Carson City, Michigan -- The founder of the Church at Carson City — a church recently vandalized with the spray-painted word "cult" — molested children decades ago, according to a report obtained by Target 8.
A church leader several years ago revealed that to sheriff's detectives, saying he believed it was never reported.
Former church members interviewed by Target 8 say that was only the beginning of unreported allegations of sexual abuse involving church-goers.
More than a dozen ex-church members told Target 8 they want others to know what happens at the Church at Carson City — shunning that breaks up families, beatings of children and alleged sex crimes they say have gone unreported for decades.
Those former members say they believe the church is a cult — something church leaders deny.
Jessica Moser and her family grew up in the Church at Carson City, located at the end of a long drive on the outskirts of town.
She said she was 7 years old when a church member named Tim Crater started molesting her in the 1980s. She said it went on for two years.
"My mom would be in the kitchen cooking and he'd sit on the sofa with us, and he would put his hands up our skirts or down our skirt," Moser said.
She said it also happened in the backseat of the family's car.
Moser said she told her mom only after a young relative told her Crater was molesting her, too.
Moser said her mom reported it to then-church leader Bill Hubler Sr. in 1985.
"I had to recount my story to the pastor of our church. So he listens and he leaves, and I don't hear anything for about a week," Moser said.
Then her mom sat her down.
“‘I want to let you know that Tim Crater has been kicked out of the church, and you'll never see him in church again,’" Moser recounted her mother saying. "‘He's not allowed to ever come back.’ And that was the end."
She said the police were never called.
"For them (the church), kicking people out is the absolute worst sentence they could give to somebody. To them, that's superior over everything," she said.
Including going to police.
"They handle things themselves," Moser said.
In 2004, 19 years later, Crater was convicted of raping one of his 6-year-old relatives in Kent County. As a first-time offender, he got 51 months in prison.
"I put that on the church because that's something that could have been hopefully stopped," Moser said. "He would have had a chance to have justice served and him behind bars and not affecting another girl."
Crater is now on the sex offender registry and living in Greenville. He refused to talk to Target 8 other than to say he left church in 1985.
A lawyer for the Church at Carson City told Target 8 that church leaders deny Moser's allegations, though they confirmed Crater was a member there until 1985.
In 2014, four former members brought allegations of unreported sex crimes dating back 40 years to the Montcalm County Sheriff's Office.
"They said sexual abuse has said to have been taking place over approximately the past forty years and involves or is being covered up by the church elders," according to a report from the department.
Ferris Azzam was among those who came forward.
"(I was) hoping it would be exposed, would be brought to light," he told Target 8.
Target 8 obtained the police report through a public records request, but the sheriff redacted much of it, including references to juveniles.
Azzam said he told deputies about an alleged molestation he had heard about of a 4-year-old girl by a teenage boy — both members of the church — in 2012.
"I told him (the detective) he played with her, he molested her and it wasn't reported to the law," Azzam said.
The girl's stepbrother, now 25, told Target 8 he came home one night in 2011 or 2012 to his distraught father and stepmother. They told him that a boy in his early teens had molested his 4-year-old stepsister in their home near Carson City, he said.
He said his parents told them they met with church leaders.
"They all sat down and had a meeting and discussed what to do about it. As far as I know, they pretty much hid it up," he said.
He says police were never involved. He blames his parents and the church for that.
"It's more protecting the church and their name than the people that's (sic) inside," he said.
Target 8 is not identifying the stepbrother because doing so would identify the alleged victim.
The stepbrother said his father and stepmother are still members of the church. Target 8 tried to talk with them, but a woman who answered the door quickly shut it without comment.
Montcalm County Sheriff Mike Williams confirmed to Target 8 that the allegations dated back to the 1970s and up to the early 2010s. His department closed the investigation after five months.
"Nothing further at this time," a detective wrote. "No possible victims were willing to file a report, and no indication of current or ongoing victimization were (sic) found."
In cases of child abuse, state law requires mandatory reporting by professionals like teachers, counselors and doctors, but members of the clergy weren't added to that list until 2002.
Church leaders denied knowledge of any alleged assault.
"I don't know anything about it. So I mean, if they say that, they can come talk to us," said Jacob Jeffreys, a church leader. "I mean, we're here. It's just not true."
The Church at Carson City lists itself as nondenominational.
"They say, ‘You know we're God's chosen people and so far there's not any like us,’" former member Elizabeth Cummings said.
People in town know the church members as Shermanites. That's because it was founded more than 40 years ago by Lee Sherman — a man who brought shame to his church decades ago, according to a police report obtained by Target 8 through a public records request.
Church leader Dan Hubler told the sheriff's detective in 2014 that Sherman had "inappropriate contact with juveniles," decades ago, leading to his removal from leadership, the report states.
But the church leader told the detective he didn't believe it was reported to police.
Sherman died more than 20 years ago, but the church continues to practice many of his beliefs, according to former members.
Former members interviewed by Target 8 call the Church at Carson City a cult, something church leaders say they've heard for years and deny.
"There's been people through the years, ex-members have been saying that," Jeffreys, a church leader, said. "It's ridiculous."
"They don't even know what a cult means," said Bill Morrow, who is another church leader. "It just means you're a religious organization."
Former members say followers of the Church at Carson City can't own TVs, use the internet, must consult with leaders before buying a house, and can’t celebrate holidays or birthdays.
"They say that there's a scripture that says ‘do not keep days,’ and that's what they based it off of," explained Cummings.
The former members also said women are treated as inferior to men.
"As women, we couldn't cut our hair, we couldn't wear makeup, we couldn't wear jewelry. We had to wear long dresses," Moser said.
"They just wanted us to be shame-faced, is what they said a lot," said another former member, Cheryl Ackley. "‘Our women need to be shame-faced and humble.’"
"I feel like they stole my soul, like I had nothing left, like I was this empty shell of a person with no personality and no brain of my own, almost," Ackley said.
The former followers say Shermanites also aren't allowed to hang family photos on their walls.
"Somebody approached me and said ‘You know, we don't do pictures. It's idolatry.’ That's what they called it. That you worship your children and pictures of your children and the only one you should worship is God, so they didn't let us ever hang pictures," Ackley explained.
Former Shermanites say church leaders encouraged parents to beat their kids, even showing them how through videos.
"We were taught to spank our kids with like a plumb line," Ackley said.
She and others described it as a hard plastic rod from a toilet.
"That's the way we were taught, you know," Ackley said. "We thought we were training them to be good little Shermanites, you know."
"It wasn't spankings," said Cummings. "It was beatings. I mean, I would have welts on the back of my legs, up to my back and it was accepted. They do take it literally in the scripture, ‘spare the rod, spoil the child,’ and beating is just a part of life there."
Former members said leaders forced members to shun their own relatives who aren't in the church or who have left it.
"Because I made the choice to not go to their church. So therefore, according to them, I am dead, so to speak," Cummings explained. "You no longer belong to God or the family, and I guess that's my punishment.”
Cummings is the sister of Moser, the woman who said she was molested in the 1980s.
She quit the church when she was 17, but her mom and another sister stayed behind. She hasn't seen them since 2011, when her dad died.
"It hurts. It's been a long time since I've had a mother," Cummings said.
Ackley said she shunned her own son after he was kicked out of the church, and was told by church leaders to put his stuff out on the curb.
"It tormented me in my sleep," Ackley said. "I knew deep down in my heart it was wrong, but if I did talk to him, I would be in trouble. The elders would come to my house and have a meeting, and I would have to fall on the floor and repent and say sorry for talking to my own kid."
She remembers exactly when she quit the church.
"July 28th. I remember the day," she said.
Three of her children are still at the church. Now they shun her, she said.
"I've got grandkids now and I haven't even seen two of my grandkids — never laid eyes on them," Ackley said. "I haven't gotten to see either one of my boys get married."
The former members said that it was the Halloween night vandalism of the church that prompted them to come forward.
Anna Morris, 54, is accused along with a 14-year-old boy of vandalizing the Church at Carson City and nearby homes of church leaders.
Court records show she confessed to the crime and told police she did it because she hates the church. She has guardianship of the 14-year-old, records show.
Friends said Morris was kicked out of the church because she couldn't stop smoking cigarettes.
Police said it was her brother, who is still a member of the church, who identified her as the culprit after seeing her image captured by church surveillance cameras.
"Any one of us (former members) could have snapped and done that," said Ackley. "I'm sure probably every one of us have thought about it, but she just acted on it."
"If I was going to face some jail time, I'd do more than spray paint,” she added.
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