Cult survivor reported church in 1999

Stories of child abuse and the Jefferson Apostolic Faith Church continue to surface

Star Beacon/May 26, 2005
By Shelley Terry

Six years ago, a cult-survivor advocate told social workers about child abuse at the hands of the Apostolic Faith Church in Jefferson Township, to no avail.

Liz Shaw works at the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, where people are helped to recover from coercive persuasion. In October 1999, she became acquainted with Ruth Chestnut of Virginia and soon learned a disturbing tale of child abuse at the hands of the people who should be most loving to children: their church elders.

Chestnut said Oree Keyes, pastor of the Apostolic Faith Church, was in violation of child labor laws and overseeing the abuse of children as young as 5 years old. Oree, now retired, is the father of current pastor Charles Keyes.

Chestnut feared for the safety and welfare of her grandchildren.

According to Chestnut’s written statement, when children were 5 to 7 years old, they had no choice but to work at Keyes’ two scrapyards. The facilities were dangerous, she said, with unsafe objects on the floor and walls. She said ventilation was very poor, and the facilities lacked any bathrooms. Many accidents took place, including burns, puncture wounds and knocked-out teeth, she said.

“Many of these injuries are not treated professionally, to prevent outside disclosure,” Chestnut said. “There are no safety devices, such as helmets, gloves or eyeshields. Many have burned holes in their skin.”

For discipline, the children were whipped with tubing across their backs, she said.

“These children are taught the job is their salvation,” she said. “If they do not work, the Lord will not bless them. They work long hours. If they fall asleep, they are whipped.”

Shaw took Chestnut’s claims seriously and contacted Dale Griffiths, a private investigator in Tiffin. He launched an investigation and said he discovered criminal activity and child abuse. However, he didn’t get far with local law-enforcement authorities.

“People have trouble looking at a church. … They say, ‘This is a church, and we don’t want to do anything,’ or ‘Oree Keyes wouldn’t do anything like that,’” Griffiths said. “I wasn’t a police officer. … I wasn’t from the area.”

Dianne Solembrino, executive director of Ashtabula County Children Services, said she remembers the reports of abuse at Keyes’ scrapyards. Without looking at past files, she couldn’t say what had happened.

Shaw finds it all very disturbing.

“God knows how much suffering these children have endured,” she said. “This is serious; the authorities must take action.”

The work sites, Ashtabula Metal Recycling, 2701 N. Bend Road, Ashtabula, and another scrapyard at 618 Route 6, Andover, were run by a dozen or so church members, including the church’s current pastor, Charles Keyes, and his brother Robert and Ralph Clark.

Today, Ralph Clark is in jail, charged with the brutal murder of his wife, Carolyn Clark, who made disturbing accusations against the church shortly before her death. She said in an affidavit that her husband was under the “mind control” of Charles Keyes.

She also claimed:

  • She and her husband were beaten by other church members;
  • She was forced to have sex with church leader Charles Keyes; and
  • The church was responsible for the physical and sexual abuse of children.

Griffiths said, although it may be difficult to believe, there are 5,000 cults in the United States today. In fact, the cult problem is so prevalent, the chances of a family member joining a cult are greater than a family member’s catching chicken pox, four times greater than contracting AIDS and 90 times greater than contracting measles, according to Wellspring’s Web site.

Robert Keyes, now spokesman for the church, has denied there is anything cult-like about the church. To the contrary, he said the church family is loving and hardworking. Carolyn Clark was the manipulator, he said, upset she could not have her way.

Two of Carolyn’s siblings who remain in the church also defended the group.

Aaron Clark, 18, said his mother left the church because “she didn’t get her own way.”

Robert Keyes said the congregation numbers about 275, meeting four times a week at the church. Many of the members also work at church businesses, like a car detailing shop on State Road and a beauty shop on Griggs Road, with one goal in mind: to build a new church at the corner of Griggs Road and Route 46.

Scrapyards were not mentioned as church businesses.

The Star Beacon could not find a telephone number for the Route 6 location, and Ashtabula Metal Recycling on North Bend Road is now called Ashtabula Motors Recycling, which appears to be a commercial warehouse owned by Raymond H. Keyes, according to the Ashtabula County Auditor’s Web site. The telephone number of that business remained busy Wednesday.

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