TULSA — The mother of a teenage girl who was sexually assaulted at a south Tulsa megachurch says she believed she was doing the right thing by sending her daughter to a place where she would learn traditional Bible Belt values, but now accuses leaders of the 17,000-member congregation of attempting to manipulate the child.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the 32-year-old single mother of three said she regrets placing a blind faith in Victory Christian Center, with the hope that it could shield her children from the evils of a secular world.
"It was something positive. I was sending them to church; they were going to learn morals and values," the mother of the 13-year-old said during a 45-minute interview with The Associated Press at her workplace. "And for them to turn around and have this happen, it's just a huge slap in the face."
A church janitor, Chris Denman, 20, has pleaded guilty to raping the 13-year-old girl in a church stairwell, bringing to an end only one part of a sexual abuse scandal that engulfed the religious community in August. Five other church workers are accused of failing to report the rape allegation in a timely manner, and another janitor is accused of making a lewd proposal to a child.
Victory Christian Center is in south Tulsa, only a stone's throw from the 60-foot-high bronze sculpture of praying hands that is a city landmark.
On its website, Victory bills itself as a place of love, healing and miracles. The 31-year-old ministry has grown from a tent to a cavernous sanctuary, where sermons by head pastor Sharon Daugherty are beamed via satellite to more than 200 countries. Longtime parishioner Tim Peterson describes Victory as a place with "wonderfully dedicated, goodhearted people."
The 13-year-old's mother has sued the ministry, accusing employees of trying to cover up the abuse by not reporting the rape to the authorities while it did an in-house investigation. She says the church was more interested in damage control and attempting to make her daughter feel as if she was somehow to blame for the assault.
"They're supposed to be teaching morals and values and things like this and you find out they lie and they hide things and manipulate my daughter," she said.
The AP generally does not name victims of sexual assault and is not identifying the mother so as to not identify her daughter.
In September, after the five church employees were arrested for not reporting the abuse, the ministry issued a statement accepting blame for the delay and vowing to work with the state's Department of Human Services to audit its reporting policy.
"This failure within our organization weighs heavily on us, because our purpose is to help people and minister to their needs. Our internal response was unacceptable, and we are taking the proper steps to correct it," the statement read.
The scandal is the worst to hit the state's religious community since 2002, when a popular teacher at Grace Church in the Tulsa suburb of Broken Arrow was accused of molesting young boys. Two years ago, a teacher's aide was accused of abusing a 19-month-old girl at the John Knox Child Development Center, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian church in Tulsa of the same name and is largely considered one of the most prestigious daycares in the city.
"Those in positions of authority in religious organizations are highly revered and we have been taught since our childhood to believe those leaders can help us get closer to God, so we expect them to be more patient, more loving, more generous," said Barbara Blaine, president and founder of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "I think it's understandable that parents want to trust and believe that these church officials are above reproach, and I think that what we see time and time again is that unfortunately, they're not all of what they seem to be."
The mother had been sending two of her daughters to summer camp at Victory three times a week. It was there that her 13-year-old met Denman, a member of the church who was a temporary intern at Camp Victory and later hired as a janitor.
Then, suddenly, the girl retreated within herself.
"I sat there and watched her not eat for two weeks, watched her have a headache and a stomachache and go to bed early every day right after school, and I had no idea, no idea," the mother, sobbing, said during the interview. "Because they told her that she was a liar. Those people at church that she had put so much faith into, she referred to those people as her church family.
"Those people were family to her, and they told her she was a liar. In hindsight, I sat there and watched my child suffer and had no idea how to help her," she said.
Craig Buchan, the mother's attorney, said the girl and her family deserved better.
"Her mother knew nothing of it and then people were lied to," he said. "We have a girl that gets lost in this gap of time."
Denman pleaded guilty Oct. 29 to six felony charges, including the August rape of the 13-year-old in the stairwell before a church service, as well as molesting a 15-year-old girl and making a lewd proposal to a 12-year-old girl. He could face life in prison when he is sentenced in December.
Another ex-employee, 23-year-old Israel Castillo, is accused of making a lewd proposal to a 15-year-old girl and using a computer in an alleged sex crime. He has pleaded not guilty and is free on bond pending a Nov. 29 hearing.
Five Victory employees — including Daugherty's son and daughter-in-law — each face a misdemeanor count for not immediately reporting the rape. They all have pleaded not guilty and face hearings this month and in December.