Jesus People USA is a religious community in Chicago where families live together and offer services to the poor and marginalized. But a host of former Jesus People residents who lived there as children are now coming forward with stories that allege this community has a dark and previously hidden past. WGLT's Judy Valente has this story, which she's also reporting for a future edition of USA Today.
When he was two years old, filmmaker Jaime Prater went to live with his parents in the Chicago religious community known as Jesus People USA. At Jesus People, dozens of families and single adults pool their financial resources and share housing in a model based on early Christian communities. Prater's parents, an inter-racial couple, moved there in 1978, seeking a safe haven for raising their children.
Prater: "In the very beginning it was like traveling witnesses for the life of Christ, telling people 'hey Jesus loves you and we want to tell you the good news.'"
Still today Jesus People offers services for the poor, the elderly and homeless in Chicago's diverse Uptown neighborhood. It is perhaps best known as the sponsor of the annual Cornerstone Music Festival, an international Christian rock concert. Six years ago, Prater decided to interview people he grew up with. He wanted to see how their lives had turned out.
Prater: "I had no idea I would open the floodgates."
But the stories poured out ...
"Where do you think God was when we were all going through the things we went through, when we were being sexually abused and physically abused, when we were lonely, when we were in the closet being tutored alone, where was He?"
That's a former Jesus People resident Angel Harold speaking at the beginning of Prater's documentary, "No Place to Call Home," which has just been released on the the website, Vimeo On Demand. Prater interviewed nearly 130 people who lived at Jesus People between 1978 and the early 1990s.
"Right now the cases of childhood sexual abuse, not just occurrences, but the cases of sexual abuse based on my research is 72, 72 cases. Can you imagine having to report half of those, can you imagine what people would think? What is this place, what is happening to all these children?"
Andy Young is a licensed clinical professional counselor who heard about Prater's film and went to the Chicago police.
Young: "They were horrified by the stories that were coming forward. One of the things they told me was, have anybody who has any information to contact them, they want people to contact them."
Since then, a lawsuit has been filed in Cook County Circuit Court against Jesus People and Evangelical Covenant Church, of which Jesus People is a member congregation. The civil claim cites Jesus People for failing to insure the safety of minors and seeks damages of $100,000 for a woman who says she endured repeated sexual abuse there.
Jesus People declined to comment on the allegations in this report. The Evangelical Covenant Church, also headquartered in Chicago, said it isn't responsible for what occurs at Jesus People. It issued a statement saying, "We care about partnership with our local congregations, but in terms of governance each local body is an independent and self-governing entity. Our member churches run themselves." Prater says he holds Jesus People's eight member leadership council responsible.
Prater: "The leadership engineered this environment of let's accept everyone into our doors. That's what set up this cocktail, this environment of cyclical sexual abuse."
Maurica Bytnar: "I just want somebody to acknowledge what would happen, stop calling everyone liars and take responsibility for it"
Maurica Bytnar says she was seven years old when the abuse started.
Bytnar: "Mostly it was forced oral sex a lot of groping and touching, and other things. There was a man on my floor and he had pets. He would invite people, invite me, to come and see these pets and it was a complete trap."
Bytnar says she was too frightened to tell. But later a troubled teenager who was assigned to room with her brother abused both her and her brother ... physically and sexually. When her brother told the community's leaders...
Bytnar: "Instead of helping us they ostracized us, removed us from contact with other children and they called him crazy essentially."
Angel Harold says it was common for children to get what was called "the rod," a spanking with a wooden stick.
Harold: "Children were given the rod for everything, for misspelling words on their spelling test for not saying yes, m'am, no m'am, yes sir, and all that. These weren't sweet little spankings, like come here and get your spanking. These were hard rods. And every time you got one, you had to sit on someone's lap and pray to Jesus to forgive you."
Harold says her parents told Jesus People's leadership that she had been fondled by a teenage boy who was also living in the community.
Harold: "And they said okay, thank you for telling us, we'll handle this internally, you don't have to worry about this anymore. At some point, they made him a school teacher and then he ended up fondling my sister."
Prater says parents were dependent on the community for their family's food and housing, but were also reluctant to take on the leadership for another reason.
Prater: "I think it's a dangerous mix when you mix religion in God with intentional communal living because then everything becomes, 'Well God wants this and we think God says that." How do you go against that?"
All of the people in Prater's documentary no longer live at the community. Maurica Bytnar says she believes some things have improved.
Bytnar: "As far as rooming children with strangers and really people you know nothing about, I know a lot of that has changed."
Many of the former Jesus People residents say there are not interested in legal battle against their former home. Here again is Angel Harold:
"I would like to see the Jesus people leaders held accountable for covering up abuses for not handling them correctly. If there is any financial gain, it's a way for us to stand together and hold hands and say we are not going to let this stay in the dark any longer. We are going to bring this to the light."
Like many of the residents, Harold says she has tried to forgive her abusers, and make peace with God. She used to ask, "Where was God?" Now she says ...
Harold: "When I was crying I think that god cried with me and when I was hurting I think He felt my pain. That's the only comfort I have."
Chicago police say they have no evidence that abuse is currently taking place at the commune. The statute of limitations has expired for prosecuting most of the cases now coming to light. Police also say they have no evidence anyone currently living in the community is a threat to children. However, since the original police report was filed, three women have come forward alleging a current pastor at Jesus People sexually abused them when they were teenagers in the late 1980s. Police say their investigation remains open.
Some 450 people still live at Jesus People USA in Chicago. "No Place to Call Home" is being released today.
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