SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Three women filed lawsuits Wednesday alleging sexual abuse by multiple clergymen at Living Word Fellowship churches in California over more than a decade.
The women said a viral social media post from October 2018 gave them the courage to speak out.
Amber Thompson said the abuse started in Los Angeles at the age of 4. "Their attacks continue to haunt me every single day," she said, her voice shaking.
The lawsuit describes her as a 7-year-old girl at a church bonfire without her parents, in the company of clergymen, being picked up and taken to a bathroom inside the sanctuary and molested, then taken into the sanctuary and raped.
The lawsuit details health issues like urinary tract infections and the fear to use the restroom at school. It states she was raped nine more times on church property before turning 10 years old. She was also abused by her swim coach, according to the documents. Children complained to church leaders about the swim coach, but they were ignored, the lawsuit says.
A youth pastor was also named as an alleged perpetrator, stating he wrestled with young girls, including Thompson, and touched their private parts.
The document states yet another clergyman would make Thompson sleep in the living room when she had sleepovers with his daughter. During the night, the document states he would molest her, masturbate in front of her and make her touch him.
Anaiah Shehori said there are more victims, "there are hundreds of children over decades, literally decades and decades who have been abused."
The lawsuit states Shehori was a server for a church party where she was told to wear a mini-skirt and was groped by the clergymen. The document also states she molested by multiple clergymen as a young teen and asked to tell them about her sex life.
She was told she was too sexy to perform functions on the stage during service and that she distracted the women's husbands.
Lindsey Weck described the hierarchy that allowed the abuse to continue, "I was assigned as all children were a designated relationship or a spiritual parent who is to monitor and control every aspect of my life."
"He groomed me into thinking he cared about me in a loving personal way and by the time I was 14, he started having a sexual relationship with me," she said.
The lawsuit stated they had a sexual relationship for two years, stopped and started again when she was 17. Her mother found out and went to church leadership, who told her not to contact police.
Shehori said the abuse became emotional and mental when she tried to get out of the organization. She said many families have split, some divorcing, trying to leave the church, calling it a cult.
The women joined together to "publicly denounce this twisted religious organization that calls itself a church," Thompson said.
"Anybody who is listening and still there and stuck, you have support from every single one of us and it is possible to leave," Shehori said.
To the parents, Thompson had this emotional message "watch for the signs, look for the signs and get them out of there as soon as possible."
The Pentecostal church started in 1965 and spread through California, east to Iowa and, according to lawyers who filed the lawsuits, down to Brazil.
The church posted these responses in November 2018, according to the law firm:
We take seriously any reports of mistreatment of our staff, congregation or visitors within the Living Word Fellowship of churches, and we strongly condemn sexual harassment and misconduct of any kind. Such damaging activity should never take place, period, let alone in any church location, and yet we have received credible reports of such inappropriate behavior. As leaders of a fellowship, we recognize that any such occurrence without a strong and immediate response could produce a systemic problem within our church culture, so leadership practices must be addressed.
As a result, we are heartbroken over this, and we deeply apologize to anyone who has been hurt by a member of our pastoral team and by leaders who knew you were hurt but did not properly respond to inappropriate behavior.
We know that no apology can truly make up for such hurts, and that’s why we are taking decisive action. We have already removed leaders who have been involved in misconduct or did not call out or sufficiently address such issues.
In particular, Rick Holbrook is no longer involved in any aspect of leadership or involvement with The Living Word Fellowship, and he will not be allowed back as either a minister, leader, or member of a congregation of The Living Word Fellowship. We are also taking a deep, critical look at our leadership organization—in both structure and specific personnel—and we are taking steps toward necessary changes.
Know that we are taking this very seriously, and we are emboldened that this is the Lord’s church—He will hold us accountable if we do not address these issues. Therefore, our first response is deep repentance and prayerfully seeking the Lord. We are also engaging outside professional advisors to investigate how such situations were allowed to occur and provide us with direction to change the culture that permitted this, and to develop safeguards to prevent misconduct and abuse from occurring ever again.
In addition, we are reaching out to those negatively impacted by this behavior, to offer our apologies as well as counseling with outside professionals.
We believe that as damaging and hurtful as these revelations have been to our fellowship, this has caused us to take a serious look at our policies, procedures, and leadership culture. As a result, we believe this is a new day for The Living Word Fellowship, and our greatest priority now is to help all who have been hurt and see the power of God bring healing and restoration.