Victims Allege a Cult Culture of Pervasive Sexual Abuse of Children by Church Leadership
San Diego, CA– Three separate civil lawsuits, two in San Diego Superior Court, and one in Los Angeles Superior Court were filed today by the Zalkin Law Firm on behalf of three victims of alleged childhood sexual abuse while members of the Living Word Fellowship Church. Amber Thompson, Anaiah Shehori, and Lindsey Weck allege that they were repeatedly sexually assaulted by Church leaders when they were underage minors. Amber and Lindsey were abused while attending a Living Word Fellowship Church in San Diego. Anaiah was abused while her family was affiliated with two Living Word Fellowship Churches, one in North Hollywood and the other in North Hills, California.
“Amber, Anaiah, and Lindsey are three of what may be hundreds of children, now adults, who were abused by dozens of Fellowship leaders including those at the highest level of the organization,” said Irwin Zalkin, attorney for the Plaintiffs. “This is a story of an insular communal cult in our community that was led by male pedophile predators who used their positions of power to subjugate women and prey on children, ruining their lives forever."
Three Plaintiffs as Children
Plaintiff Amber Thompson alleges that she was sexually molested and assaulted by six different male predators including her Pastor, members of the Fellowship’s governing body known as the Apostolic Company (APCO), and youth group leaders. Her lawsuit explains how her sexual abuse began at the age of 4 in the North Hills, CA location. It then continued at age 7, when she was raped at a church event by an adult church member in the San Diego, CA location. Those rapes continued from 7 to 10 years old. Additionally, between the ages of 7 and 12, she was molested by the local church pastor, a youth swimming instructor, a known serial predator who was a high-level official and member of APCO, and another member of APCO who was visiting the local church from Brazil. As a teenager, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a perpetrator who served as a youth pastor at the local church. The lawsuit alleges that local and national Fellowship leaders were aware of the inappropriate activities of all these perpetrators and did nothing to protect her or other girls.
Plaintiff Anaiah Shehori alleges that she, like all children of the Fellowship, was required to work long hours for the Fellowship. She worked for most of her childhood and teen years – for no pay – at The Living Word Publishing Company, The Fellowship Church, and the Church’s Centers of Learning school in Los Angeles. Anaiah was allegedly sexually assaulted by the high-level known predator when she was a pre-teen and teenager working in a publishing facility run by the Living Word Fellowship churches in Los Angeles. As a young child, Anaiah was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by a youth Church member. Once Anaiah’s mother learned of the assault, she reported it to APCO leadership. Anaiah’s mother was told by the local church, APCO leadership, and the Centers of Learning principal to not contact the police, and that the matter would be handled internally. Shortly after, this perpetrator was hired as a teacher at the Centers of Learning. He later served as Anaiah’s teacher throughout her high school years and remains an instructor at the facility to this day.
Plaintiff Lindsey Weck alleges that when she was about 12 years old, she was assigned to work as a “helper” which is a glorified babysitter. Her lawsuit details how an adult youth group leader of her Local Fellowship Church in San Diego started to take an interest in her. He groomed her into thinking that he was in love with her and by the time she was 14 he began having sex with her. Although Church leaders were aware of the “relationship” between this child and an adult leader, they did nothing to stop it. When Plaintiff was 16 years old, her mother learned of the sexual relations and reported it to Church officials. At this point her mother was told not to go to the police, the matter was treated as an “unauthorized” dating relationship, and Lindsey was blamed for being promiscuous.
The lawsuits explain how the Living Word Fellowship Church permitted a sexually inappropriate culture to develop. The Local Churches hosted parties for men in the Fellowship, including members of APCO. Often, the parties – which took place at the Local Church – featured heavy alcohol consumption. Minor girls, sometimes younger than twelve, acted as servers at the parties, carrying around alcohol while wearing miniskirts. Anaiah and other young girls experienced groping of the buttocks and unwanted sexual touching at these parties including by members of APCO. The conduct was open, obvious, and tolerated by the Local Church’s leadership.
Members of the Living Word Fellowship live an almost communal lifestyle with the local Living Word Church as the center of the community. Children are assigned to an adult, not a parent, to develop what is referred to as a Designated Relationship or “DR” (later changed to be called Elijah Relationship). The DR’s role is central in the child’s life. The child is compelled to disclose everything to the DR and take the DR’s guidance in all aspects of the child’s life. The child is often left to the custodial care of other community members and is even required to engage in work for the DRs, other community members, and Living Word Fellowship related entities.
“The way this sect is organized creates a perfect storm for child sexual abuse to run rampant,” said Zalkin. “Children are forced to obey adults, other than their parents, who have almost unfettered control of their lives. A perfect haven for child predators.”
Living Word Fellowship churches are part of a tightly-controlled collective of churches nationwide that follow the teaching of John Robert Stevens. Following Stevens’ death in 1983, the collective of Living Word Fellowship churches was managed and controlled by Stevens’ wife Marilyn and Gary Hargrave, a national Fellowship leader. Marilyn died in 2015, and in 2018, Fellowship Leader Gary Hargrave resigned after a courageous victim, Shalom Abrahamson Caples, posted an open letter on social media revealing the pervasive sexual abuse that was perpetrated and condoned by Fellowship Church leadership.
The lawsuits provide background about the operations of the Fellowship being closely controlled by what is termed in the complaints as Defendant Doe 1 “Supervisory Company”, located in Kalona, Iowa where the founder set up Fellowship operations. Defendant Doe 2 is the “Family Ministry Corporation,” a California corporation located in North Hills, CA in Los Angeles County. According to the lawsuits, the “Supervisory Company” and the “Family Ministry Corporation” controlled all decisions of local Living Word Fellowship Churches.
The lawsuits cite six causes of action for damages against several Doe defendants that include the Supervisory Company, the Family Ministry Corporation, the local church in San Diego and Los Angeles, the Church-run school, the religious leader, and possible other Does to be named later. The Plaintiffs seek a jury trial for punitive damages and damages for pain, suffering, loss of earning, and expenses for medical and psychological treatment.
About The Zalkin Law Firm
With offices in San Diego, CA, and New York, NY, the firm's lawyers have represented hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault and achieved results in numerous high-profile sexual abuse and assault cases across the United States. The Zalkin Law Firm has aggressively represented survivors who suffered child sexual abuse and sexual assault while members of religious and other organizations, including the Catholic Church, foster care, Boy Scouts, recovery homes, foreign student exchange programs, colleges, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Irwin Zalkin was appointed a lead negotiator by United States Magistrate Judge Leo S. Papas on behalf of over 144 victims of childhood sexual abuse against the Roman Catholic Bishop of San Diego. These negotiations resulted in a global settlement of almost $200,000,000. He also was one of the lead trial lawyers and part of the trial team against the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles where a global settlement was reached in the amount of $660,000,000.
1 California Law requires that defendants be named as “Does” in child sexual abuse lawsuits brought by adults over 26.