CAMP HILL, Pa. – On a Sunday morning in late 2017, Oakwood Baptist Church pastor Donald Foose stood before a congregation that had been blindsided by the sudden departure of their previous head pastor.
Foose offered no answers to their lingering questions. Instead, his voice booming through the sparse sanctuary, he preached about the destructive power of gossip.
“The tongue is a fire,” Foose declared, reading from the Letter of James. He held up a piece of paper with his own name and the name of the church on it. With his other hand, he struck a match – and lit the paper ablaze.
“Look what that little fire did,” he said once the sheet had burned. “It destroyed me. It destroyed the church. It destroyed the unity of the church. And I’m amazed that I didn’t catch the place on fire.”
Donald Foose, left, joined Oakwood Baptist Church as a member in 2001 and became a pastor there in 2006. He is pictured here baptizing Aaron Benninger in July 2016. Dominique Benninger
Within six months that sermon would seem like an attempt to smother questions leading straight to Foose’s disturbing past. The details emerged regardless.
In 2000, Foose was convicted and jailed for molesting an underage relative. He resigned from his role as principal of a Christian school, and Pennsylvania’s Department of Education stripped him of his teaching license, deeming him “a danger to the health, safety and welfare of students.” Under state law, Foose can’t even drive a school bus, and were he convicted after 2012 he would have been required by law to register as a sex offender.
But Foose still became a pastor at Oakwood, then superintendent of the Oakwood Baptist Day School. Church leaders who were aware of his past concealed it from the congregation.
The truth – exposed in 2018 after a husband and wife at the church discovered Foose’s record – fractured the tightknit, devout community of roughly 100 members. Pastors resigned, attendance fell, friendships dissolved and faith was tested. In interviews with more than a dozen current and former congregants, a portrait emerged of church leaders compounding Foose’s betrayal by twisting scripture and exploiting the concept of forgiveness to stifle questions about how the situation had been handled.
Foose resigned from Oakwood in May 2018. Soon after, the beloved pastor who had left Oakwood months before, Bob Conrad, acknowledged in a five-page letter to his former church that he and other leaders had known Foose could not pass a background check. Foose claimed to have been falsely accused, Conrad wrote, and church leaders took him at his word, failing to prevent him from having access to children even as school employees complained about his overly familiar behavior with the students.
“I pray,” Conrad wrote, “that you will find it in your hearts to forgive me for my lack in leadership and judgment.”
Oakwood Baptist Church hid a pastor’s disturbing secret from its congregation.
Oakwood Baptist Church hid Don Foose’s disturbing actions from the congregation for years, as he became pastor and head of the day school.
Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY
Foose, 69, did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story. A police investigation would ultimately find no evidence that Foose had harmed children at Oakwood. USA TODAY confirmed that since leaving Oakwood, Foose has preached in at least two other Baptist churches, in Pennsylvania and Virginia, where the congregants were unaware of his 2000 conviction.
The revelations at Oakwood occurred as the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest protestant denomination in the country with 15 million members, faced a crisis over sexual abuse that echoes the scandal in the Catholic Church. After a joint investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News last year documented abuse in Southern Baptist churches spanning 20 years and 700 victims, SBC leaders faulted a “culture of casual indifference to predatory sexual behavior.”
At the SBC’s annual meeting in June, delegates approved an amendment to their constitution that would make it easier to remove churches that mishandle abuse from the denomination. SBC President J.D. Greear, in his remarks there, pressed members to take a hard line on sexual misconduct, saying, “somebody that has abused another should never ever be in a position in our churches where they can do it a second time, and if they are truly repentant they will understand that.” But because SBC churches like Oakwood are autonomous, and not beholden to centralized leadership, Greear’s words are essentially advice.
Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer, advocate and the first woman to publicly accuse disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault, said church leaders mishandle these situations when they rely on a limited understanding of abuse and shun the guidance of outside experts.
“It is a chosen ignorance,” she said. “They chose not to seek the help of experts, which leads them to approach the issue with a fundamental misunderstanding of abuse.”
John Bollten, a former Oakwood pastor, said he didn’t even know the full extent of Foose’s crime until last month, when a reporter described Foose’s police report to him. He and other church leaders said they never read it themselves.
“That is all new to me,” Bollten said. “How do I feel about it? I’m angry I was lied to and angry I made decisions on lies.”
Today, Oakwood’s leaders say they have learned from the prior leaders’ failings. The church has installed a new pastor after a lengthy search, rewritten its policy manuals and completed a monthslong training course with a nonprofit that helps churches shift their culture around child sexual abuse.
Through this experience what I’m learning is you don’t take everything for granted, even in church. You have to be diligent. You have to be careful.
“God uses, sometimes, these opportunities to teach others,” said Naveen Allu, a longtime member of Oakwood who became chairman of the board of deacons amid the leadership turnover. “Through this experience what I’m learning is you don’t take everything for granted, even in church. You have to be diligent.”
Dominique Benninger, 46, and Megan Benninger, 44, the husband and wife who discovered Foose’s record, said they will never go back to Oakwood, having lost much more than their church when they were deceived in the place they felt the safest.
“I loved these men. I trusted them so much,” Megan said. “The past 12 years of my life, was it all a lie? Was anything real? Was anything true? And who do I trust anymore?”
Camp Hill, a borough near the western bank of the Susquehanna River, is carved by train tracks that snake behind neighborhoods and connect a meatpacking plant, the corporate offices of Rite Aid pharmacy, and a towering mill that crushes grain into bagged flour. Highways converge here before crossing the river into Harrisburg, the state capital. To the south, the land swells, gently at first and then in sharp inclines as it meets the northern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Strip malls and factories dissolve into countryside where farmers use their road-front real estate to display Bible passages.
Oakwood Baptist Church – one wing a sanctuary, the second a small preschool through kindergarten program – sits on the edge of a neighborhood of modest homes and mature trees. It was a community where Donald Foose was largely unknown when he and his wife began attending services at Oakwood in 2001.
Conrad, the head pastor whose father had preached at Oakwood for three decades before him, was initially unaware that Foose had been a longtime minister and a principal about 15 miles away at Harrisburg Christian School. When Conrad learned that he had a fellow preacher in his congregation, he wondered whether God had given Oakwood a gift. So in 2006, he asked Foose to join him in ministry.
Conrad, in an interview, said Foose paused at the suggestion.
“He said, ‘I have something in my past. I can’t pass a background check,’” Conrad recalled.
Foose told him that he had been falsely accused of molesting a teenage girl but decided he would not fight the charges to spare his family the pain of a trial, Conrad said.
In the letter he wrote after leaving Oakwood, Conrad said Foose’s secret had been shared under pastor-member confidentiality, so he did not tell the congregation before it voted to approve Foose’s move to leadership. The two men also had agreed, he said, that Foose would not become involved with Oakwood’s school.
Churchgoers accustomed to Conrad’s sedate sermons now had a second pastor at the other extreme. Foose preached with a passion that bordered on anger, and though some found him harsh, others were moved by the urgency in his tone. Away from the pulpit, Foose was playful, especially with the church’s children. He lowered himself to the little ones’ eye level, roughhoused with the boys, and teased the teen girls. Parents appreciated that he took time to make their children feel welcome at church and considered his doting grandfatherly.
Oakwood later added three more pastors, who led the church with the support of a lay-member board of deacons. Conrad revealed in his letter that other church leaders learned of Foose’s criminal record. But like him, they trusted in a man who they had prayed beside for years. Conrad said that Cliff Karlsen, a deacon who worked as an officer with a nearby police department, said he had checked into Foose’s past and had no problem with Foose staying in ministry. Foose took on greater leadership at Oakwood and occasionally preached at other churches in the area.
Megan and Dominique Benninger, center, stand with pastors Donald Foose, left, and Bob Conrad, right, at the dedication ceremony for their son, Alexander, in 2008. Dominique Benninger
Foose ultimately became superintendent of Oakwood’s day school, although it’s unclear exactly when that occurred. No formal announcement was made, and former church leaders either declined to be interviewed or said they didn’t know.
Conrad, in his letter, said Foose started by helping at the school when it was short on money and staff and needed additional adults in the classroom.
“Once that door was opened it became impossible for me to shut it,” Conrad wrote. He said he asked Foose to keep his distance from the school’s children but that Foose ignored him.
Conrad described church leaders just once grappling with the legal implications of allowing a man convicted of sexual abuse to be involved in their school. In an interview, he said the conversations happened when Pennsylvania legislators strengthened the state’s laws following the child sex abuse conviction of Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Central among the legislation that went into effect in 2014 and 2015 was a mandate that virtually anyone working with children in the state, including volunteers, had to undergo criminal background checks.
Pennsylvania, even before then, had required school employees to get clearances and to complete a form declaring whether they had been convicted of a host of sex-related crimes, including Foose’s. It is unclear whether those laws applied to Foose, who was employed by the church while holding responsibilities with the school. But even with the expansion of the laws, Oakwood’s leaders didn’t act.
Conrad said a small group that included Karlsen, Foose, and a member of the congregation who was an attorney reviewed the new legislation and noted that ‘Pastor’ was not listed among the professions requiring background checks. He said the men discussed finding Foose a new office outside of the church, then decided it wasn’t necessary, instead telling Foose that he shouldn’t be involved in any of the church’s children’s programs.
“He was supposed to slip in and out of the office without the kids even knowing he was in the building,” Conrad said. “Cliff (Karlsen) said it’s best if the kids don’t even know he’s in the building.”
Karlsen, who was chairman of the board of deacons at the time that the new laws were passed, declined to be interviewed for this story. In an email, he blamed Conrad for hiring Foose but acknowledged that he later looked into Foose’s record and endorsed him as pastor. He said he believed then that Foose had been wrongly convicted.
“The incident happened over twenty years ago; his family has forgiven him and moved on, and most importantly, he has repented and been forgiven by God,” Karlsen wrote.
Meanwhile, Foose presented himself to his congregation as an open book. In a 2014 interview on a regional Southern Baptist association’s website, he was asked to share something about himself that would surprise his flock.
“The congregation,” he said, “has heard my entire life.”
Megan Benninger had considered homeschooling her children. But in 2004, after Anya, her oldest, was diagnosed with mild autism, she and Dominique searched for a preschool where their daughter could work with a therapist around other kids. Some places offered sleek classrooms and new materials. Oakwood Baptist Day School, worn in and so small that the kids napped on cots laid out in the sanctuary, felt like the better fit. Anya was at ease on her first visit.
Conrad, Oakwood’s only pastor at the time, was the reason the Benningers began to attend church there as well. His professed dedication to the families seemed exaggerated at first but proved genuine. Once, when Megan was having complications following childbirth, Conrad beat them to the emergency room.
As the Benningers grew to a family of seven, taking over both sides of the duplex they owned, Oakwood became the core around which their lives revolved. Megan’s closest friends were the other mothers. After praying together on Sundays, many of the church’s adults gathered for an evening Bible study that grew so large it had to be split between two homes.
Dominique and Megan Benninger, pictured here in their home in Lemoyne, Pa., started attending Oakwood Baptist Church shortly after they enrolled their daughter, Anya, in the church’s day school in 2004. Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY
“It was wonderful,” Megan said. “Until it wasn’t.”
Conrad’s departure in 2017 – after 19 years as pastor – stunned the congregation. He explained that God had called him to lead a struggling, urban church in Harrisburg. The Benningers found it out of character, given the joy he found in his closeness with Oakwood’s families. They said they sensed tension among the remaining leaders, who bristled when asked about what had happened.
Megan was unsettled by their evasiveness. A religious leader had once betrayed her and Dominique, and she feared it was happening again.
Megan and Dominique Benninger met as students at Messiah College when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore. They are pictured here on campus in 1994, shortly after they started dating. Dominique Benninger
The couple met as students at Messiah College, a Christian school near Harrisburg. Together, they joined a Bible study group on campus led by a fellow student who said God could work miracles on earth – an intoxicating idea for Megan, who had been raised in a conservative church where faith felt more like a set of rules than a tangible force in the world. When the student claimed that God spoke through him, Megan and Dominique were moved to believe him, even as he used prophecy to dictate where the group’s members lived, how they worshipped, and where their money went. They said he once used God’s blessing to excuse the fact that he had had sex with a woman in the group who wasn’t his wife.
Megan and Dominique realized that they were in a cult in a shared surge of awareness. They left, but the lingering trauma was clear each time they tensed at hearing the claim, God told me. They found Oakwood, a community that considered the Bible to be the direct and perfect word of God. It felt safe, to be guided by the words on the page and the white space between them.
After Conrad’s departure, they saw flashes of that text being used to control the congregation and turn back questions.
One Sunday, Dominique attended the service to hear Foose preach the Gospel of John: “If anyone says I love God and hates his brother, he is a liar.”
“I certainly hope,” Foose told the congregation, “there’s not a whole lot of lying going on at Oakwood.”
It felt wrong to Dominique – like an attempt to drown his concerns with a teaching about love. It was the last time that any of the Benningers would attend Sunday service at Oakwood. So they were not there the following week, when Foose held a match in the air and lit a piece of paper on fire in an explicit warning to his congregation.
Megan reflected on her time in the cult and how the leader gained and abused his power. It led to a question she considered far-fetched but still posed to a friend: Could sexual sin somehow be behind the tension at Oakwood?
The woman’s response stopped Megan cold: You know about Don Foose’s conviction, right?
Megan and Dominique ordered a background check on Foose and then conducted their own search online. The revocation of his teaching license was among the top links, stunningly public.
The court records from Foose’s criminal case, obtained by USA TODAY, detail the sexual abuse that led to his conviction and the loss of his teaching license. Foose’s accuser, who is now an adult, did not respond to interview requests for this story.
In 1999, according to the records, she told Pennsylvania state police that Foose had repeatedly fondled her breasts, often over her clothing and twice underneath them. She said he once told her he wanted to see “what you got,” before groping beneath her shirt. Foose had once rubbed his genitals against hers when they were both fully clothed, she also told the police. When he asked to see her breasts, she refused.
A state trooper documented Foose’s limited response: Whatever his accuser alleged was true, he said. “He advised that he did put his hand under her clothing touching her breast,” the trooper wrote.
Police charged Foose with corruption of minors and indecent assault, both misdemeanors. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in March 2000 to a maximum of two years in county prison and sex offender counseling. He served nine months and was released in December of that year on parole. He has no other known convictions.
Megan and Dominique, upon learning of Foose’s record, replayed a decade of memories. One stood out: Anya, still very young, climbing on the chairs at church, her body hinged over the seat as Foose patted her on the behind. Megan had stiffened in the moment but assured herself the pastor was only being playful.
“Your children. That’s what you think,” Megan said. “Were my children hurt?”
The Benninger children assured their parents that Foose had never crossed a line.
But Anya, an art student at the college where her parents met, still sobbed. In an interview, she said Foose had been her favorite pastor. He treated her as special, so she thought the same of him. She chose him to baptize her and listed him as a reference on her college application because she considered him a friend.
She’s skeptical of religious leaders now, an isolating feeling on her Christian campus. “It’s odd when everyone is talking about, ‘Trust your leaders,’” she said. “It’s the kind of thing I’ve heard all my life, so I know exactly where they’re coming from. But now it doesn’t work like that.”
Megan and Dominique said they felt compelled to tell the rest of the congregation what they knew. Their concern grew with each hour spent researching topics largely new to them: child sex offenders, how predators groom both children and adults, sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches.
They wrote to Foose and several other church leaders, pressing them to tell the rest of the congregation.
Instead, at a meeting the next night, the Benningers said they were reminded that everyone sins. Would they want their own faults put on display? One of the men blamed the Sandusky scandal for making people overly sensitive, they recall.
But Foose, Megan said, seemed weary. He told them he was leaving in a few days for a mission trip in the Philippines and would step down when he returned.
On Foose’s final Sunday at Oakwood, he confessed to his congregation: He had been accused of abuse by a teenage girl, convicted and jailed. He told them he had touched her inappropriately above the waist, according to several people in attendance who added that they were left with the impression it had been a single incident.
“Please forgive me,” Foose asked them.
The divisions that would deepen in the weeks to come began to surface, person by person.
Congregants stood and walked towards their pastor to pray with him.
Others stayed in their seats.
As the group surrounding Foose laid their hands upon him, one woman rose and strode out of the church.
Dominique paused at the sight of the stage where he had spent years leading worship music. The volume of memories overwhelmed him, with individual Sundays stretching into 12 years and then, turning from a comfort to a burden over a few short months.
This place wasn’t theirs anymore.
Still, Dominique attended the gathering – a family meeting, they called it. Five weeks had passed since Foose’s confession, and this would be the first opportunity for congregants to openly ask questions. Who had known about his record, and did they regret hiding it? Would the parents from the day school be notified? What would be done to find out whether Foose had harmed anyone?
John Bollten, the church’s sole remaining pastor, had asked for questions in advance and gave his prepared answers quickly, several people who were there recall. Those who had hoped for an apology heard only a vague acknowledgement that church leaders would make different decisions today. Bollten didn’t elaborate, appearing impatient with questions that dwelled on the past.
He was firm about the need to move forward. The church had no evidence that Foose had hurt anyone at Oakwood, so he said there was no need to tell the parents from the school about their former superintendent’s criminal record.
Donald Foose stands among a group of children at Oakwood Baptist Church’s Vacation Bible School in 2012. USA TODAY has blurred the faces of some individuals to protect their anonymity. Dominique Benninger
Seated in a classroom where Foose had been entrusted to care for children, Bollten focused on the power of forgiveness, reaching for the biblical story of King David. The king had seen Bathsheba bathing on a roof near his palace, summoned her to him, raped and impregnated her, and had her husband killed to cover his sins. Bollten said David had repented, and God had forgiven him and allowed him to remain king. He asked the congregation that night to consider whether Foose could remain a pastor.
As the meeting stretched towards a second hour, one woman who hadn’t yet spoken asked to share.
She told the group about an evening, years earlier, when she went into early labor. Having nowhere to take her two older children, she and her husband dropped them off somewhere they would be safe – their pastor’s home. Foose’s home. In the morning, he brought her children to the hospital to meet their baby sister.
She said she was sure God protected them and that she trusted Foose. But she said she would have made a different decision had church leaders been forthcoming.
Their deceit, and the fact that her children were too young to remember that night, she said, had left a heavy unknown hanging over her heart.
Days later, Conrad sent his letter to Oakwood’s board of deacons, unburdening himself with the same words: please forgive me, I need to ask for forgiveness, I pray that you will find it in your hearts to forgive me.
The letter’s contents were explosive. Staff at the school had complained about Foose, a red flag every few weeks during one period, Conrad wrote. Foose hugged the children during class time, especially the little girls, and let them climb on his lap; pushed them on the swings by their bottoms, not the metal chains or their backs; and lifted kids onto his knee so their legs straddled his.
Conrad wrote that he warned Foose to keep his distance but didn’t share the complaints with the board of deacons, thinking he could manage on his own.
He wrote that Foose had pushed two women – a cook, and the school’s director – out of jobs at the school after they complained about his behavior. The director had grown so concerned that she had Foose work in a classroom where she could keep an eye on him, according to Conrad.
Neither woman responded to interview requests.
Conrad mentioned a third woman who worked at the school as a classroom aide. Her parents complained to the church about Foose’s behavior with their daughter, who has an intellectual disability. Conrad wrote that it was a “common occurrence for (Foose) to hug her in the pastor office while no one else was there” and that Foose once hugged her from behind and rested his head on her shoulder.
Conrad wrote that he had also seen Foose hug her.
Attendance has fallen at Oakwood Baptist Church, from about 100 people to less than half of that most Sundays. The church recently installed a new pastor after a lengthy search. Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY
In an interview, Conrad said Karlsen and Foose had by that time largely taken over leadership of the church, overruling him on his concerns. He said he argued that the congregation should be told about the parents’ complaint. Instead, he said, at a meeting with Conrad, Foose, Karlsen, and the woman’s father, the situation was explained as a misunderstanding and smoothed over.
Karlsen, in an email, denied that Foose ever hugged the woman. He said he spoke to the parents because Conrad “could not handle confrontation.”
Conrad wrote that by 2017, he had come to recognize that what was happening at Oakwood was wrong. But the other leaders, he said, took Foose’s side. Conrad said he was called a bully, forced to take a sabbatical from preaching and ordered to seek counseling. Matthew 18, the scripture that prescribes how to reconcile with someone who has wronged you, was pushed in his face. But he saw no path to making peace.
So Conrad left, only revealing the truth behind his decision in a letter months later.
“It was hard to write,” Conrad said, after sliding into the booth at a pizza shop near his new church in Harrisburg. “I was hoping that if I said, ‘These are things that I did wrong,’ other people would. But that never happened.”
When Bollten learned that the wife of one of the deacons had called several former school employees about Conrad’s letter, he emailed the board.
“This gossip MUST stop!” Bollten wrote. “It will destroy people, the church, the day school and its employees. And then where will these kids go to school to hear of the love of Christ? This is not transparency, it is evil.”
Bollten – who has since left Oakwood and works for Corporate Chaplains of America, a nonprofit that places pastors in the workplace – in an interview said he could not recall his mindset when he wrote that email. He said church leaders were trying to investigate what had happened at the day school “in a methodical way.”
Bollten said he also couldn’t recall why he decided to preach on the story of David and Bathsheba at the congregation-wide meeting, or even having done so, though he said it’s possible he did. He said his goal that night was to encourage people to see those seated across from them as family. He said he made mistakes, then and throughout the ordeal.
“There was an element of being overwhelmed, and I recognize that I didn’t handle the meeting as well as I would have liked to,” he said. “It didn’t start the way I would have liked and it didn’t end the way I would have liked. And I had a lot to do with that.”
Bollten’s plea to the deacons was in vain. One of them reported Foose to the Pennsylvania’s child welfare hotline, based on the complaints in Conrad’s letter.
Hampden Township Police Detective Robert Higgins opened an investigation in June 2018 and told church leaders to contact the parents whose children had been enrolled at the day school during the time Foose was pastor. The church took nearly three months to comply, with a letter that did not name Foose or say he had been convicted of a crime. It said a pastor had “experienced an issue involving a child” that made him unable to get child clearances, and encouraged anyone with concerns to contact Higgins.
During an interview this fall, Higgins said he had to be cautious about how to proceed, given that Foose had not been accused of a crime. Higgins said the letter generated a handful of calls but none with accusations that warranted charges. He said he asked Foose if he would be willing to sit down and talk, but the pastor refused.
Higgins in May closed his investigation without charges. “We were happy it resulted in that,” he said. “Because it meant no one did get victimized, hopefully.”
The same month that Higgins closed his investigation, Foose preached in front of the congregation at Carlisle Baptist Church, not 20 miles from Oakwood. Megan posted about her concerns on Facebook and heard from a mother at Carlisle who confirmed the congregation was unaware of Foose’s record before he took the pulpit.
The mother, Mary Weigel, said the senior pastor at Carlisle later told her that he had known about Foose’s conviction when he invited him to fill in that Sunday but did not think he posed a danger. Weigel has since left the church.
“I’m angry. I’m so angry,” Weigel said. “That puts my children in a position of trusting someone that could potentially groom them and hurt them. And I would have never guessed. I would have never known.”
Ed Roman, Carlisle Baptist Church’s senior pastor, said he let Foose preach because he believes in redemption. “But we also take seriously our responsibility to protect our children and our families,” he said. “So over the years Carlisle Baptist has been very diligent in implementing safeguards that protect families and children so they can worship safely.”
“I wish I would have handled things better,” Roman added. “I did not fully consider how it would affect other people. I didn’t.”
In September, Foose preached again, in Virginia, according to a video briefly posted on the Facebook page of Fredericksburg International Christian Church. The pastor there said he was unaware of Foose’s record when he invited him to the pulpit.
The fact that Foose preached at Carlisle Baptist was all the more stunning to the Benningers because the congregation is a member of the Keystone Baptist Association, a network of central Pennsylvania churches that includes Oakwood. Larry Theisen, then the association’s director of missions, knew that Foose’s secret had torn Oakwood apart because he had served as interim pastor after the last of Oakwood’s leaders resigned.
Theisen retired in December after 24 years in the job. Before leaving, he served on a national committee for SBC association leaders that drafted guidelines for preventing sexual abuse of minors in the church.
In an interview, Theisen said he tried to remain neutral at Oakwood but that it was a challenge because Foose is a friend.
And so my question would simply be, is this a sin that’s basically a Scarlet Letter that they would never find redemption in?
Theisen said he learned of Foose’s conviction about 10 years ago from one of Oakwood’s pastors and did not ask for more details beyond what Foose later told him – that he had inappropriately touched a teen girl above the waist. Theisen said he has never been interested in reading through the court records to fully understand what had occurred.
“Everything that goes into our mind affects our mind. … I don’t like to fill my mind with things that are unnecessary,” Theisen said.
Theisen said it wasn’t his place to question Oakwood’s decision to make Foose pastor, because of the autonomy of Southern Baptist churches. He equated it to a congregation deciding whether to accept as pastor a man who had been divorced.
“I’ve had, oh, just about everything you can name over the 45 years of ministry I’ve had to deal with,” he said. “And so my question would simply be, is this a sin that’s basically a Scarlet Letter that they would never find redemption in?”
The exodus from Oakwood stretched for more than a year, and today the congregation is less than half its former size.
Casey Raudenbush had wanted to remain in the congregation that she and her husband joined in 2014, the place they hoped to raise their three small children. She had even been cautiously hopeful, at first. “I remember saying to my husband, ‘If we can make this work this will be a beautiful picture of the gospel,’” she said.
Instead, she said, she saw some of the church’s members cheapen the Bible’s teachings on forgiveness to justify concealing Foose’s past. They treated it as a catchphrase – forgive and forget – while she saw forgiveness as a gift extended to those truly repentant and with the burden of consequences. She noticed that Bollten, in his discussion of David and Bathsheba, had left out that the king faced a lifetime of repercussions, even after God forgave him.
“To find out that what we thought was a foundation that we shared, that really there was a giant crack in the middle of that foundation that wasn’t going to support us, was heartbreaking,” Raudenbush said.
Nancy Shumberger, too, felt at odds with her fellow congregants. As she watched some of them downplay what Foose had done, she asked herself: Has so little changed?
She said when she was sexually abused as a child nearly 70 years ago she had nowhere to turn and was told to keep quiet. It saddened her, to see people still unwilling to deal with the danger of child abuse head on.
Yet for months, as family after family left Oakwood, Shumberger and her husband stayed members of the church they had joined in 1970, where they raised children and eventually prayed beside their grandchildren. Soon, they were the only members left who seemed to harbor frustrations about how things were handled.
So late last year, they too left the church.
“It was so sad and disappointing that people didn’t stand up for what was right,” Shumberger said. “It got to be very uncomfortable. Your whole soul was involved.”
It has been more than a year since Megan attended any church. For a time after leaving Oakwood, the family landed at a new congregation, a place they might start over. But the unease Megan felt at Oakwood followed her. It would to any sanctuary, she feared.
Week by week, in her still house on Sunday mornings, her guilt over not going faded and was replaced by peace.
“I started to feel like I was seeing the world differently,” Megan said. She said she is a more sympathetic person than before, less quick to write off people with different perspectives than her own. In moments when she has questioned the decisions that led to such an unexpected place, she returns to a scripture that depicts Jesus as the caretaker of children. If he was passionate about protecting children, she tells herself, she can be too.
Dominique and Megan Benninger sit in front of a portrait of their five children in their home. Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY
Dominique wonders if he, like Megan, will soon decide healing is best done away from what is hurting you. But for now, most Sundays, he drives to his new church, turning into that pain. He said his therapist recently likened it to learning how not to get burned while playing with fire.“It’s hard,” he said. “But my approach right now is I just want to figure out, why is this hard?”
Teachings that were once comforting – We have to forgive – now sting.
Once your faith is used against you, he said, it is hard to trust again.