(RNS) — When Michelle Wilbur first visited Christian Fellowship Center in tiny Madrid, New York, a short hour from the Canadian border, in 2003, she was so dazzled by the church’s close-knit, spirit-filled community that she moved north from Massachusetts to call it home.
“There was something about the culture that I just loved,” Wilbur said in a recent phone interview. “They had big families that they presented as being amazingly strong, the music was incredible, and it just sucked me in really quickly.”
On Sundays, families with five, nine or twelve well-behaved children spoke in tongues at the nondenominational, Pentecostal church in Madrid, one of five CFC churches in the area led since 1981 by Rick Sinclair, the senior pastor.
“People adored the pastor,” Wilbur said. “I did feel very loved when I got there, at first.”
Wilbur has since renounced her CFC membership and is speaking out to hold community leaders responsible for pressuring her to remain in an abusive marriage, which she claims put her kids at risk. She isn’t alone in seeking to hold CFC pastors accountable.
On May 29, 2022, the sanctuary in Madrid was filled with church members who had come to discuss a news article, published a week earlier, reporting that Sean Ferguson, a husband, father and faithful CFC member, had been charged with first-degree sexual abuse of a child. Days later, Ferguson’s sister tweeted that Sean Ferguson reported the alleged abuse to Sinclair five years prior, in 2017.
Police records indicate — and New York state police confirmed — that Ferguson was charged in 2022 with having sexually abused his two young daughters in 2015. Ferguson’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
At the May meeting, Sinclair defended his decision not to report Ferguson’s abuse to police, child protective services or to the broader CFC community. “His entire approach to addressing this crisis was the claim that he’s under no moral obligation to report unless someone can conclusively demonstrate that to him from Scripture,” said a CFC member who attended the meeting.
“There was this bizarre collection of semi-legal arguments and ethical arguments that ultimately amounted to, ‘I have no obligation to report child sexual abuse if someone approaches me in a repentant manner about committing it,’” the member said.
In an email to RNS, Sinclair declined to discuss Ferguson’s case but wrote, “I have never ‘covered up’ any abuse or sought to keep someone in a situation against their will. God hates abuse and desires to see health and restoration in the lives of those involved.”
But Sinclair says his process in regard to “those caught in sin, including those sins that have potential criminal bearing,” includes “repentance, cleansing, deliverance, and reconciliation through the cross.” He added that his “priority is to see sinners experience the healing and restoration that Jesus provides, to do what Jesus would do if He were present.”
Sinclair’s knowledge of Ferguson’s abuse prompted seven former members to form CFCtoo, a group of advocates who published an open letter on May 31. “We are survivors of abuse at Christian Fellowship Center,” the letter reads. “We have experienced spiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of CFC leaders and members.”