International Churches of Christ abused, pressured members financially to the point of suicide: lawsuit

Unsplash/John-Mark Smith
Unsplash/John-Mark Smith

The International Churches of Christ, a racially diverse, and theologically conservative nondenominational body of co-operating Christian congregations, along with their affiliated organizations, have been accused in a lawsuit filed by five women in California of covering up child sexual abuse and pressuring members so much for money that some left the church and later killed themselves. 

The five women include two sisters, Darleen Diaz, 33, and Bernice Perez, 31, as well as Ashley Ruiz, 31, Salud Gonzelez, 30, and Elena Peltola, 23. All are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit first reported by Rolling Stone.

The women alleged that the ICOC along with affiliates Hope Worldwide, Mercy Worldwide, the International Christian Church and the City of Angels International Christian Church, “indoctrinated” them and kept them isolated from the outside world while they were exploited sexually and manipulated through a “rigid” system of belief.

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Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are two leaders of the church including founder Kip McKean and the estate of the late Charles “Chuck” Lucas. The women further allege that the churches and their leaders created a “system of exploitation that extracts any and all value it can from members.”

Church members the lawsuit alleges are forced to tithe 10% of their income to the church and also fund special mission trips twice yearly to the point of suicide and depression.

“If the tithing budget was not satisfied, leaders or ‘disciplers’ were forced to contribute the financial shortfall themselves, or members were required to locate the offending member who failed to tithe and sit on their porch until they arrived home in an attempt to obtain their tithe funds before Sunday evening was over,” the lawsuit says. “The pressure to comply with the church’s rigid demands was a source of anxiety and depression for many members. So much so that several ex-members committed suicide.” 

Church leaders also allegedly placed heavy recruitment demands on followers who were given quotas to convert in a bid to generate more tithing followers for the church.

In discussing their sexual abuse, the sisters Diaz and Perez, along with Ruiz, identified a man who is now a convicted pedophile, David Saracino, as abusing them at the same time. They claim that the church did nothing to protect them from the abuse.

They allege that Saracino would invite children to his house to swim but as soon as they undressed “he told the girls that they needed a bath and he used that opportunity to heavily fondle their naked bodies while they were bathing,” explains the lawsuit.

Ruiz alleged that Saracino performed oral sex on her. When the mother of the sisters eventually reported Saracino’s abuse, leaders allegedly alerted him so he could flee town before police could arrest him. The law finally caught up with him in 2012 when he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for raping a 4-year-old child.

“Even though the sexual abuse happened to me in the ICOC at around age five and robbed me of my childhood, the trauma also followed me into my adulthood, where I feel like I am always in survival mode,” Ruiz told Rolling Stone. “Having some sort of legal closure and acknowledgment about what happened to me as a child will… be tremendously helpful!”

Gonzelez said she was sexually assaulted by a Sunday School teacher for five years starting when she was 4. She was abused again in a rehab program connected to the church at the age of 15 and again when she was 17. The abuses, she said, caused her to try to end her life because the church failed to give her any help.

Peltola alleges that she was raped in 2012 by an ICOC member when she was just 13, while she was on a mission trip to Honduras. She said when she reported the rape, ICOC and Hope Worldwide leaders “victim-blamed her and called her a ‘slut’ for several months” before kicking her out of the church for being “a liability” Rolling Stone said.

“For decades, members of the ICOC/ICC and its affiliates groomed and sexually abused children as young as three years old,” Bobby Samini, an attorney for the plaintiffs told Rolling Stone in a statement. “Instead of reporting the sexual abuse to law enforcement, ‘church’ leaders shamelessly targeted and blamed the survivors, admonishing them that they ‘risked losing their salvation’ unless they forgave their abusers. The lawsuit … will expose the perpetrators at the ICOC/ICC and its affiliates who claim piety, all the while enabling the sexual abuse of children.” 

When the church was contacted for comment by The Christian Post on Tuesday, a member of the New York City branch of the church for more than three decades, who said she was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said there is no umbrella authority for the churches in the ICOC, they are only connected by their beliefs.

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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