Schools hail pastor as a hero who redeemed teens

Post-Dispatch/November 17, 2002
By Matthew Franck

A half-smiling portrait of a deceased radio preacher steals the attention of all who enter the small lobby of Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy.

It's the visage of Lester Roloff, who is seen by several Missouri reform schools as a hero in the battle to bring wayward teens to Jesus, while fending off the demons of government control.

Mountain Park's Web site proudly says that the school's founder was personally trained by the minister. Elsewhere in Missouri, Agape Boarding School and Thanks to Calvary say they are not Roloff schools, but their leaders praise the pastor's work and display photos of him. Agape has named one of its dorms in Roloff's honor.

Roloff, who died in a plane crash in 1982, is perhaps best known for his "Family Altar" radio ministry, which was once broadcast from Corpus Christi, Texas, to more than 140 stations.

As his radio ministry grew, the fundamentalist Baptist preacher began reaching out to drug-addicted men and rebellious teens. By the late 1960s, he was taking in dozens of wayward girls, most of whom were pregnant.

His philosophy was to immerse the girls in a monastic lifestyle of Bible teachings. He kept the teens in check with the rod of corporal punishment. It was a pattern for dealing with defiant teens that appealed to parents from across the country and is still followed today. But Roloff left another legacy.

In state after state, and in decade after decade, teen reform homes inspired by Roloff have been investigated for abuse, raided by child protective service officials, and ultimately forced to close for failing to comply with state laws.

When a home was closed, ministers would simply pack up and move where laws were friendlier. And for the exiled, Missouri has proved to be a safe harbor.

The founders of Mountain Park moved to Missouri from Mississippi in 1987, after a judge ordered teens removed from the school. And in 1996, Agape Boarding School moved here after regulatory hassles in Washington state.

But Missouri's first encounter with Roloff homes dates back even further, when two of the original reform schools founded by Roloff were booted out of Texas.

By the time the Rebekah Home for Girls and Anchor Home for Girls came to Missouri in 1985, the reform schools had been the subject of 12 years of court battles.

The schools, which Roloff opened in Corpus Christi in 1967, caught the attention of investigators in 1973, when visiting parents reported seeing a girl whipped at the school. According to news reports, 16 girls at the school told investigators they had been whipped, paddled, handcuffed and in some cases confined to "cells."

Court battles followed, and at one point, Roloff was jailed for refusing to follow court-ordered reforms. Supporters rallied behind Roloff for years, but ultimately Texas forced the reform schools out.

Here, the Roloff ministry found favorable laws and a convenient location outside Kansas City. Boys and girls occupied unused space at Richards-Gebaur Airport and nearby Calvary Baptist College.

Over the next 18 months, police and prosecutors began hearing allegations of abuse from teens who had run away from the school. According to news reports in the Kansas City Times, a 16-year-old turned up at a hospital with a broken wrist, claiming he had been beaten when he tried to escape. Another boy had half a testicle removed after a classmate kneed him in the groin and the school refused to offer medical care. The victim's mother did not press charges.

Police told the Times of escapees who described isolation cells and beatings with a wooden paddle. One boy told of having to lick his own excrement as a penalty for soiling his pants.

Two days after the stories appeared in 1987, the Missouri homes moved the kids to a Louisiana reform school with ties to Roloff.

But even after all the allegations of abuse, Missouri remained friendly to Roloff homes. Within months of the departure of the Kansas City homes, the founders of Mountain Park picked the state as their base camp.

Supporters of the Roloff homes say the ministry has been unfairly criticized over the years.

David Gibbs III is an attorney with the Christian Law Association, which has defended Roloff homes in court for decades. He said the media tend to fixate on a few unfortunate incidents.

Still, across the nation, states have closed the door on Roloff's teen ministry.

In 1983, allegations of abuse at Ruth's Home of Compassion in Rome, Ga., ultimately led the state to close the school for failing to obtain a license.

And for decades, Louisiana locked horns with the New Bethany Home for Girls. Though the school was not officially a Roloff home, Roloff was at one point listed as a board member of the school, according to news reports. The state removed students at least twice, and an administrator at a sister school in South Carolina served one year of probation after investigators in 1984 found a teenager lying on the floor in a narrow padlocked cell.

More recently, in Texas, then-Gov. George W. Bush pushed through laws in 1997 that allowed the Roloff homes to reopen there. But claims of abuse resurfaced at the homes.

In 1999, two boys claimed they were made to run over thorns and dig in a filthy pit throughout the night. The incident resulted in a criminal misdemeanor conviction for a school employee for unlawful restraint. It also served as a sort of last straw for the Texas Legislature.

Last year, Texas once again did what Missouri has not - closed the door to Roloff's ministry by requiring all faith-based residential programs to obtain a license or shut down.

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