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For at least a year starting in the spring of 2019, a teenager at Immanuel Reformed Presbyterian Church in West Lafayette, Indiana abused a number of children in the church. He touched them over and under their clothes, including acts of sexual abuse and penetration. These incidents were so numerous, investigators learned, that they found upwards of 15 possible victims.

And yet when word of all this reached Pastor Jared Olivetti (the head of the church) along with his elders, they effectively blocked the damning details from reaching other members of the congregation.

What happened at Immanuel Reformed Presbyterian Church?

A separate investigation by Holly Hays of the Indianapolis Star last December found that the culprit was related to Olivetti and that the pastor took “advantage of his position as a leader to interfere with the investigation.”

In a July 2020 meeting, Olivetti told the pastor of a neighboring church he and his elder board – referred to as the session – were going to hide the allegations from higher authorities in the denomination. While session notes would typically be shared with the Presbytery each year, notes pertaining to these incidents, Olivetti said, would not be. 

“We’re not sending a report up,” Olivetti said during the conversation, an audio recording of which was obtained by IndyStar. “It’s not going to be in our regular session minutes. It’s going to be in a different (record).” 

It took another year before the child was found “delinquent” (a.k.a. “guilty”) by a juvenile court on multiple counts of child molestation. But even up until that time, church members were never told about the allegations or even that their own children could be victims. One family, the Indianapolis Star said, wasn’t even told that the perpetrator touched their own child until seven months after the boy confessed.

How could that possibly have happened? It arguably could not have happened without the cooperation of other church leaders who were more interested in defending the reputation and image of Olivetti, a charismatic leader who helped raise membership numbers in their church, than protecting the families who gave their time, money, and spiritual lives over to the faith.

The investigations into the abuse

An investigation did eventually occur… but only after a handful of congregants demanded one from the Great Lakes-Gulf Presbytery, the governing body overseeing the church. That report from March of 2021, obtained by the Star, flat-out admitted that Olivetti used his influence to shape the church’s response, that church leaders failed to consider the safety of members, and called for all six church leaders (Olivetti and the five elders) to resign. But that was merely a recommendation.

Another investigation that church leaders were involved with offered a much more minimal solution: Identify the perpetrator publicly and have Olivetti take a two-month break from the pulpit.

Olivetti didn’t go along with it, offering a series of excuses as to why it was better for the perpetrator’s name to stay hidden and why that child should be given a chance to repent. The elders, unable to stand up to Olivetti, went along with it.

The congregation was eventually told the broad strokes of the allegations and that, if they suspected their own kids were victims, they should speak with a church leader (and not secular authorities). But the perpetrator himself faced no penalties at the time. In fact, he was still allowed to work with children at the church largely because no one knew he was the one molesting other children.

The aftermath for those affected by the church leaders’ neglect

This past January, Olivetti was finally placed on leave pending the result of a church trial. Three of the elders (Keith Magill, Ben Larson, and David Carr) also faced ecclesiastical charges. Two other elders resigned last year and their charges were dropped. But less than two weeks later, Olivetti and those three elders announced their resignations. Whether they will ever be allowed to hold leadership positions in a church again will depend on the results of their trials, which are ongoing.

The reason all of this matters now is because the former and remaining members of the church are left to reckon with all the damage caused by their leaders. Hays just wrote another follow-up piece focused on a couple of the families whose spiritual lives have been flipped upside-down as a result of this ongoing crisis. (The piece is behind a paywall, but go subscribe to the Indianapolis Star because this journalism is worth it.) While their own children were not victims, they were lied to by their leaders and left in the dark as so many of these incidents were occurring around them.

Candace Bright, whose husband was a deacon at the church before he resigned in response to the mishandling of the abuse investigation, was one of those people who did her best to demand more transparency and honesty from the church leaders… only to have them ignore her requests. She said the church discouraged “gossiping”… which turned out to be an easy way to prevent the congregation from spreading stories about the abuse.

Another couple (Maggy and JJ Nance) even visited Olivetti’s home to discuss the situation… only to have him rebuke them for “participating in gossip.” Even when they finally realized they needed to walk away from this church, there was one final act of emotional abuse from one of its leaders.

In an Aug. 9, 2021, letter, a copy of which was provided to IndyStar, elder David Carr and provisional moderator Ken de Jong warned the Nances that not being members of a congregation was “a spiritually dangerous place to be.”

“We are deeply saddened that you have thereby separated yourself from the visible church,” the letter reads, “outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”

To put that another way, if they left the church over its mishandling of sexual abuse, they risked being tortured in Hell for all of eternity.

What we can learn from all this

Keep in mind that the Nances had only been members of the church for a couple of years. The betrayal, they said, must be much worse for the members who had been there for far longer. And that right there is the power the church held over its members. Its leaders used their titles and their supposed authority on biblical teaching to sweep abuse allegations under a rug while sending a clear message to church members that there was nothing worth investigating.

The amount of bravery it takes to stand up to church leaders like this is simply incredible. It’s never easy to challenge religious authority, much less walk away from a church and demand they remove you from their membership rolls. And yet there have been far too many stories over the years of religious institutions turning a blind eye to abuse, hoping no one notices the problem or associates the abuse with the faith.

Unless it’s investigated and publicly exposed, it’s never going to change. The only reason the public is aware of the scope of the cover-up here is because of dogged reported by a local journalist and repeated pushback from lay members of the congregation. Had the leaders of the church gotten the final say, there’s no telling how many more victims would have suffered or how much longer the abuse would have continued.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.