A recent lawsuit and a new video documentary raise allegations of sexual abuse in decades past in a cloistered, evangelical commune in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.
Heather Kool, 38, who now lives in Georgia, alleges in the lawsuit that she was abused in the 1980s by members of Jesus People USA, one of the last vestiges of a religious movement that emerged in the renowned “Summer of Love” of 1967.
The lawsuit names the commune and the Evangelical Covenant Church, a Chicago-based denomination that has considered the Jesus People one of its congregations since 1989. Kool’s lawsuit does not identify anyone who allegedly abused her.
The legal action sets the stage for a new documentary available Friday in which Kool and a half-dozen others share their accounts of alleged abuse at the religious commune.
“I loved being part of a family,” Kool said in the film, describing her growing up in the commune.
“I wanted that physical touch, but at the same time it was very guilty, very wrong,” Kool said of the alleged abuse. Referring to her allegation that she was ostracized for telling an adult, she added: “I didn’t know I would be isolated like I was. I probably never would have told anybody.”
The filmmaker, Jaime Prater, 37, of LaPorte, Ind., said he also was sexually abused while his family lived in the commune. When he told adults, he said he, too, was punished and eventually left the community six months after his parents.
“What happened to me was crazy and scary and weird but it doesn’t even compare [to others’ stories],” Prater said.
In a letter obtained by the Tribune, Kool’s lawyers have warned the Evangelical Covenant Church that 17 others, including Prater, are considering legal action if leaders don’t agree to a private mediation. Kool’s lawyers, Thomas Prindable and Scott Gibson, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
A spokesman with the Evangelical Covenant Church said the denomination has not reviewed the documentary and can’t comment on specific allegations. He said the church also can’t comment on pending litigation.
“We are aware and concerned for all parties involved,” said Ed Gilbreath, executive director of communications for the Evangelical Covenant Church. “We take these matters very seriously.”
According to church officials, when the denomination finds out about an allegation with a congregation, it advises that congregation's leadership to report the matter to “the proper authorities.” The denomination does not have the authority to remove leaders from member churches, which are considered autonomous. But it does reserve the right to revoke clergy credentials, officials said.
Jesus People USA grew out of a national movement spawned in Southern California during the late 1960s that merged evangelical Christianity with the hippie counterculture of the era. It gained steam in the 1970s as it swept across the nation, attracting evangelical youth with long hair, Christian rock and the promise of redemption, regardless of how far they had gone astray.
Larry Eskridge, a Wheaton College professor and author of “God’s Forever Family,” a recent book about the movement, said the Chicago group, formed in 1972, established its own identity as street evangelists. Members handed out tracts, staged rock concerts, and launched a variety of money-making ventures to invest in the community.
“Jesus People USA was emblematic of the movement,” Eskridge said. “Hardcore hippie converts, drug culture – they really fit that mold because they were full-time and communal. It was kind of a go-to group in the Jesus People movement.”
The go-to group also became one of the last to survive. But its longevity appears to have presented challenges, Eskridge said. As more people stayed to start families or new converts arrived with children in tow, the group’s outreach to the margins of society created a risky environment, he said. For a number of years, children were separated from their parents and lived with other adults. The commune since has ended this practice, a church official said.
“You’ve got a clientele prone to having some questionable characters slipping in the side door, but you believe the Gospel is at work in these guys and at work at changing lives,” Eskridge said. “Then you’ve got this set-up with the kids. Obviously, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
To this day, Angel Harold, 43, of Lindenhurst, questions why God wasn’t protecting the children. In the documentary, she said when she was 9 years old, she was molested by a teenager on a tractor at the commune’s Missouri farm. Soon after she told her mother, the teen “got the rod,” or a spanking. But the commune later gave him a responsible role with children, she said.
Neil Taylor, a pastoral leader for Jesus People USA, said, “How we are having to respond is basically not to respond, based on advice we have received from lawyers.”
Eric Pement, a member of the commune from 1976 to 2000, recalls sexual abuse allegations almost always resulted in the person being asked to leave.
“I was extremely surprised by many of the allegations,” said Pement, 59, of Jacksonville, Fla. “It would have been standard community policy that the person would be asked to leave. We always side with the victim. It was a just a standard policy there.”
He said he didn’t know about the allegations made in the film, which he found “shocking, gruesome and dismaying.” Noting that many of the adults told their parents only recently, “we would have done something had we known.”
Prater said his documentary began as a collective ode to growing up inside the commune. But its focus shifted when he interviewed Kool in 2011 and realized he was not the only one who allegedly had been abused. He did nothing with the footage of Kool’s interview for a year.
“I was scared,” he said. “There was this pull on my heart. The commune I called home I was deeply still in love with, and because of that love I was somewhat apprehensive to complete a film that perhaps, just perhaps, would sever those ties for good.”
But as soon as he uploaded clips of the film to a private Facebook page for former members, other allegations poured in. In at least one case, multiple generations of the same family said they had been abused. That, he said, left him no choice.
“It’s one thing if you have a church and a kid gets molested and you do the right thing,” he said in the film. “Jesus People did not do the right thing.”
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