Uptown Update first heard from Jaime Prater back in 2009 telling us about a documentary he was putting together called Born, the recollections of several people who were raised in a Christian intentional community here in Uptown, Jesus People USA ("JPUSA"). We ran a blurb about it, and didn't hear anything more from him until March of this year.
The documentary had changed, and was now called No Place To Call Home: Growing Up In A Religious Commune. The focus was now Jaime's own history, in which he claims to have been sexually abused as a child while at JPUSA, and then ostracized. The film includes interviews with Jaime's family, as well as with others with similar claims of child sexual abuse.
We ran, at Jaime's request, a link to his Kickstarter page so he could get funding to complete the documentary: he was looking for $6,000 to finish the editing process and to travel to interviews. Two days later, he asked us to take down the link to his page, and we complied.
He achieved his Kickstarter goal, and actually exceeded it by $775. He's been adding to the page (under the "updates" tab) with excerpts from the interviews he's done and some of his reflections. It's powerful stuff. [Warning: If you visit the page, some of the interviews may be trauma triggers for abuse victims. People speak with raw emotions and graphic details about their claims of child sexual abuse.]
We've kept in touch and asked Jaime if he would be willing to do an email interview to talk about what's going on with the documentary, and he agreed. The interview is below. Except for formatting, we haven't changed anything. We make no claims one way or the other as to the veracity of Jaime's claims; we leave you to judge his story as told in his own words.
Q. Some biographical information: When did your family move in with JPUSA and how old were you? How long did you and they stay there? When did you leave? Did your family stay after you left?
A. My family moved into Jpusa in 1978. I was two years old. My family and I stayed until August of 1999. My parents, and my sister (who was born there) moved out six months earlier. Moving out was never easy. I was attending Columbia College (one of the only people at the time allowed to) and eventually, I moved out with my older brother who had left Jpusa in 1988.
Q. When did the sexual abuse you say you experienced begin? How old were you?
A. The sexual abuse started when I was 10, that would be in 1986. I was 10 years old.
Q. Did you report the alleged sexual abuse to anyone at the time? Did you tell your parents? What response did you receive from people you told, if you told anyone?
A. I reported the abuse to a 'mentor' of sorts. He said he would investigate. The man I accused denied it. I persisted. They asked him again. He continued to deny it. Nothing happened. He remained in my bedroom. It was Jpusa practice to put single men and women in children's rooms. No background checks were ever performed.
Q. Were you aware of anyone else who said they were experiencing sexual abuse while you were at JPUSA? If not, how did you become aware that you weren't the only one who said he was being allegedly abused?
A. At the time, I had no idea anyone else was experiencing anything similar. Of course now, I realize it was RAMPANT. Allegedly unreported, swept under the rug, etc... When I began to realize that I wasn't the only one who had been sexually abused, I was an adult, and talking about my experiences with others I had grown up with.
Q. Was it just one person who was allegedly sexually abusing kids at JPUSA or more than one? What were the ages and genders of the person or people allegedly doing the abusing? How about their alleged victims?
A. There were allegedly multiple adults, male and female, preying upon the kids at Jpusa. Statistically, in terms of kids who grew up contacted. Of the 70 (out of 140) who responded, 50 PERCENT were molested by an adult living in the commune. (I will include the statistics in a follow-up email.) The victims were also both male and female. [UU Note: The statistics Jaime refers to can be found on his Kickstarter page as Update #5.]
Q. The interviews on the clips that you have filmed are just horrifying. With allegations like a four-year-old allegedly being penetrated by a 22-year-old, why do you think nothing was said at the time? I think the average person would have to question how allegations this horrendous and widespread were kept secret for so long. Jaime Prater.
A. In my opinion, allegedly nothing was being done because it would have put Jpusa in the spotlight. Child sexual abuse was widespread, and if it had come out Jpusa would have been in jeopardy of losing everything. Ergo, all of it was dealt in-house. "In-house" meant, children were isolated from others. Often times the accused abuser was left alone. I was taken out of Jpusa's home school and isolated for 3.5 years, until the age of 16.5 I could not go anywhere unsupervised. Not in the hallway, downstairs, nowhere but my bedroom or parent's room.
Q. What do you think your documentary will accomplish?
A. I hope the documentary will draw larger media attention to the dangers of cults, which I am alleging that Jpusa is structurally. Also, and more importantly, I want justice for what myself and so many of my Jpusa brothers and sisters experienced while growing up. Justice to me is: number one, removal of the core leadership council not just from power, but from the building; [and] number two, to continue to shine a light on these practices that seem to haunt religious and corporate institutions. Many of the people I've interviewed for this project are not in good places in their lives. I believe a component to justice is ensuring a better life for those of us who are survivors of the trauma we lived through. A civil case is in the works at this moment to do just that.
Q. If all your hopes came true for the documentary, what would happen?
A. My hopes for the documentary is some kind of distribution so that anyone, anywhere in the world will be able to watch it and learn. Right now, I'm still wrapping up my interview process, and I will begin the editing process for a July end date, hopefully.
Q. Now that the documentary is fully funded through Kickstarter, what are your plans for completing it and by what means do you want to release it?
A. I will say, Kickstarter was a priceless resource to be able to raise funds...I was a bit naive in terms of costs involved in completing a film of this scale. I probably should have tried to raise double that amount. I'm on the right course however. I work full time so I work on the documentary and fly across the country on my days off, and vacation time. In terms of releasing...HBO would be a fantastic outlet for this kind of thing...or PBS, so it could be more widely seen. Netflix streaming is also something that's quite doable.
Q. Do you feel like saying why you asked UU to take down the link to your Kickstarter page after two days?
A. I requested Uptown Update to take down the Kickstarter page as I was feeling some internal heat that the film's association with UU meant that I wanted to destroy Jpusa. Having spoken with UU about how they feel about Jpusa, I am at a point where I am comfortable with this interview. From what I've been told, the people at Jpusa believe that UU wants Jpusa to close its doors. I want to be unequivocal... I in no way, shape or form wish to see Jpusa taken down, with the exception of the core leadership, most of whom are related by blood or marriage, are self-elected and have been in their positions of all power since the early '70s.
Q. Are you angry about your alleged abuse? At whom?
A. I am not angry about my abuse, despite the fact that the man I accused has never confessed to it. My anger was always towards the people who persuaded my parents that shuttering me away from society was the best course of action. The leadership also recommended that my parents send me away, but they refused. The isolation did far more damage in my life, than anything else..the effects of which I continue to deal with today.
Q. Would you like to see people punished for committing or not stopping the alleged abuse you experienced? How and whom?
A. The court of public opinion is punishment enough. Jpusa is officially Jesus People USA Evangelical Covenant Church. My hope would be for the Covenant Church to take action and remove those responsible for an environment that fostered ongoing child sexual abuse.
Q. Are any of the people responsible for the alleged abuse or the alleged non-response to it still at JPUSA? How many?
A. There is only one that I know of, who was allegedly accused, confessed, but never prosecuted. This person resides as a full member of Jpusa at this very moment.
Q. This is a really controversial subject that you're addressing in your film. Are you afraid that you, or people interviewed in it, might be harassed or discredited?
A. I am not afraid. Again, in the court of public opinion, you start to try and discredit survivors of child sexual abuse, you will be crucified for it. There is nothing to fear. I do live about 3 miles from Jpusa, and I've questioned my physical safety from time to time, but ultimately, I believe I am doing what's right.
Q. Are you surprised how many people opened up to you and were willing to be filmed for the documentary?
A. I am SHOCKED at the outpouring of stories that came about after posting a rough edit in a private Facebook group. I couldn't believe the caliber of story, and the darkest and deepest of pain that would be revealed. I've been talking about child sexual abuse non-stop since March of this year. I'm almost out of the right words to articulate the horror that I've chronicled.
Q. Are you surprised at the reaction that you've gotten, just from the Kickstarter campaign and the clips you've put online? Readers have sent us several articles from the religious press [such as "Jesus People Conflict: The Next Generation" in Midwest Christian Outreach] about your documentary and it hasn't even been released yet.
A. I am not surprised as much as I am comforted by the outpouring of support. This is the unabashed truth, and it's taken a good while to start marching through this forest.
Q. What is your advice for people who have been, or still may be being, abused by someone in a religious situation?
A. My advice for those who have been, or may still be going through sexual abuse...seek help. If your parents or your church aren't taking you seriously, then tell your teacher, your principal, your school nurse. Never stop telling the truth, never let your voice be silenced by the ignorance and fear of others.
Q. Have you been in touch with SNAP or do you feel your situation is different since you weren't raised in a Catholic setting?
A. I have not been in touch with SNAP at the present moment.
Q. When will the film be released?
A. I am hoping to be done with the film in July of this year. In terms of release, I need a distributor, which I do not have at the time of this writing.
Q. Is there anything else you'd like people who read this to know?
A. I want everyone to know that I do this because I feel like I must. I've kept my story close to my heart for so many years of my life. When I first talked about it, no one believed me. I am doing this project to be a vehicle for those who had no voice. Now they can speak, we can speak as one.
Addendum: Jaime later contacted us to add: "Jpusa's roots almost mirror the film The Village by M. Night Shyamalan. When I try and describe the life there, that's my go-to film so people can understand. People just don't understand what living in a commune/cult is like. They don't get the appeal, etc."