Kristopher Schondelmeyer, 30, is the associate pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Toledo, responsible for youth and small-group ministry and adult education. When he was a teenager, a minister touched him sexually, he alleges, but even so, he became a minister. And though he serves the Presbyterian Church, he is suing it. He claims that repressed memory kept him from realizing until November 2012 that he was a victim of clergy sexual abuse in July 2000.
His attorneys filed a legal petition in Fulton, Mo., on April 14, and an initial hearing was held in Columbia, Mo., Aug. 18, for a lawsuit against Fulton's First Presbyterian Church and the larger bodies that Fulton's church is a part of, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The Presbyterian Foundation, which holds church funds, is also a defendant. And Jack Wayne Rogers, 69, at the time an ordained Presbyterian lay minister, now a federal prison inmate convicted in 2004 of child pornography and obscenity, is named as the abuser and is also being sued. The Rev. Schondelmeyer is asking for “compensatory and punitive damages” and “other and further relief,” the lawsuit says.
Rev. Schondelmeyer's allegations include that Rogers and the Presbyterian Church established a ”trust relationship” with him and, exploiting that, Rogers “engaged in non-consensual sex acts with the plaintiff” on a church trip to a youth conference in Maryland. Rogers had been convicted of child pornography in 1992, and the lawsuit alleges the church knew, yet made him a chaperone for youth, and also that the church was “encouraging [Rogers] to commit the abuse and battery” and “actively concealing the abuse after it occurred.” The Church also violated its own policies and procedures regarding sex abusers, the lawsuit says.
His Toledo congregation is very supportive of Rev. Schondelmeyer, said its pastor, the Rev. Tom Schwartz. “Our governing body, or session, had talked with Kris about it,” and a letter was sent to all members. The alleged abuse, cover-up, and lack of accountability, response, and help by the Church is “out of line. It's why we would agree that his desire to litigate would be something we would be in support of.”
Attorneys Sarah Brown and Rebecca Randles of Kansas City, Mo., are representing Rev. Schondelmeyer. “Our firm for many, many years has handled cases for victims of childhood sexual abuse” and focuses on both clergy and psychiatric sex abuse, Ms. Brown said. “We thought he had a compelling case.”
Rev. Schondelmeyer would not comment and referred The Blade to David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), as his spokesman. Mr. Clohessy, of St. Louis, is also a sex abuse survivor. He said that Rev. Schondelmeyer “is a wonderful, brave man who is deeply and justifiably concerned about others who may have been hurt by this awful predator, and he tried very hard to get church officials to do outreach to others who are suffering, with little success. So he felt almost morally compelled to take legal action for the sake of others.”
In a SNAP press release, Rev. Schondelmeyer is quoted, “My biggest fear isn‘t whether or not Presbyterian Church officials will do what is good, and right, and just. It’s that there might be other victims who are suffering in silence.”
Mr. Clohessy said, “If anybody has been or is affected or suffered Rogers's crimes, we want them to know that they are not alone, it's not their fault, and recovery is possible. But it's crucial that they share their burdens with someone they trust and not try to bear this pain alone.”
A victim of clergy abuse might become a minister because “a lot of people go into ministry in order to heal their own wounds,” said the Rev. Barbara Lee of Grand Haven, Mich., who calls herself “the sex minister” and wrote a book on sexual ethics. “Sometimes that's not very conscious.”
Rev. Lee, a survivor of sexual abuse, said, “A lot of that need for healing comes from that sense of how we've broken our interpersonal bridge to ourself, and so we don't have that awareness—which is probably where some of [Rev. Schondelmeyer‘s] memory lapse comes from. And our culture is so shame-based around sexuality, so then we don't have those healthy outlets to explore that, to share it openly, and so we repress.”
“Repressed memory happens in a minority of cases, but far more than most people expect,” Mr. Clohessy said. “It's a common, though often misunderstood, psychological coping mechanism.”
Mr. Clohessy said that abuse is not a faith killer. “Kris is like a number of clergy sex abuse victims who are able to separate the actions of one or a few men from the rest of the belief system. ... He really very much loves the Presbyterian Church and faith.”
“There is so much compassion and mercy in my heart, and I would rather stand with church leaders, than against them, to work together to create safe and sacred space for children and youth,” Rev. Schondelmeyer said in the SNAP press release.
The Presbyterian Foundation “does not have any comment at this time,” Rob Bullock, its vice president for marketing and communications, stated in an email.
Rogers has not responded to a written request for comments.