Modesto church facing lawsuit from sexual abuse survivor

Sexual abuse victim offers reasons why she’s filing lawsuit

Jennifer Roach, the former Modesto resident who said she was sexually abused by a former youth pastor at First Baptist Church, is filing a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages.
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Jennifer Roach, the former Modesto resident who said she was sexually abused by a former youth pastor at First Baptist Church, is filing a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages.

The Modesto church that allegedly covered for sexually abusive pastors years ago faces a lawsuit from a victim.

Jennifer Roach, now 47 and living in Washington state, seeks unspecified damages for the church's alleged negligence, failure to supervise her abusive youth pastor, sexual battery and infliction of emotional distress.

Roach, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, was the focus of a Modesto Bee report in February, leading to an investigation commissioned by a Kansas City church now employing Brad Tebbutt, her abuser three decades ago.

Modesto's CrossPoint Community Church, formerly First Baptist, is not specifically named in the lawsuit, filed last week. Defendants will be added in time, says the document, whose narrative includes names of men leading the church now and since the 1970s.

They "relied on their positions of power to overwhelm and silence victims and their families" when Roach and others came forward with stories of abuse, the lawsuit says, charging that leaders "continue to pursue a policy of secrecy."

Current lead pastor Matt Whiteford arrived in Modesto long after the alleged abuse. On Friday, he said it would not be appropriate to comment on a lawsuit he knows nothing about.

"I do know that since I have been here at the church, and for many years before that, CrossPoint has had in place strong policies, practices, and procedures in place to create a safe environment," Whiteford said in an email. "CrossPoint is deeply committed to caring for and helping people within our church family and in the broader community. And we continue to weep with and pray for anyone who has been a victim of abuse or other harm."

Whiteford five weeks ago had said an investigation was pending; this week, he did not respond to a request for an update.

Roach, now an ordained Anglican minister, visited Modesto on Thursday and said she hopes the lawsuit will prompt a "cultural shift" in CrossPoint and other churches. She said they should acknowledge, "`This is part of our history and we're going to take it seriously. We've been formed and shaped by this in ways we don't understand, and we now have to be held to account for it.'

"In a way, I'm sorry the courts are the ones who have to do that," she continued. "I tried for years for (church leaders) to have a conversation with me, but they haven't. I found a new way to do that."

Decades ago, First Baptist was well aware it had a problem with some predatory adults, but "failed to implement reasonable safeguards" to prevent Tebbutt from inducing Roach into 2 1/2 years of sexual encounters, starting when she was 15, the lawsuit says.

Bee reports this year have outlined:

Allegations that then-youth pastor Les Hughey had sexual encounters with girls in his charge at First Baptist in the 1970s. In April, Hughey admitted having "sinned" at his Modesto post and resigned as senior pastor at a megachurch he had founded in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The convictions of Bob Chapman and George Austin for separately molesting several boys they met and worked with at First Baptist in the mid-1980s.

Tebbutt's abuse of Roach from 1986 to 1988.

Tebbutt, then 27 and married, befriended Roach when her father died, and took advantage of her sexually in his church office, his car and his home when she was a student at Beyer High in Modesto, Roach said. After he left town, she confided in church leaders who told her to forgive and forget and who did not advise authorities or her mother, she said.

Tebbutt confessed years ago when confronted by a First Baptist pastor, the pastor told The Bee, and Tebbutt later apologized for sexually abusing Roach in a lengthy letter to her. But circumstances of the abuse were kept under wraps and Tebbutt went on to a 30-year career in youth ministry; his latest employer, International House of Prayer of Kansas City, placed him on leave and hired an outside firm to investigate after The Bee's report.

Roach's lawsuit was filed May 24 in San Francisco because some of her interactions with Tebbutt happened there, the lawsuit says.

Statutes of limitation expired years ago, preventing criminal prosecution now.

Roach's Sacramento attorney, Joseph C. George, seeks a civil remedy based on California insurance law requiring that victims be warned in writing of applicable statutes of limitation. That requirement should have been triggered when First Baptist arranged for another youth pastor to meet with Roach for a few counseling sessions in 1989, and when she attended group therapy at the church, but she never was so advised, the lawsuit says.

First Baptist did nothing to prevent Tebbutt from abusing others, the lawsuit says; The Bee has found no evidence suggesting he did.

Hughey, however, took advantage of four more girls at Scottsdale Bible Church, the alleged victims — now women — said after The Bee chronicled allegations against Hughey in April. First Baptist leaders kept hidden the real reason he was fired four decades ago, alleged victims in Modesto said, and he went on to ministry jobs in Sonora, Madera, Monterey and Little Rock, Ark., before settling in Arizona. He is being investigated by authorities and two Arizona churches, including Highlands, which he founded 20 years ago.

First Baptist changed to CrossPoint in 2010 and remains a prominent congregation in Modesto, hosting large events such as funerals for dignitaries and fallen law enforcement officers.

When Roach first confided in church leaders, she was told that airing accusations "would cause damage to the reputation of the church and would sully the reputation of Jesus himself," the lawsuit says. A pastor asked her "if she was trying to ruin (Tebbutt's) life in some way," the document says; eventually she was put in a room with a few leaders, all men, to recount with "specific details" the abuse she suffered, the lawsuit says.

In California, child victims of sexual abuse, if they're now older than 26, serve defendants with lawsuit notices only if a judge finds "reasonable and meritorious cause" after reviewing the opinion of a mental health expert. CrossPoint would be notified should that happen with Roach's lawsuit.

Clients of Roach, a therapist near Seattle, include sexual trafficking victims and people with substance abuse problems and mental illness. She has cooperated with the Tebbutt investigation to the extent allowed by her attorney, she said.

"Investigations help people who have been through (abuse) to not feel disbelieved," she said. "A lot of church people just have no idea it's ever happened in their church, let alone any church, or how to address it, how that interfaces with someone's spirituality, and how it should be tended to. "

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390