UPDATE: Community protests Sterling’s Calvary Temple church amid allegations of sexual abuse
For former congregants of Sterling's Calvary Temple church, March 29 was more than just a protest. It was a reunion of sorts.
Families who all say they had experienced some type of abuse at the hands of the Pentecostal church's leaders – whether it was physical, sexual or emotional – found they had a safe haven with each other.
Some had not seen each other in decades. Others had been communicating via social media about their experiences for years, but together they found a camaraderie: expose the public to practices they say have gone on for years behind Calvary Temple's closed doors.
Michelle Belyea drove from Pittsburgh on March 29 to join the protest. She attended Calvary for 10 years.
“When we left here, for some stupid reason, I thought the abuse, I thought this kind of control would die down … and to find out that it continued 30 something years, it's disheartening,” Belyea said.
She and Michelle O'Brien of Alexandria spent the day talking about their time at Calvary together – how its leadership used “positive peer pressure” to cower its students.
“How many times did we hear that one?” Belyea asked O'Brien.
“Twenty times a day,” O'Brien replied.
“If you didn't go along with the masses there, you were marked or spanked or disciplined,” Belyea continued. “We all have our demons that we don't talk about from this place still.”
As of publication time, representatives of Calvary Temple have not talked about the allegations, though representatives told various media outlets a statement would soon be released.
The protest, which close to 100 people attended, was sparked after a March 25 Loudoun Times-Mirror article in which two women said they were physically and sexually abused for years by members of the church's leadership and teachers.
The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office has launched an investigation into at least one woman’s claims of sexual abuse. Last week, detectives asked the public to come forward if they had any information about the case.
Since the article published, at least two more people have come forward to the Loudoun Times, alleging they were physically and sexually abused while attending Calvary.
Former congregants, who dressed in black to show they were either shunned from the church or left after disagreeing with what head pastor Starr Scott was preaching from the pulpit, held signs that read “You Have A Voice #exposecalvarytemple” or “We Believe You.” They say they plan to continue protesting until something is done to shut the church down or Scott steps down from the pulpit.
“I think at this point, this is just the beginning. I don’t know if it took a 14-year-old girl to get it started but I don’t think it’s going to stop,” said O’Brien, who attended the church from fifth to 11th grade. Her mother taught at the church and her father was a deacon.
She said Scott used the fear of hell and punishment to keep his congregants in check.
“I was getting uncomfortable with the message … One day the pastor’s up there and he’s talking about a woman who had cancer and the reason her cancer came back was because she had sin in her life and none of us were supposed to talk to her,” O’Brien said.
Following the service, O’Brien told someone she was uncomfortable with the message. But it didn’t end there. The next day at school she was summoned to the vice-principal’s office where a group of leadership told her to sit in a chair and began to berate her for questioning the message.
“He got up in my face and said ‘Who do you think you are to question the word of God?’That was the beginning. I cried, went home and told my mom. My mom took my side, my dad took theirs. The church instructed [my father] to leave with my mom and I. He didn’t but he did everything but [leave]. My family’s never been the same,” O’Brien said.
O'Brien said she and her father have since reconciled.
She described Starr as a “very charismatic and very intelligent” person who uses the Bible as a way to brainwash congregants.
“By the time they hook you, they use the guilt and it’s just awful,” she said.
O’Brien said when she was in 11th grade her mother sent her to live with an aunt to get her away from Calvary Temple.
“When I came back my diploma was in the mail,” she said.
Still living in fear
Some people at the protest still have children inside the church who they were separated from after questioning what was going on inside Calvary’s walls.
They declined to speak on the record for fear of repercussion to their family members. Others, still dealing with the aftermath of their abuse, were too frail to attend the protest and were fearful of what might happen to them if they did, their friends at the protest said.
Still, the exposure has prompted many families to share their stories, including Ken and Marian Marino, who wrote a letter to the editor, sharing their experience of broken trust at Calvary.
“In 2007 the leadership got wind of our plans to leave. During a worship service we were summoned to a pastor's backroom office for an hour long interrogation. 'Get your things and go. Nineteen years, just like that. A few tearful goodbyes and phone calls. Within 24 hours every relationship was obliterated,” the couple wrote.
'He's loving this'
The protest’s organizer, Samantha Haas of Sterling, said she planned the event in support of a friend who was physically and sexually abused by a member of Calvary years ago.
“Once we started bringing this all to light, more and more victims starting popping up. We really wanted to do something, so I organized it,” Haas said.
Haas said they plan to protest the church’s annual car show, its Easter egg hunt and possibly its summer camps – all free events that she said the church uses to try and draw in new members, “especially children.”
Former congregant Chris Trent of Leesburg said he believes Scott is using the sexual assault allegations and the protest to further his presence in the church.
“He’s loving this. He’s like Madonna. Bad press is good press for him,” Trent said when asked what he thought Scott might be telling the church as the protest went on outside. “He’s an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.”
Trent remembers his last day at the church. It was a Wednesday and he said Scott threw his Bible down, enraged that congregants were not constantly giving tithe to the church.
“He said some of you only tithe sometimes. He said according to the Book of Leviticus, as your high priest I can ask for double tithe every three years. Now all you people that broke ground here and help put down the roots to the foundation of this church ... I want you to give 20 percent … A lot of people from Calvary gave it to him,” he said.
One of those families was that of Michael Foster of Sterling. Foster, who is in a legal battle to get his wife out of the church after he said the church instructed her to place a protective order against him, said he’s given at least $10,000 in tithe to Calvary. His parents, who are no longer with the church, gave at least $100,000, he said.
Foster had only one word to describe Calvary: cult.
He’s estranged from his sister, he said, because congregants are not allowed to have relationships with anyone outside its walls.
Jessica Yummit of Sterling, who attended the church for years, said she endured touching from a teacher that started in the third grade.
Yummit said the teacher would often rub his hand across her back and at one point described himself as her boyfriend. When she came forward and told someone how the touching made her uncomfortable, she said she was told she had a “lying, lustful spirit.”
“From that point on, I was marked as a bad person,” she said.
Spiritual warfare at Sterling’s Calvary Temple church