­er­ally.

The lead­ers’ con­trol ex­tends into the per­sonal lives of be­liev­ers, who dis­close in­ti­mate de­tails, for­mer mem­bers said. One woman was told she needed to lose weight to re­main at­trac­tive to her hus­band.

Trans­gres­sions in­clude driv­ing too fast, vis­it­ing other churches, buy­ing ex­pen­sive fur­ni­ture and wear­ing one’s skirt too tightly.

Fol­low­ers are made to con­fess their sins be­fore the church and get­ting on their hands and knees while the con­gre­ga­tion prays over them, said for­mer mem­ber Pete Michelsen, 34, of Phoenix, Ari­zona.

“All that stuck with me was to feel shame, fear and this damn con­dem­na­tion,” he said.

For­mer mem­bers say the group is au­thor­i­tar­ian, judg­men­tal and in­tol­er­ant.

They were taught to fear the out­side world, which was de­scribed as a den of in­equity, lone­li­ness and death. They heard over and over that, if they left the church, they would no longer be pro­tected by God.

The church told sup­port­ers they weren’t the ones in bondage, it was ev­ery­one else, in­clud­ing other churches, said for­mer mem­bers. The flock at the Church at Car­son City were the cho­sen peo­ple.

When Shelly Cas­tro’s fam­ily left the church in 1999, the then-15-year-old was so scared of go­ing to hell she con­tem­plated jump­ing out of the speed­ing van.

“I know what it was like to grow up be­ing brain­washed, be­liev­ing that you don’t ques­tion them,” she said.

Preach­ing iso­la­tion

The church iso­lates it­self from so­ci­ety by dis­cour­ag­ing the con­gre­ga­tion from spend­ing time with non­mem­bers, or “worldly” peo­ple.

Of all the peo­ple to be avoided, the most per­sona non grata are for­mer mem­bers.

The church cas­ti­gates for­mer be­liev­ers and threat­ens to ex­pel any­one who has too much con­tact with them, for­mer mem­bers said.

After leav­ing the church in 2007, Kristy Loomis said she re­ceived a se­cret phone call from her brother, who was still in the group.

Her brother asked if she was OK, say­ing the church claimed she was poor, on drugs and, be­ing un­able to care for her hand­i­capped son, had given him up for adop­tion, said Loomis, 37, of Ithaca. None of those things was true.

“They de­fame the char­ac­ter of ev­ery­one who has left,” she said.

The shun­ning ex­tends to rel­a­tives, lead­ing to long­time splits in fam­i­lies.

When Amadeo posted pho­tos of a re­cent church meet­ing on Face­book, it was the first time for­mer mem­ber Liz Cum­mings had seen her mom and a sis­ter since her dad’s fu­neral in 2012.

It was strange that this glimpse of her fam­ily was or­ches­trated by an at­tor­ney she didn’t know, Cum­mings said.

“I just wanted to reach them, wanted them to hear me. We’re not these hor­ri­ble peo­ple. I’m not evil,” she said.

Church at Car­son City

Mem­bers of the Church at Car­son City at­tend a re­cent group meet­ing.

Dale G. Young / The De­troit News

Kristy Loomis says she was abused as a child in Car­son City by mem­bers of the Church at Car­son City. Loomis holds a pic­ture of her with her mother and brothers in 1997 in Car­son City.

Fam­ily photo

Kristy Loomis, top, with her mother and brothers in Car­son City when they were mem­bers of the church.

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