Teen said Modesto pastor abused her. Church 'swept it under the rug'

The Modesto Bee/February 24, 2018 Updated March 01, 2018

By Garth Stapley

The 27-year-old married youth pastor in Modesto consoled the troubled girl, whose father had just died. Eventually, he kissed her. Then he fondled her.

She was 14.

Over the next 2 1/2 years, Brad Tebbutt sexually abused Jennifer Graves in his office at First Baptist Church, a prominent Modesto congregation, and in his car. After school, before his wife returned from work, he would have sex with her in his home, she said.

At the end of her junior year at Beyer High School, in 1988, Tebbutt and his wife moved away. A recent publication boasts of his 30-year career as a youth pastor, and he now works in a seniors ministry for the International House of Prayer of Kansas City.

How Tebbutt kept his jobs at churches and religious schools, in Oregon and Missouri, is unknown. Interview requests submitted to several known employers and former employers mostly have gone unanswered.

It’s clear that soon after the abuse ended, First Baptist leaders knew.

A few months after Tebbutt left town, the girl confided in another youth pastor, who told then-high school pastor Marvin Jacobo, who has led a long and distinguished ministry both at the church and at a respected religious nonprofit group in Modesto.

Jacobo recently confirmed that he had called Tebbutt after the girl came forward all those years ago, and said Tebbutt confessed to him. Jacobo then contacted Tebbutt’s wife and his boss at the time, he said.

Tebbutt refused multiple interview requests made via telephone and email, and Jacobo would respond only in writing, sidestepping some questions.

The current lead pastor at First Baptist – which changed to CrossPoint Community Church in 2010 – arrived long after church leaders were rocked in private by this sex scandal, as well as two others where adult volunteers molested several boys, in the 1980s.

Enough boys shared their stories with authorities to convict the two men, although a delay in reporting allowed one to prey on more boys at another church down the road, court documents say.

But Tebbutt’s victim – still a teenager, when she finally came forward – was told to forgive and forget.

Church leaders never informed her mother. They never went to police. They termed it an affair, she said.

“They gave me specific directions to never speak of the events to anyone, because it would damage the reputation of the church, and of Jesus himself,” she said. “The abuse was swept under the rug.”

Two friends from those days who also attended First Baptist, Deborah Jules Vilmur and Jennifer Vanderpol Tracz, recently confirmed that she had confided in them about the abuse not long after it happened.

Jennifer Graves Roach turned 47 on Feb. 25. She lives in the Seattle area with her husband and teenage son. Since those days in Modesto, Roach has been ordained in the Anglican Church, she’s earned college degrees and she now counsels sexual abuse victims, among other clients, in a religious therapy group near her home.

And she’s become a silence breaker.

The #MeToo movement has revealed heartbreaking stories of people in positions of power abusing others, and now has offshoots such as #ChurchToo and #MosqueMeToo.

Abusers and enabling church leaders, Roach said, “don’t get to be the only voice in what it means to have faith. They don’t get to steer this ship entirely on their own. The people they’re harming, they deserve better.”

Light on a hill

First Baptist, now CrossPoint, has served many years as Modesto’s go-to for prominent funerals, including a 2003 memorial service for murder victim Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner. The downtown church, on 12th Street, also has opened its doors to services for downed law enforcement, including CHP officer Earl Scott, Ripon Police Officer Bob Winget and Stanislaus Deputy Sheriff Jason Garner. Gov. Jerry Brown attended the funeral of Deputy Dennis Wallace at CrossPoint in 2016.

The Modesto Bee’s archive cites church membership exceeding 3,000 in years past. Lead pastor Matt Whiteford says it’s more than 1,000 these days.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, First Baptist Church was “my whole world, in a lot of ways,” recalled Roach, who attended Sunday services, midweek youth activities and summer camp. “I loved it. It was a second family to me.”

When her father died in a car accident, her mother had trouble coping with three teen children. Roach often was depressed as well, she said, and thought about harming herself. She brightened when the youth pastor in charge of Beyer High paid her attention. She thought her prayers had been answered when Tebbutt and his wife invited her to stay in their apartment, at first overnight, then indefinitely.

“They saved me from a difficult situation at home,” Roach said. “There was lots of affirmation; ‘You’re a special case,’ he would tell me. ‘You’re the prettiest, the smartest, the funniest’ – things you would tell someone to get them to trust you. I absolutely was groomed for abuse.”

Sexual encounters went on for 2 1/2 years, she said. “He became my entire emotional support, and I was this vulnerable, depressed, anxious girl who had just lost her dad and couldn’t get along with her mom and had no other options. At that age, I didn’t feel I had other choices, and he took advantage of that.”

Roach wondered why she didn’t become pregnant. After marrying, she didn’t conceive for five years. “Fertility doesn’t come easy to me,” she said.

When Tebbutt left town, she remained silent for six months. Reading Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in her senior year at Beyer, a dark work about terrible secrets, prompted her to confide in another youth pastor during a youth activity at the former Roller King.

“I knew she was sad a lot. I could tell she was carrying something heavy. So I just asked her what was going on,” said Scott Mills. “I imagine she was at the point of having to tell somebody or implode. You have to get that out somehow.”

Mills later started and pastored his own church in Modesto, Three Rivers Christian Fellowship, for 14 years before leaving in 2013 for a career in marketing.

“Knowing what I do about life and kids and parents and peer influence and hurt and pain and damage, it grieves me greatly,” Mills said. “Not only what happened to her, but that she didn’t feel she had the support she needed. Looking back, I’m pained by the lack of appropriate response.”

It’s not the sin. It’s the cover-up

What was the church’s response?

“They completely and entirely mishandled the situation,” Roach said. “At first, they didn’t believe me. At subsequent meetings they kept asking me if I wanted to take my story back. They asked if I was just doing this for attention.

“At one point they put me in a room with four or five adult men and they asked me to describe with specific words what had happened. And I was a 17-year-old girl.

“They failed to tell my mom. I was a minor and they kept it from my family. They should have reported it to police and they didn’t. They told me never to speak about this again.”

In those days and until he retired in 1991, Bill Yaeger was senior pastor at First Baptist; he died in 2005. After Yaeger, Wade Estes led the church until giving the reins to Whiteford in late 2009, and it was renamed CrossPoint shortly after.

“I have zero first-hand knowledge of this,” Whiteford said in a recent phone interview.

Asked about clergy abuse in general, he said, “We believe every person is created in God’s image and is deeply loved by God. We believe people should be free of any kind of abuse, which is why we are constantly working toward greater accountability and security. It breaks my heart that anyone could be abused in any context.

“It’s important that victims be believed,” Whiteford continued, “and that they speak up, to protect from other abuse.”

CrossPoint now does background and fingerprinting checks on its 27-person staff plus volunteers working with children, and requires them to go through abuse prevention training every two years.

By the time Roach sought help in early 1989, it’s possible that church leaders were suffering from scandal fatigue.

Child molesters in church

A year before Tebbutt left Modesto, Bob Chapman, then 53, pleaded guilty to molesting 13-year-old boys he met at First Baptist.

Chapman, a church organist, was entrusted to hold meetings of groups of boys in his Modesto home, said one of them, Larry Spencer. One time, Chapman hosted a sleepover. The evening discussion was about puberty and masturbation, Spencer said. Then they watched movies and drifted off to sleep.

“I woke up in the middle of the night with him (Chapman) touching me,” Spencer said. “I freaked out. I didn’t know if I should tell anybody, so of course I didn’t. I really can’t tell you why, if it was out of shame or something. How do you tell somebody, ‘Hey, this guy was touching me’?”

Chapman and his family were good friends with and lived close to Spencer’s foster family, he said. Chapman continued molesting him, in the car while giving him rides home from church, and in the swimming pool during youth activities, Spencer said. In all, he was abused maybe 10 times over a couple of years, he said.

One day, Spencer was in the attic installing the top end of a ceiling fan. He peered through the ceiling hole into a room and saw Chapman grab another boy, he said.

“I said, ‘Enough’s enough. This guy’s going to screw somebody else up,’” Spencer said, and the story came out. His foster parents were “mad as hell at me, for exposing it and bringing them some sort of shame,” he said.

“I was not very happy with First Baptist, either,” Spencer said. “They kind of pushed me aside as well. I had been extremely involved, at every activity. After I talked about Bob, I was kind of an outcast.”

Boys in the group were questioned, and Chapman was charged in Stanislaus County Superior Court with abusing Spencer and two others. “We were all saying, ‘Fry him; give him as much time as you can,’” Spencer said. A negotiated deal ended with Chapman pleading guilty to two counts of child molestation in return for a 300-day term in County Jail.

Yaeger spoke on Chapman’s behalf at his sentencing.

Roach finds that image “so sad and depressing. It’s as if he is saying to the parents of the church, ‘If something happens to your kid here, we will not take your side.’ It’s the typical Christian thing of forgive the abuser and blame the victim.”

Spencer wonders how his life might have been different if he hadn’t been violated.

“I think it screwed up my relationships, my ability to have a decent relationship. But I can’t swear that’s the reason. It could be from other things in my past,” said Spencer, who grew up a foster child, married three times and now lives in the Dominican Republic running an English-speaking call center.

Violating trust

About the time of Chapman’s conviction, George Austin, a retired California Highway Patrol officer and Sunday School teacher at First Baptist, was molesting boys as well. Court documents indicate that someone got the idea something was going on.

“When (Austin) became suspected of molest at the First Baptist Church and was sent on his way, he then went to the Orangeburg Baptist Church, where he was a youth leader and where he then molested” two brothers multiple times, said then-prosecutor John Goulart, according to a court transcript. The brothers were 7 and 11, a charging document said.

Goulart, now on Modesto City Hall’s legal team, doesn’t remember specifics. “Most likely, it would have been the parents of victims who would have told me that the First Baptist Church discovered the molests, (dismissed) Austin and allowed him to move on to another church where he was in a position to commit more molests,” Goulart said in a recent email.

Austin had taken boys on trips to his former patrol office, to Santa Cruz, to Great America, and camping in the mountains. “These boys were looking up to this man as a father figure, a youth leader, a retired CHP officer, someone they trusted,” Goulart said in the transcript. “He put himself in a position where he could molest the boys.”

Court documents suggest Austin had about 10 victims in all. One spoke when he was sentenced for 12 counts of child molestation, including oral copulation.

“It’s a lot to live with, knowing you’re molested,” the young man said, according to a transcript. “It’s a hell of a lot. He was like a father figure to me. For a long time there I called him ‘Dad,’ even though he was molesting me. He was still the only father figure I ever had in my life.

“He left a very damaging scar. I just wanted to say that I feel he has damaged all of our lives, and I trust you to decide. Amen.”

The judge gave Austin a 28-year sentence. Now 80, he lives in a care home for the elderly in Modesto.

A Modesto man who was part of the boys group at First Baptist, but who was not molested, said, “I remember we were pretty shocked” to learn of the abuse. “But leadership dealt with it well. I didn’t feel they tried to cover anything up.” He asked not to be identified.

Saving face, not grace

The revelation in 1989 that a youth pastor had been sexually abusing a girl in his youth group may have come on the heels of the Chapman and Austin cases.

That alone doesn’t explain why the church reacted the way it did, said Christa Brown, who has been writing about Baptist clergy abuse for 12 years. Long ago, at age 17, she was forced to apologize to the wife of the pastor who had abused her, and much of her work focuses on the powerful “institution that tried to silence me.”

Roach’s story “fits that pattern perfectly of what we’ve seen in so many other Baptist clergy cases,” Brown said, where victims are “shamed, blamed and slammed all over again.”

“Hundreds of victims have told me that when they tried to make a report within the faith community, it seemed even worse than the damage of the abuse itself,” Brown said. “The church culture enables these coverups. The notion that you better forgive and the grace of God will redeem him is lovely sounding in the abstract, but it can get twisted to be enabling. There need to be consequences for cover-uppers.”

Annette Rees, who has prosecuted abuse crimes in Stanislaus County for 16 years, is heartened when churches lovingly support a victim through the difficult process of reporting and testifying against abusers. On the other hand, it’s not unusual for church leaders to circle the wagons when a member has been victimized, she said.

“I’ve had victims’ parents tell me, ‘We don’t want anything done. The church is going to help us.’ And they don’t let her be interviewed” by law enforcement, Rees said. “The hardest part (of the job) is cases we can’t go forward on. Those are the ones that keep you up at night.”

Mills said, “The bigger an organization is, the more difficult it is to see the needs of individuals. The needs of the organization begin to take precedence.”

Brown and others have opined on the public-sermon confession of Andy Savage, a pastor at a Memphis megachurch who 20 years earlier had driven a high school girl to a secluded area and had her perform oral sex. After being outed and apologizing during a Jan. 5 worship service, some in the audience gave him a standing ovation, but resulting backlash forced him to take a leave of absence pending a church investigation. A Christian publisher canceled Savage’s book, “The Ridiculously Good Marriage,” to be released this year; he wrote another on marriage two years ago.

Another pastor, Larry Cotton, was caught in the wake and resigned from his Texas church a few days ago. When the girl, Jules Woodson, had confided in him back in 1998, Cotton reportedly told her to keep quiet.

“Damage and devastation”

“Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim,” said Rachael Denhollander in a recent interview with Christianity Today. She was the first to accuse Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor who abused hundreds of girls and was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.

“There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings,” continued Denhollander, who said she was shunned by her congregation when she went public. “It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.”

Tebbutt can’t be prosecuted, local authorities said, because the statute of limitations for such crimes has long since expired.

In his recent letter to The Bee, Jacobo, now executive director of City Ministry Network in Modesto, said he didn’t go to Modesto police about Tebbutt 30 years ago because Roach “did not want to press charges. We wanted to honor her wishes in that and begin her process of healing.”

Like teachers, child care workers and others, clergy are mandated reporters, required to tell law enforcement when they come across or suspect abuse. But clergy weren’t added to the list of occupations, now 46 long, until 1997, eight years after Roach exposed Tebbutt to church leaders.

At the time, Roach accepted Tebbutt’s “direct apology,” Jacobo said, and “seemed satisfied with the process and the results. I feel like we did everything we knew to do in addressing it. If she now feels this was insufficient, then we sincerely apologize.”

Roach called that “a ‘sorry-she-got-her-feelings-hurt’ apology.”

It’s true that church leaders scripted an arranged meeting a few years after the abuse ended, where Tebbutt said he was sorry and she was pressured to accept the apology, she said.

The fallout for Tebbutt, if any, is unclear.

“There were no allegations of sexual misconduct against Brad that we were aware of at the time he was hired,” said Randy Shaw, field director with the Christian and Missionary Alliance Northwest in Oregon, where Tebbutt worked from 1999 to 2004.

At some point, Tebbutt went through an “18-month repentance and restoration process” with a psychologist, according to a note recently sent to Roach from his church in Missouri, Forerunner Christian Fellowship. He “continues to express deep sadness and sorrow over his actions,” wrote Dale Anderson, the church’s director of pastoral support.

Tebbutt’s other known employers over the years, having been informed of Roach’s story, failed to respond to multiple requests for information. They include Horizon Community Church and Horizon Christian School, near Portland, where he was a chaplain and teacher, and the International House of Prayer of Kansas City, where Tebbutt now works; a spokesman referred The Bee’s sister company, The Kansas City Star, to IHOPKC’s media policy, which reads: “We will not give out sensitive information.”

A few months ago, the publishing arm of MorningStar Ministries released a DVD of a conference featuring several presenters, including Tebbutt, called “Motivated by Love.” The company’s founder and executive director, Rick Joyner, declined to comment.

Tebbutt’s latest position is director of the Simeon Internship, a three-month training program for people 50 and older at the International House of Prayer of Kansas City. Multiple calls to his office went unanswered; in an email, Tebbutt asked if he should submit a statement, then went silent for three weeks.

“I sexually abused you”

Tebbutt did reach out to Roach in 2005 with a lengthy letter, apparently as an exercise in repentance; it arrived in an envelope bearing the name of a Christian therapy group in Oregon. The Bee obtained a copy.

“Let me state clearly that regardless of how this has been treated in the past, I understand that I sexually abused you,” one part reads. “There are hurts that you should have never experienced, and they were not yours to own. I grieve over this.”

Most victims of sexual abuse would love to receive such a letter admitting guilt, said Roach. While she specializes in substance abuse among the mentally ill, she also counsels souls broken in prostitution.

Roach questions the hypocrisy in preaching virtue while violating a teen girl for 2 1/2 years, then continuing in ministry for three decades.

“If you touch kids, you’ve taken yourself out of the pile of people that get to call themselves ministers. You’ve disqualified yourself,” she said. “If you want to make money off your degree, go write a book or do something else. You do not deserve to be in charge of vulnerable people who are looking to you for guidance.”

What about the bedrock Christian principle of forgiveness?

“It’s not something that can be forced,” Roach said. “Some days I have really great days and I feel like, yeah, I forgive Marvin, I forgive the church, I forgive Brad, I forgive all those people who covered this up.

“Then there are other days where that’s not where I am at all, and I’m actually OK with that. I don’t have to be a Christian machine who acts (through) programming. I get to have my own human experience with this. If anything, that would be my message to other people who have gone through this: `You get to go through this how you (decide), not as somebody else tells you to. You forgive when and how and where you forgive.’”

1987 — First Baptist Church, Modesto. Adult volunteer Bob Chapman is convicted of molesting two teen boys in 1983. Sentence: 300 days.

1990 — First Baptist Church and Orangeburg Avenue Baptist Church, both Modesto. Adult volunteer George Austin is convicted of molesting four boys, 11 through 14, from 1987 to 1989. Sentence: 28 years.

1993 — Various Catholic churches. Priest Oliver O’Grady, who had served in Turlock, Hughson and elsewhere, begins seven-year term for abusing some 25 children over many years. Stockton Diocese pays $12 million civil settlements. Deported to Ireland; later is sentenced to three years for child pornography.

2003 — Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Turlock. Priest Oscar Pelaez is convicted of molesting a boy, 13, in 1997. Sentence: three years, three months; Diocese pays $1 million civil settlement.

2008 — Church of Christ, Oakdale. Jerry Franklin Johnson of Riverbank is convicted of molesting a boy and seven girls, all church members, over 27 years. Sentence: 10 years.

2009 — First Congregational Church, Salida. Youth pastor Timothy Ryan Jamison is convicted of molesting a 4-year-old boy in a home where he rented a room. Sentence: three years, eight months.

2009 — St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Hughson. Priest Leo Suarez is removed for having abused a girl in 1991.

2012 — Various Catholic churches. Priest Michael Kelly, who had served in Modesto, Ceres and elsewhere, flees to Ireland during a civil trial with allegations that he molested several children over many years. Diocese pays $3.75 million civil settlement. Criminal indictment is dropped in 2014 when accuser dies.

2014 — Bethel Church (Assembly of God), Oakdale. Youth pastor Tyler David Bliss is convicted of child pornography. Sentence: five years.

2015 — Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Turlock. Adult volunteer Eduardo Arellano Sanchez is convicted of sexually abusing three boys, 11 through 13. Sentence: 28 years.

2018 — Various Catholic churches. Priest Eduardo Perez, who also served in Ceres, Oakdale and Riverbank, faces allegations that he sexually abused a child in 1999 in Modesto.

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