(RNS) — Last May, shock waves rippled through Christian Fellowship Center, a nondenominational church in New York’s North Country, when Sean Ferguson, who’d attended the church for decades, was charged with first-degree sexual abuse of a child. Then came the accusations that church leaders had been aware of the abuse five years ago — and failed to report it.
As church leaders defended their decision, a group of ex-CFC members formed the anti-abuse advocacy group CFCtoo. The group uncovered a growing number of allegations — its site has 14 stories related to abuse in the community — and began to advocate for the Child Abuse Reporting Expansion Act, a bill making its way through the New York state Legislature that, if passed, would make clergy mandated reporters.
Last week, a plea deal was finalized for Ferguson, who admitted in 2022 to sexually abusing two young family members, then ages 2 and 4, in 2015. Ferguson, 43, will be required to register as a Level 1 sex offender — a designation that is not included in the online sex offender registry — and to serve six years of probation. He will not be imprisoned, though the charges brought against him carried a prison sentence of up to seven years.
The decision has further galvanized CFCtoo, which hopes to urge lawmakers to pass the CARE Act before the session ends next month.
“I was outraged,” Bonnie Ogilvie, Ferguson’s mother, told Religion News Service in a recent call from her home in Florida. “It’s a slap on the wrist. … I think he should have gone to jail, or whatever institution would have been removing him from the family and getting rehabilitation, whatever that looks like. He should not be living with his family.” Ferguson did not return requests for comment.
Rick Sinclair, CFC’s senior pastor, told RNS via email that he trusts the wisdom of the state and commends the courts and local law enforcement for their work.
“The Ferguson family is moving forward, and I continue to pray for and support them. I believe and have seen that Jesus is able to heal and restore both abused and abuser. The Gospel message is Good News — Christ alone is our very real hope!!” Sinclair wrote.
But Ogilvie, who attended CFC from 2000 until roughly 2002, agrees with the anti-abuse advocates at CFCtoo, who say the actions of Sinclair and other church leaders allowed Ferguson to evade accountability.
Days after Ferguson was charged in 2022, his sister tweeted that CFC leaders had known about his abuse since 2017. At a congregational meeting in May 2022, Sinclair defended his decision not to report Ferguson’s abuse to police, child protective services or to the broader CFC community.
Ogilvie believes CFC leaders have normalized abuse by treating it as a spiritual sin that can be healed within church walls. In the early 2000s, Ogilvie attended CFC, a charismatic church some former members have described as promoting a “Quiverfull” ideology, which typically rejects family planning and often promotes large families, home-schooling, purity culture and female submission. While there, she told RNS, she turned to Sinclair for help with her then-husband, who was physically abusive.