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Stolen childhoods: Women allege they were sexually abused as kids at Calvary Gospel Church in Madison

  • 15 min to read
Stolen childhoods: Women allege they were sexually abused as kids at Calvary Gospel Church in Madison

A Pentecostal church on Madison’s east side has concealed allegations of sexual assault among its congregants for over 30 years, and continues to perpetuate a culture of fear and control that fosters abuse, former members say.

The Cap Times interviewed 13 people, four of whom said they were sexually assaulted and manipulated as children attending Calvary Gospel Church. Nine others, including parents, siblings of alleged victims, members who witnessed sexual misbehavior and one pastor who was in leadership at the time of many allegations, corroborate the description of the church’s culture, numerous accounts of sexual abuse in the congregation and concealment by its leaders.

The women who say they were assaulted as children — Debbie McNulty, Rachel Capacio, Rachel Huff and Rebecca Martin Byrd, all of whom agreed to publication of their names for this story — say they were groomed at a young age to accept sexual abuse from men in the church as other adults at the time looked the other way.

Their alleged perpetrators, often seen as service-oriented “men of God” in their 20s and 30s, sexually pursued them when they were girls. All of the women were under 18 at the time of the alleged assaults — and one was as young as 11. The Cap Times is not naming the alleged perpetrators because they have not been charged with crimes.

“It basically robs you of your childhood,” McNulty, 49, of Madison, said in an interview. She has written about her experiences at Calvary Gospel Church on a blog she created in 2017. “I am trying to get justice for my child self… nobody really spoke for her.”

The alleged assaults occurred from the 1980s through around 2005. Some are beyond the state’s statute of limitations for criminal prosecution, which varies in Wisconsin depending on the age of the victim at the time of the alleged crime and type of assault committed.

Clergy are currently not required to report allegations of sexual assault any time allegations are disclosed in private, but one lawmaker is looking to change that. State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, is introducing a bill that would require clergy to be mandatory reporters of sexual assault divulged under any circumstances.

In the meantime, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval has directed officers to be ready to investigate if more victims come forward with reports of abuse from Calvary Gospel. Koval and Kat Riley, an investigative services lieutenant who oversees the special victims unit, met with the group of alleged victims and witnesses last week. 

“We take them incredibly seriously and we will follow through, but we have to have firsthand information to follow through on,” Riley said in an interview.

In response to the allegations, John Seidl, executive pastor of Calvary Gospel Church, who works for the church’s senior leadership, John and Roy Grant, wrote in an email to the Cap Times that “The Pastors and Elders of Calvary Gospel Church are aware of the allegations that have been made. … We are reviewing those allegations. We will continue to cooperate with law enforcement officials as required. We obey and apply all Mandatory Reporting requirements defined by law in Wisconsin.”

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Left to right, Rachel Capacio, Debbie McNulty and Rebecca Martin Byrd meet to discuss their meeting with Madison Police Chief Mike Koval last month where they reported allegations of sexual abuse at Calvary Gospel Church in Madison.

After McNulty created her blog, other women from the church contacted her to share similar stories, along with others from United Pentecostal churches in other states. She now leads a support network that includes 21 people — those who experienced abuse at Calvary Gospel and some family members — which meets in person monthly.

The allegations against Calvary Gospel follow revelations of sexual abuse among a series of churches nationwide — from ongoing reports of past abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church and its associated orders, including the Norbertines in Green Bay last month, to a sweeping investigation earlier this year into sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Baptist denomination in the country.

How communities of faith handle allegations of sexual misconduct and whether they should report them to law enforcement remains a question among churches. Some believe such issues are best resolved internally, where confession, repentance, forgiveness and healing can best occur under the guidance of a pastor and justice should largely be left to God.

In Wisconsin, there is no statute of limitations for prosecuting someone for having sexual contact or sexual intercourse with a minor under the age of 13, according to state law. For sexual contact or sexual intercourse with a minor under the age of 16, the alleged crime can be prosecuted until the victim reaches the age of 45.

Taylor’s bill focuses on the statute of limitations for civil cases only. It would remove any time limit for taking legal action for sex crimes against children perpetrated by an adult. It would also give victims three years after passage to bring a case forward that had been previously outside the statute of limitations.

Another Taylor bill would require all clergy to be mandatory reporters and expand the types of child abuse and neglect that must be reported. It also would eliminate an exception in current law that exempts reporting of information obtained through private conversations.

United Pentecostal Churches emphasize living a life set apart from the broader secular culture. Critics say this can lead to isolation and makes it more difficult for victims to report sexual abuse for fear they will be blamed for it. The churches are hierarchical with strict rules on how women should dress and live their lives, including prohibitions on cutting their hair, wearing pants, makeup or jewelry other than wedding rings or watches.

That approach, when paired with a governing structure where power is concentrated within one pastor or a small group, as it is at Calvary Gospel, can breed a culture of abuse, former members say.

Debbie Mcnulty

Debbie McNulty was a student at Calvary Christian Academy, which has since closed. 

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Debbie McNulty said that by speaking out now about how she was sexually abused as a child, “I am trying to get justice for my child self… nobody really spoke for her.”

Located in a nondescript brown building bordering Wisconsin 30 and surrounded by open fields, Calvary Gospel Church, 5301 Commercial Ave., is one of 235 United Pentecostal International (UPCI) churches in the state, and has a church camp in Shawano, according to the Wisconsin District UPCI website.

The Madison church was established 75 years ago and was led by John W. Grant from 1968 to 2015, when he elevated himself to the position of bishop, according to former members. His son, Roy Grant, became co-pastor of the church in 2013 and now serves as its senior pastor, leading a staff of six pastors.

The Cap Times sent questions to Roy and John Grant, and church staff confirmed that the questions were received. The Grants did not comment on the allegations.

The church has grown from its founding from roughly 300 to about 1,000 members, according to former members, and holds multiple services a week. It operates a full-time child care center and previously ran Calvary Christian Academy, a first through 12th grade school that closed in 2008, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

From 1982 through 1999, when McNulty, Byrd, Huff and Capacio say sexual abuse at Calvary Gospel was rampant, John Grant was the Wisconsin district superintendent for the UPCI.

He presided over Calvary Gospel with a strong hand. Former members said he was revered and obeyed. 

“I feel like John Grant could get in front of the congregation, shoot a child in the head and 95 percent of that congregation would say, ‘Well, it was God’s will,’” Byrd said. “That was the mentality. You just don’t question it.”

How the UPC faith was practiced at Calvary Gospel contributed to the abuse dynamic there, alleged victims say. Those interviewed said attention from older men would often begin during church services, then happen at the church and at the church-run school.

For several people, they were groomed by men as children, married them later, and eventually divorced. Females were taught they were largely responsible for how males behaved sexually.

Children were told the end of the world was always near — that Jesus would soon return and choose who to send to heaven and hell. They were taught that they would go to hell and send others there, too, for dishonoring the church and its leaders — which some believe are divinely appointed by God — by reporting abuse outside the church.

Some were forced to confess their sins with their abuser, at times in front of the congregation. They still struggle with blaming themselves.

Calvary Gospel’s Seidl said the church has a Child Abuse Prevention (CAP) Policy and Procedure in place and added: “All ministry personnel are required to affirm by signature their understanding and commitment concerning the CAP training. We require a background check for all staff, Ministry Leaders, and all of the people in Children’s Ministry, Youth Ministry, and Security,” he wrote.

There is a check-in procedure for everyone entering the children’s ministry wing, he wrote, and church personnel “have been trained to be alert and report any activity that suggests a violation of any of the protective policies or procedures that we have implemented.

“We have no further comment at this time,” Seidl wrote.

CALVARY GOSPEL CHURCH

Calvary Gospel Church was established 75 years ago and was led by John W. Grant from 1968 to 2015, when he elevated himself to the position of bishop, according to former members. His son, Roy Grant, became co-pastor of the church in 2013 and now serves as its senior pastor, leading a staff of six pastors.

For the women who grew up at Calvary Gospel and experienced abuse, the church was their whole life.

“I had no friends, no contacts, nothing, outside of this church group,” said Byrd. And within the church group, her friends had older men pursuing them, too. It was common.

“Everybody knew,” she said.

Debbie McNulty, who was Debbie Rodriguez at the time, was 8 years old when she started attending Calvary Gospel with her parents. She attended school at Calvary Christian Academy and became deeply involved in church culture, volunteering and attending services three times a week.

She frequently hung out with adults from church alone and would get rides to and from activities from them. A married man, about 29, gave her a ride home one day. She was 11. He stopped to get her ice cream and as they ate it, he held her hand.

“I remember that moment. Like I know exactly where we were, I know what street we were on. And I remember in that moment being like, 'This is weird,’” McNulty said.

The man, who now leads a church in another community, continued to pursue her, she said. Holding her hand turned into trying to kiss her, which led to sexual touching.

Her parents were going through a divorce at the time and were rarely around. At times the family would run out of money and food. Their electricity would periodically be shut off. She became more attached to the man.

“But I didn't know how to cope with this other stuff that came along with it,” she said. After assaulting her, the man would publicly repent at church and go to the altar and cry. For a while, she believed it would end.

“He would be like, ‘I’m not gonna do this anymore. I still want to spend time with you but I’m not gonna touch you or whatever,’” she said. “And he made me feel a lot of guilt and responsibility for what was happening.”

But it always continued. After he touched her, she would go home and beg God to forgive her, she wrote in her first blog entry in December 2017.

“I felt like my very body was a sin, a trap for men to fall into,” she wrote.

After the man allegedly tried to rape her when she was 12, McNulty went to her pastor, John Grant, and told him what was happening. He recorded the conversation and told her he would get back to her. He never did, she said.

She felt stamped with a scarlet letter.

“It was like I was now the church slut,” she said. She continued to attend church and the school for a few years and left for good when she was 16.

“It was just last year that I was able to say to myself, you know, ‘I was raped.’ It doesn’t have to be intercourse. If someone’s like sticking their fingers up inside of you when you’re a 12-year-old, you can’t consent to that,” she said. The #MeToo movement encouraged her to tell her story publicly.

The Cap Times contacted her alleged perpetrator and he did not return a message left on his voicemail, or emails requesting comment, as of Tuesday morning.

McNulty filed a police report about the alleged abuse in 2017, the contents of which match the account she gave to the Cap Times. After meeting with the Dane County District Attorney’s Office in March 2018, Madison Police Detective Angela Komoske told McNulty that the allegations were beyond the state’s statute of limitations and closed the case, according to the report. 

Though it was more than 30 years ago, the church’s response to her abuse, or the lack thereof, still matters because the alleged perpetrators are still congregants, McNulty said.

When other adults knew what was happening and did nothing, it emboldened the men and signaled to others that sexually pursuing and grooming underage girls was OK, McNulty said.

“They just started to dip their toes a little younger, a little younger,” she said. “Pedophiles don't stop being pedophiles until they’re caught. So I don't have any reason to believe that it isn't still happening.” 

Others have similar stories, to varying degrees. Rachel Capacio, 31, was born into the church, attended school there and said she was pursued by an adult man when she was a minor. Capacio left the church in 2007.

Rachel Huff, who is Rebecca Martin Byrd’s sister, said she was assaulted. A man at church began pursuing her when she was 14 and he was 29. When she was 15, they were physical but stopped short of intercourse, she said, for fear it would send her to hell. 

The relationship was seen by the congregation as a consensual one. They were considered to be “dating,” she said. At the time, Huff said it felt like she was special.

“These men being popular and connected, it definitely sort of boosts your place because you have this connection to them,” Huff said. “This idea of ‘Wow, he chose me, he is so popular. He could have anybody and he chose me.’”

Because the church was her whole world, the attention was validation she was not getting elsewhere.

“You really cannot be popular in mainstream culture so your only place to get that is from your church,” she said. 

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Debbie's husband Shawn McNulty, Rachel Capacio, Debbie McNulty and Rebecca Martin Byrd gather to discuss the abuse the women say they endured as children at Calvary Gospel Church.

Jon Eckenrod, a former ordained minister in the UPCI and former associate pastor at Calvary Gospel Church, now says he was aware of instances where older men pursued young girls while he taught at the church and school. He heard rumors of other sexual improprieties with members, but said he always deferred to Grant on how best to handle them and never sought details. 

Eckenrod and his family left the church in 2007 after their theology started to change and were largely shunned, he said. When he read McNulty’s blog shortly after it was published, things made sense.

He supports McNulty and the other women, and said UPC clergy often have no formal counseling or theology training and are ill-equipped to handle such problems. He doesn’t absolve himself of his responsibility to have intervened during his time there, but said he also understands why, in some cases, the response was muddled for people in the church who were tasked with handling abuse allegations.

“Especially in the UPC, most ministers are woefully unqualified to help anybody that is a sexual offender,” Eckenrod said.

In many instances, UPC ministers emphasize prayer and scripture memorization as antidotes to most problems, but often that is not the best way to help someone, he said.

His wife, Kathy Eckenrod, grew up attending other UPCI churches and said while she had positive experiences, when she saw older men pursuing girls at Calvary Gospel, she thought it was odd.

"I thought it was weird that these people with such big age gaps would be dating. I was naive ... and I assumed these men of God were respecting them," she said. "There wasn’t a safe place for people (in the congregation) to come and say they were struggling with something because then there is shame involved in that."

Ultimately, John Grant should take responsibility for his role in how these cases were handled, Jon Eckenrod said.

“Let the whole thing come out into the light,” Eckenrod said. “Let’s change the culture completely and let’s have those churches and leaders apologize.”

In 2015, Calvary’s current senior pastor, Roy Grant, discouraged one mother from reporting a sexual assault to police, according to a police report of the case.

In the assault, which was investigated by Sun Prairie police, an 11-year-old girl in the congregation repeatedly sexually assaulted a 6-year-old boy who also attended Calvary Gospel Church.

The girl used graphic language to ask the boy to perform sex acts on her. She later told police she got ideas about sex from watching pornography on a family computer, according to the report.

The boy’s mother told police she “immediately called her pastor from the church” who was Roy Grant. They had a meeting and “at this meeting they agreed that they were not going to contact the police,” according to the report.

After some time passed, the mother of the victim contacted Roy Grant again, “indicating that she did not feel anything was taking place and that she was frustrated. She was again criticized for wanting to contact the police or report this to anyone because it was a family and church issue,” according to the police report.

Later, as the mother got more frustrated, she was “vocal to her pastor about this. She did describe to me that her husband did receive a phone call from (the pastor) indicating that he needed to address his wife, as she was being disrespectful to the pastor,” according to the report.

Rachel Capacio

Rachel Capacio was a student at Calvary Christian Academy, which was run by Calvary Gospel Church.

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Rachel Capacio, 31, was born into the church, attended school there and said she was pursued by an adult man when she was a minor. Capacio left the church in 2007.

Laura Anderson observed her daughter being pursued by a man at Calvary Gospel and brought it to the attention of the church leadership repeatedly, she said. Nothing was done to the alleged perpetrator, and her daughter — who gave her consent to the Cap Times for her mother to tell her story — was later blamed and shunned by the congregation in 1993 for having sex with the man.

Her daughter was 9 and singing in the children’s choir when she was singled out by a man, said Anderson, who attended Calvary Gospel for 22 years, led Bible study and taught in the church’s school.

The man was charismatic. He would wave at her and find ways to give her attention.

Anderson and her husband, Dan, noticed and told him to stop. When he didn’t and Anderson caught him talking to her daughter secretly at school and at other church events, she told John Grant. The concerns were dismissed and nothing was done, she said.

When Anderson’s daughter became a teenager, she told a friend in the church that she was having sex with the man. Eventually John Grant found out, Anderson said.

Grant called a meeting and told Anderson that her daughter would have to confess her sexual sin in front of adult women in the church and be removed from the church’s youth group and school.

“One of the elders said to us, ‘You should be glad we’re not in the Old Testament, otherwise she’d be stoned,” she said.

Byrd and Huff were peers of Anderson’s daughter and confirm they were told to shun her. Fearing for their own salvation and place in the church, they did.

“It puts me in tears for the lost years and bringing up our kids in this and exposing them to this,” Anderson said. “We thought we were doing the right thing, but we harmed them. I get so angry at myself for being so stupid.”

For Rebecca Martin Byrd, the grooming began in Sunday school around 1986.

She was 10. Her teacher, who later went on to sexually assault her, she says, was 27. He gave her special attention in class and flirted with her — a dynamic others, including her parents, noticed, she said. Classmates often teased her for being his “little girlfriend,” she said.

The man was a rising star and pursuing the ministry. His attention raised her family’s social status in the congregation, she said.

He bought her clothes, often took her out for meals, and showed up at her school, which was at the church. They hung out alone frequently with the consent of her parents, who let her skip school to see him, never enforced a curfew, or intervened, she said.

The sexual advances started when she was 12. In public with other people from church, he wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her neck, she said. As he drove her home from activities, he would pull over the car, roll on top of her, kiss her, then touch her under her skirt.

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When Rebecca Martin Byrd filed for divorce from her alleged abuser, she was shunned. Friends she had known her whole life stopped speaking to her. "You're not only just victimized when you're raped again and again, you're victimized when you try to say anything against it," she said.

“At first I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is weird. Why is this happening? But then as it progressed and nobody was doing anything … he was a great man of God, so then it must be OK.

“You don’t ask questions, what they say goes,” Byrd said. 

She felt uncomfortable and didn’t want to do what they were doing but thought they were in a relationship. She thought, “I guess this is what you do in relationships.”

At 14, she said, he started raping her. Each time that happened, he made her kneel on the floor with him and recite Psalm 51, where David asks God for forgiveness after committing adultery with Bathsheba:

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”

She read it every time. The sexual abuse continued. It was humiliating, she said. 

“You feel helpless and worthless and you feel like trash,” she said. “There was no equality in that relationship.”

The alleged perpetrator denies Byrd’s allegations.

“I think she is just mad at the church and doesn’t like the church,” he said when reached by phone. “I don’t have any comments. It just sounds like a group of people that are disgruntled.”

When asked whether he did sexually pursue Byrd when she was 12, he said, “Wow, see, that is ridiculous. I don’t want to comment on that garbage.”

John Grant eventually heard about the allegations and called Byrd and her family into his office. He told her that if she told people about what was going on between her and the man, she would “ruin his life,” Byrd said. 

“It would make the church look bad and if the church looks bad then people won’t want to come to church and get saved and they’re going to burn in hell,” she said. “As a 12-year-old child, we were tortured with the idea of hell. So that was a massive deal.”

When Byrd turned 18 they got married at her request. She had been doing sexual things with him since she was 12, and thought marriage was the right thing to do — what she needed to do to make it not a sin.

“In my mind, I had no choice. This is what God wanted for me.”

She was married at Calvary Gospel by John Grant. Her parents paid to cater a dinner for 200 people. She remembers wishing she could crawl out the window.

The marriage lasted 10 years. She had two children with her alleged abuser and left after realizing she was suicidal.

“I remember thinking, ‘I literally hate my life so much. I would rather die than live my life anymore.”

When she filed for divorce, she was shunned. Friends she had known her whole life stopped speaking to her.

“You’re not only just victimized when you’re raped again and again, you’re victimized when you try to say anything against it,” she said.

After leaving the church she went to nursing school and worked as a single mom and now works as a Registered Nurse. She has since remarried and has two more children.

Byrd said she feels that the trauma she endured left an indelible mark on her and has irrevocably shaped her brain. She struggles to trust others, compartmentalizes her emotions and is hyper vigilant.

She’s also angry. She looks back at photos of herself from her days at Calvary Gospel and is repulsed.

“You idiot,” she says she thinks. If her former self had even an ounce of the strength she has now, maybe things could have been different. “I look at myself and I hate it all because I hate that person I see in those pictures. In a way I feel bad for her, but in a way I hate her.”

She is scheduled to file a formal report of the alleged assaults to Madison Police on Aug. 7. 

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.