Robert Fenton was a 26-year-old youth pastor at Abide In The Vine church in Owego, New York, when he was given approval to betroth a 14-year-old congregational member by her family and church leadership.
Fenton convinced the teenage girl’s parents and leadership at the non-denominational church to allow him to betroth the underage girl, telling them he had a vision “declaring that God wanted the victim to be his spouse.”
The youth pastor was granted permission to betroth the 14-year-old under the condition that no sexual activity would take place. But according to his now 40-year-old victim, Fenton “frequently” assaulted the underage girl during his two years at the church in the late 90’s.
“I want survivors to know—we believe you. We will not let predators get away with the sexual assault of children,” Shapiro said.
In the affidavit, the victim recalled that Fenton would visit her parents’ house in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, two to three times a week (about a 30 minute drive from the church) in order to see her. They where not allowed to date due to their age difference. It was during those visits that Fenton began to sexually assault her.
Their relationship ended in 1998, two months after the then 16-year-old called off the wedding while Fenton was in the hospital for an illness. They were scheduled to be married in June of 1998.
Fenton told his teenage victim that “she ruined his ministry” before moving to Australia.
The victim’s mother, Susan Dewing, told investigators that on more than one occasion, fellow church members told her that their son was meant to marry her daughter. So she saw it as “just a little strange” and not “that strange” when the youth pastor suggested something similar about himself.
When Fenton approached his victim’s parents to tell them how he felt about their daughter, they took it to the church. The church’s leadership—which included Fenton’s father, who was a church elder—told them it was “more of a courtship rather than dating.”
Leadership explained that courtship would not involve any physical contact between the youth pastor and their daughter, which included holding hands, kissing, touching, and instructed the two never to be alone together without an adult present.
Russell Dewing and his wife were unaware of any sexual activity between Fenton and their daughter until a few years ago.
The pastor’s son, Paul Hoover, shared in the affidavit that his father Fredrick P. Hoover, who is still pastoring Abide In The Vine church today, was not on board with the Fenton during the time of the courtship request.