When Robert Fenton was 26 and a youth pastor at Abide In the Vine Fellowship in Owego, New York, he told a couple that attended the church that he was drawn to their daughter and “meant to be with her.”
She was 14 at the time.
The church didn’t allow them to get married because of the age difference, but her family approved a “courtship” with the support of church leaders. There were boundaries present, and the two weren’t supposed to be alone or touch each other, but they could write letters until she was of legal age.
None of that stopped him from pursuing her. In fact, she later said she was “betrothed” to him, while her parents admitted Fenton would often “push the boundaries.” They had no idea how seriously he was doing that.
For example, at his request, they pulled her out of her public school and began homeschooling her. They were led to believe they were helping their daughter academically, but it also created an opportunity for Fenton to spend more private time with her outside of prying eyes. He started visiting their home a few times a week. That’s when the sexual assaults began. First with his fingers. Later with her hands.
When she was officially engaged to him a couple of years later—but before they were married—he made her perform oral sex on him. It wasn’t just illegal; it violated their own religious beliefs regarding abstinence before marriage.
According to another youth pastor at the church, this was a place that held very conservative, very puritanical, very misogynistic beliefs about the subject. The church believed “if a man lusted for a woman, it was the woman’s fault.” Even if the girl knew something was wrong, she likely believed she couldn’t tell church leaders what was happening because they would have blamed her.
The pastor of the church at the time, Fred Hoover, had misgivings about the relationship when he first learned about it. But according to Hoover’s son, the families persuaded him to support the plan by citing the marriage of Joseph and Mary in the Bible. Mary was much, much younger than Joseph and “how could they be against God’s will”? It was Hoover who blessed the relationship… but only when both families agreed there would be no dating or kissing before she became a legal adult. (By this point, however, he had allegedly assaulted her many times over.)
A couple of weeks before the wedding was supposed to take place, Fenton got sick with pancreatitis and went to the hospital. He soon called off the wedding and told the girl that marrying her would “ruin his ministry.” After his recovery, he moved to Australia.
That was in 1998.
He’s been in Australia ever since.
In 2019, more than 20 years after all this happened, the victim informed law enforcement about what had taken place when she was a child. She also gave investigators the names of other church members and leaders who could corroborate her story… which they did over the course of several months.
This week, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced that Fenton had been charged with sexual assault.
“The defendant used his power and authority in his religious community to lie, manipulate and regularly abuse a young girl in his community. I promised we would hold anyone who was abusing children accountable – and Robert Fenton is no exception,” said Attorney General Shapiro. “Survivors experience a lifetime of anguish and trauma trying to overcome the impact of abuse. I want survivors to know – we believe you, and we will not let predators get away with the sexual assault of children.”
It’s not just one charge of assault either:
Fenton has been charged with Indecent Assault of a Person under 16, Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercouse with a Person Under 16, Aggravated Indecent Assault, Corruption of Minors, and Statutory Sexual Assault.
Shapiro says his office will work with the U.S. Justice and State departments to get Fenton extradited from Australia, where he resides in Queensland, so that he can be arrested and tried over here.
Whether the charges will lead to prison time for Fenton remains to be seen. But it’s incredible how many people blessed a relationship that never should have been permitted. The victim’s parents, the pastor, and the other church leaders were all fine with them being together when they believed sex would only come after the wedding. The idea of an underage girl “betrothed” to a youth pastor nearly twice her age didn’t seriously bother them because they sincerely thought God approved.
Fenton used the Bible to abuse everyone’s trust. I can’t even imagine what his victim has gone through, carrying these memories for decades, until something compelled her to finally come forward and reveal her past. And even now, Fenton remains at large, overseas, possibly protected by a new church and the luxury of distance.
While he’s solely responsible for his alleged actions, will there be any sort of punishment for people like Fred Hoover? He still works at the church as a senior pastor and president of their “School of Ministry.” What sort of religious leader could ever think a fellow staffer could just call dibs on a child in the congregation?! What business does he have educating future religious leaders?!
It’s just utterly despicable, faith-based lunacy from all the adults involved here who knew the extent of this relationship even if they weren’t aware of the sexual abuse. None of them will face any serious repercussions for it, and who knows if Fenton will either.
But consider the courage of the victim for not letting the passage of time stop her from telling her story. Whatever happens to Fenton, let’s hope it encourages other victims to also speak out.