The International Churches of Christ is facing a lawsuit filed by five California women for allegedly covering up child sexual abuse and pressuring group members to give money.
The five women include sisters Bernice Perez, 31 and Darleen Diaz, 33, as well as Elena Peltola, 23, Salud Gonzelez, 30 and Ashley Ruiz, 31.
According to The Christian Post, the women claim that the ICOC and its affiliates, Mercy Worldwide, Hope Worldwide, the City of Angels International Christian Church and the International Christian Church, “indoctrinated” them and restricted them from the outside world.
The women say they were sexually exploited and manipulated during their time with the group.
The sisters and Ruiz say a man at the church, now convicted pedophile David Saracino, abused them, but the church did nothing to help them.
According to their claims, the women say Saracino invited children to his house to swim in his pool, but when they undressed, he would tell the girls “they needed a bath, and he used that opportunity to heavily fondle their naked bodies while they were bathing.”
“Even though the sexual abuse happened to me in the ICOC at around age five and robbed me of my childhood, the trauma also followed me into my adulthood, where I feel like I am always in survival mode,” Ruiz told Rolling Stone. “Having some sort of legal closure and acknowledgment about what happened to me as a child will… be tremendously helpful!”
Saracino eventually fled before he could be arrested – the women say church leaders tipped him off to leave. However, in 2012 he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for raping a child.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez said a Sunday School teacher sexually assaulted her starting when she was 4. She said she was again abused as a teenager when she was part of a church-affiliated rehab program.
Peltola says she was raped in 2012 by a church member while on a mission trip in Honduras. She said she reported the crime, but church leaders blamed her, and she was eventually kicked out of the church.
“For decades, members of the ICOC/ICC and its affiliates groomed and sexually abused children as young as three years old,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Bobby Samini, told Rolling Stone in a statement. “Instead of reporting the sexual abuse to law enforcement, ‘church’ leaders shamelessly targeted and blamed the survivors, admonishing them that they ‘risked losing their salvation’ unless they forgave their abusers. The lawsuit … will expose the perpetrators at the ICOC/ICC and its affiliates who claim piety, all the while enabling the sexual abuse of children.”
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Amanda Casanova is a writer living in Dallas, Texas. She has covered news for ChristianHeadlines.com since 2014. She has also contributed to The Houston Chronicle, U.S. News and World Report and IBelieve.com. She blogs at The Migraine Runner.