The abuser, Aaron Thompson
A friend of mine sent me a link to a tragic, all too common, story of abuse at an Evangelical Christian school in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
Kiera Feldman, in a feature story for This Land, wrote:
No more sleepovers. No more babysitting, or car rides home. No more being alone with children or “lingering hugs given to students (especially using your hands to stroke or fondle).” Aaron Thompson—Coach Thompson to his PE students—sat in the principal’s office at Grace Fellowship Christian School as his bosses went through the four-page Corrective Action Plan point by point. It was October of 2001, the same month Aaron added “Teacher of the Week” to his resume.
Grace’s leader, Bob Yandian—“Pastor Bob” as everyone calls him—wasn’t there: no need, he had people for this kind of thing. Pastor Bob’s time was better spent sequestered in his study, writing books and radio broadcasts. His lieutenant, Associate Pastor Chip Olin, was a hardnosed guy, “ornery as heck,” people said. Olin brought a USA Today article on the characteristics of child molesters to the meeting. At age 24, Olin explained, Aaron was acting immature and unprofessional, and someone might get the wrong idea.
The first two recommendations of what became known as the “do not fondle” agreement were prayer and “building relationships with young men and women of your age group in Sunday School and Singles group activities” at Grace Church, which ran the school. “Leaders in the kingdom are judged not so much by what they accomplish as by the character they reveal—who they are before what they do,” the document continued (pages 1, 2, 3, & 4). Aaron was to “live a lifestyle above reproach”—to act such that no one would question his character.
Associate Pastor Olin let head administrator John Dunlavey, Aaron’s other boss, do much of the talking. Olin had only just read the Corrective Action Plan for the first time as he walked down the hall en route to the meeting. He was mostly there as an observer. It was Dunlavey’s brainchild, after all.
Dunlavey didn’t mean that kind of “fondle.” He tacked it on, thinking it best described the overly affectionate hug-plus-hand-stroking he saw Aaron give a boy one day at lunch. With his big, square glasses and brow that furrowed in concentration, Dunlavey was more the earnest science teacher he once was than the administrator he’d become. He looked up “fondle” in the dictionary, and it seemed the most precise. Science guys love precision.
Dunlavey didn’t think babysitting and all the rest were problems, just symptoms: Aaron had become too close to Grace families. Misplaced loyalties. That was the real issue.
Young boys were leaving Grace over the past few years, and no one knew why. One boy moved a full 1200 miles away. He still skateboarded with friends and did normal kid stuff, but he was having horrible nightmares and failing classes, unable to contain his inexplicable fury at teachers. At one point, he told his mother he couldn’t stand how he felt and no longer wished to live. But Grace’s leaders would not know or would not admit such things about their flock until much later….
….Aaron Thompson was the teacher all the girls had crushes on and all the boys idolized. The younger kids mobbed him around campus and clamored for hugs. His smile was radiant, his Believer’s pedigree sterling. Aaron had grown up at Grace Church. In high school, he was senior class president and a star basketball player, before heading to nearby Oral Roberts University. Parents frequently had Aaron over for dinner, asked him to babysit, or hoped he could stay with the kids for a week while they went on vacation. Aaron fielded invites for family outings big and small, from camping trips to ice cream at Braum’s after church. Parents were delighted to have a young man like Aaron in their children’s lives. He was the golden boy of Grace Church.
And yet, in August of 2001, prior to the signing of the “do not fondle” agreement, Grace received an unsigned letter. It read:
“This is a matter of life or death for a child or children. People have been known to commit suicide for this very reason … everything you need to know will be revealed if you will monitor the boy’s locker room and private hallways or areas when no one is around, especially before and after the PE classes. Watch your staff when they are alone with young boys, even for two minutes. Ask yourself, ‘Why have certain boys left Grace?’ and ‘Why are some boys tardy often?’ ”
Olin didn’t think the letter was about Aaron to begin with; Dunlavey came to agree as the meeting with Aaron wore on. Yet still, Dunlavey thought, perhaps Aaron’s behavior was being misconstrued somehow, and so he read the letter aloud.
“Aaron, is this you?” Dunlavey asked. “Are you doing anything that might cause somebody to write this kind of a letter?” Aaron assured them he was doing no wrong. He was repentant, open to correction. Olin had high hopes for Aaron. Everyone did. For the remainder of the school year, Aaron was on probation. Violation of the agreement would mean termination. Olin, Dunlavey, and Pastor Bob would discuss Aaron’s progress during their weekly meetings.
Aaron left Grace and headed to Cheddar’s, a nearby restaurant, to meet with the teachers on his unit. They were the Specials Teachers, the “Special Ts,” they called themselves, a tight-knit crew that taught subjects like PE, music, and Spanish—all women except for Aaron. Aaron plopped down in the booth, late and very upset. “What’s wrong?” asked Laura Prochaska, the computers teacher. “We’re your sisters. Talk to us.”
Aaron swore them to secrecy, then confided that Grace made him sign papers saying he could never take kids to the movies or babysit or hug them. “I can’t be their big brother,” he lamented.
“Just don’t do anything questionable that they could get you for,” Prochaska advised. “They must not think it’s such a big deal, but they want to protect themselves by having you sign this contract.”
“Maybe you should think about quitting,” another teacher added, encouraging him to take the protest route.
“No, no. I’m not a quitter,” Aaron told them. “I’m going to see this through.”
The “Special Ts” didn’t know he’d already been molesting children at Grace for years. From that day in October until his arrest on March 25, 2002, Aaron Thompson would sexually abuse four more boys. One of them was the son of a teacher sitting there in the restaurant booth…
This is but a small portion of the story. PLEASE make sure read the entire story.
First, let me commend Kiera Feldman for her bulldog investigative reporting. This piece is through and I can only imagine how much time she invested into putting this story together. This piece deserves a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.
My friend, a former Evangelical Christian, posted this story to her Facebook timeline. A Christian friend commented:
I really hope that you don’t believe that all Christians are like this.. this was very wrong and unfortunate and should have been handled a lot better! Just because I have a relationship with Christ and believe His love and attributes, and that he gave us grace through his death so that we can be forgiven, does not mean that I believe someone should ever get away with this whether they claim to be a Christian or are in a Christian school or church. Please realize this as I feel like you have a blanket feeling about all believers when unfortunately things like this happen, as they do in the regular secular world ALL The time.. No one is perfect, we are all sinners and even Christians still sin because we live in a fallen world, though this does not mean that those that do these things should not have justice brought, and I hate that Anyone is a victim of any of these crimes. The reality is that unless we realize that there is sin, and how horrific it is to an Almighty and just God then we will never understand why we even need saving, making the cross pointless to us.. but once we do, and we can see how much Christ loves us, and that through that love we see forgiveness and grace then its a heart change that its greater than you could even imagine! Its a hope and a love.. its not about the Bible being some horrible law we have to follow, but something we desire to read, learn from and follow out of love for Jesus and I really believe that it is a true change when you have relationship with Christ. I don’t know what you were taught you growing up but you have mentioned a few things and it sounds like it was very legalistic, and that your parents didn’t want you to make the same mistakes they did, but there was a lack of the love and grace of God, and the relationship where you make mistakes on your own and grow in that.. maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know why you seem to be so angry about Christians, but it breaks my heart, and it is really hard for me to read some of the posts you put. You put very hateful things against Christians that do not apply to everyone, though unfortunately there are those whose sins are magnified 100 fold and you take them, post them and then ridicule those that do believe. So then I ask you where is the grace in that… (personal identifiers and text removed)
A couple of points on the friend’s response to the abuse story.
First, notice how little she actually talks about the story itself. It seems she is saying that yes, there are Christians who do bad things but not ALL Christians do bad things. (and my friend would never suggest otherwise)
Second, this person uses the bulk of her response to PREACH at my friend. Now this has happened to her countless times, but it seems Evangelicals just can’t help themselves, like a man addicted to porn who can’t stop going to porn sites, they just have to get a word in for Jesus.
Third, this person is most upset that my friend’s posts to her timeline upset other Christians. Well, they SHOULD be upset. Grace Church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma should have thousands of Evangelicals standing in their front yard picketing and condemning what took place there.
But Evangelicals don’t do that. They make excuses. They cover over the sins of their fellow Christians. After all everyone is a sinner, yes? Bullshit. Not everyone does what this pervert did. Not everyone turns a blind eye to abuse like the church leadership did.
Grace Church should be bankrupt and out of business but they are not. Why?
Bob Yandian should have been fired. Why wasn’t he? Why does he still have a “ministry?”
Enough of the justifications. Enough of the ass-covering.
Fourth, this person wants my friend to know not ALL Christians do things like those mentioned in the story. No one would dispute this, however, the abuse stories seem to be quite common these days. (previous post,previous post) When do we reach a point where the stories are a big enough mass that we say there is something rotten at the core? I think we have reached a point where it is prudent to advise parents that Evangelical churches and Christian schools are dangerous places for children and they should think twice about entrusting their children to Evangelical pastors, deacons, teachers, and leaders.
My friend responded to the Facebook comment. She wrote:
Please know that there is no hate in my heart toward anyone, regardless of the religion they choose. That’s a very personal decision. Just as I can’t minimize another person’s choice of faith to “what happened when you grew up”, please don’t minimize my choices with that sort of assumption. The decision to leave the Christian faith was personal, yes, but also based on intellectual reasons. I don’t “hate” anyone for not choosing as I have, and in fact have devoted my life and career to helping people, myself included, learn ways of coping with life’s tough times; as we know, many of the toughest times are due to relationships that aren’t what they could or should be due to differences and/or a lack of respect for self or others.
Everyone is free to make judgments about ANY idea or thought we encounter. In fact, we must. It is irresponsible not to understand the scope and consequences of our beliefs-religious or otherwise- and see how they affect our behavior upon the world we live in and are part of. My postings regarding anything having to do with religion aren’t attacks against believers, but the dangerous signing away of our responsibility to weigh the results of beliefs with reason instead of fearing authority, no matter how high that authority goes. (Or just going along with the flow.) As a parent, I’d be absolutely wrong, I believe, if I taught my kids to accept the word of any person as truth, just because that person or source is “always truth”. This is dangerous and absurd. But not an attack on a believer, although I’ve come to realize that somehow the two become one as the person loses identity in the belief system, or like me and lots of others, never had the freedom to form an identity based on my own conclusions.
Nevertheless, individual people are responsible for what they believe and for the direct affect of their behavior on others. In stating the harm and absurdity of a thought/belief, I would hope that someone, as intended, would shift the focus to whether or not the statement is reasonable or true at all, not taking it as a personal attack. In posting about Grace Church, there’s no excuse for NOT drawing attention to an institution that fails to protect children, and even covers it up. This isn’t hatred for believers, but for what you would call SIN. And if believers in the know aren’t doing their job, be sure that someone else will.
I’ve taken to saying “Love the believer, hate the belief”, usually in jest, because I don’t really hate anyone’s beliefs. To judge an idea, a “truth” based on its outcome and its affect on human behavior is just the thing we are meant to do, no emotional reaction required. We won’t always arrive at the same conclusion, but again, as someone who loves life and love and truth, that’s not necessary for me to be able to love and live with many, many trusted friends and family who don’t see eye-to-eye with me. (Personal identifiers and text removed)
It is time for Evangelicals to quit whining about being persecuted or offended when the dark, dirty secrets of their fellow Evangelicals are revealed. Their time would be better spent policing their own ranks and making sure that stories like this one NEVER happen again. Instead of being upset that they are being made to LOOK bad, how about doing what is necessary to make sure they DON’T look bad.
The reporters and unbelievers are not the problem. Evangelicals themselves are their own worst enemy. If they want a good testimony in the world I suggest they do what is necessary to have a good testimony. Until this happens, all I hear is flapping lips.
Grace Church, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
Bob Yandian, pastor of Grace Church
Bob Yandian Facebook page
Aaron Thompson record, Oklahoma Department of Corrections
A Tulsa World report from 2009:
A new round of civil action has commenced in Tulsa County District Court related to the case of a former teacher who is in prison for molesting students.
A lawsuit was filed recently against Grace Fellowship Church, Grace Christian School and related entities, alleging that they were negligent in failing to prevent or stop abuse by Aaron Thompson when he was a teacher at the school.
Thompson, now 32, pleaded guilty in 2003 to 16 counts of lewd molestation and two counts of sexually abusing a child. In a plea deal, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison plus 15 years of probation.
The criminal counts involved nine boys and covered a time frame from 1997 to March 2002. The boys ranged in age from 7 to 13 or 14 when they were molested, a prosecutor said previously.
Thompson is at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington, the Department of Corrections’ Web site shows.
A recent lawsuit filed on behalf of a woman and her teenage son alleges that Thompson sexually abused the son, who was a student at Grace, 9610 S. Garnett Road.
The lawsuit refers to the parent under the pseudonym of Mary Roe and lists her son as John Doe.
The suit seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $10,000.
In addition to Grace entities, five people who have held church or school leadership roles are named as defendants — Grace Pastor Bob Yandian, John Dunlavey, Mary Ellen Hood, Dee Ann McKay and Chip Olin.
Newspaper records indicate that Olin, an associate pastor at Grace, died in 2007.
Attorney James Frasier, representing the plaintiffs, said John Doe was 17 when the case was filed June 26.
Lawyers indicated that as statutes apply to minors, John Doe had until his 19th birthday to initiate a lawsuit.
The consequences of “these horrible acts” are lifelong, and he had an “absolute right” to wait until now to pursue a suit, Frasier said.
He would not say whether his client was one of the victims involved in the criminal charges against Thompson, who is not listed as a defendant in the new civil suit.
Michael King, an attorney for Grace Church, said Thursday that he needed more information — including the identity of John Doe — before he could address the merits of the suit.
“I certainly believe in the people at Grace,” King said. “They do a lot of good things out there.”
In 2004, on the verge of the end of a seven-week trial, a confidential settlement was reached to resolve all issues in a suit by five boys who were molested by Thompson. The claims of two more boys who had been involved in that civil case were settled before that 2004 trial.
In 2005, another confidential settlement was reached to resolve another suit on behalf of another of Thompson’s molestation victims.
Plaintiffs in the previous cases were also given pseudonyms in court documents.
A victim of Aaron Thompson left the following comment on the Tulsa World article (spelling corrected):
I was molested by Aaron Thompson and I also sued Grace. During the trail, they were absolutely ruthless against us. They accused us of seducing Aaron and treated us like we were nothing more than numbers on page. Honestly, the painful memories of my molestation pale in comparison to the memories of how Grace treated us during that trial.
They knew something was going on with Aaron. Parents were coming forward about him for nearly a year before he was arrested. How many boys do you think he molested in that years time? How many boys they could have spared by taking Aaron off the school grounds while they did the investigation?
They cared more about protecting their money and reputation than they did us kids who had our innocence stolen on their watch. Yandian is fooling anyone who believes he’s a godly man. It’s not just his lawyers who were ruthless…he himself was. He himself quoted scriptures to me condemning me for suing his organization. He himself told me none of us deserved anything for what happened to us. So how dare any of you pass judgement on those boys. It’s the very opposite of what I’ve always known to be Christianity. Grace right now is shaping the way those boys view the church and god and Christianity. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to trust a church again.
Jesus wouldn’t just flip the tables within Grace Fellowship over. He’d burn the whole place down.