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Heather Cook, the associate pastor at College Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Lancaster, Massachusetts, has been accused by parents of skinny dipping with their children while on a church camping trip. The fallout from the nude bathing resulted in conflict between Cook and church member Randall Gifford, leading to Cook requesting a restraining order against Gifford.
Melissa Hanson, a reporter for MassLive, writes:
An incident of outdoor nude bathing during a camping trip between chaperones and students from religious private school and church may have actually been skinny dipping between a pastor and students.
A state Department of Children and Families investigation launched earlier this year after a concerned parent reported the incident to the principal of South Lancaster Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Lancaster, MassLive reported earlier this month.
Fallout from the incident led to Heather Cook, the associate pastor at the College Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Lancaster, seeking a restraining order against a congregation member after that member spoke to her about the apparent skinny dipping incident.
Cook allegedly took off her clothes and went into a public body of water in Maine with the female students, some of whom were minors, during an annual “senior survival” trip held by South Lancaster Academy.
“There was a field trip involved with minor children where the pastor disrobed and went skinny dipping with them,” attorney Danielle Thomason, counsel for Randall Gifford, the congregation member, said at Clinton District Court on Tuesday. “Parents were outraged. Some parents weren’t, some parents were.”
The hearing was the first time the incident at the senior survival trip was publicly referred to as skinny dipping.
“She has been accused of inappropriate sexual misconduct with students at the school on a trip in Maine,” Thomason said, according to audio of the hearing.
The Southern New England Conference, which oversees South Lancaster Academy as well as other schools and churches in the area, stated earlier this month that there was a “nude bathing” incident on the trip.
Cook filed an affidavit asking for a restraining order against Gifford, a longtime member of the congregation.
In her affidavit, Cook wrote that Gifford met with her and two other parties on Nov. 27 to “reconcile perceived misunderstandings.” However, Cook claimed that Gifford then threatened her.
“During the course of the meeting, Randy stated he was the most powerful man in town and could ‘make me disappear,'” Cook wrote. “He also claimed connections to the government and said he ‘would be watching me in ways I couldn’t imagine.’ He also stated he could destroy me and take everything I had.”
An investigation into the incident by DCF has been completed. Findings by the agency are not public.
“Your honor, there has been an investigation, which is now closed,” Cook told the judge. “It went to the DA’s office in Maine and all criminal charges were dropped. There was absolutely nothing found.
“The DCF investigation is also closed,” she added. “This is purely a harassment order. This has nothing to do with what happened in Maine.”
The Maine trip took place in September. A parent reported concerns about the trip to South Lancaster Academy Principal Jeffrey Lambert in October.
While Cook acknowledged that something did happen in Maine, she did not use the term “skinny dipping” or make any specific statements about the incident during her testimony.
Two chaperones went on the trip in Maine. The conference identified one as a female church employee, who was placed on paid administrative leave and asked not to participate in any church activities. That leave was later lifted.
The other chaperone was just identified as a female chaperone.
Both chaperones have stated the nude bathing was for hygienic reasons, a letter previously released by Lambert read.
Senior Pastor Luis Garcia, who was with Cook and Gifford during the Nov. 27 meeting, was called to testify regarding the restraining order.
In recounting the meeting in which Cook claims Gifford threatened her, Garcia said Cook became emotional at one point in the meeting.
“Tears were even shed as Mrs. Cook was expressing how terrible she felt about the whole situation with the camping trip in Maine,” Garcia testified.
He told the court that the meeting was civil and seemed like it was leading to a resolution.
Thomason asked Garcia if he meant that Cook “felt awful about the incident in Maine.”
“No,” he said, clarifying that she “felt awful about how everything has developed and transpired since then.”
Garcia said that some church members have asked him about the trip in Maine, but he could not disclose details of those conversations because they were confidential exchanges with a pastor.
Thomason also brought up some nude photos that Cook reportedly “liked” using her Instagram account, saying that Gifford felt it was inappropriate for girls in the congregation to see that material through Cook and the social media platform.
“Everything that’s going on here again surrounds the controversy with what some feel is inappropriate behavior of the youth pastor and this is what my client has stated,” Thomason said. She told the judge that there were two parents in the courtroom whose children were “deeply affected by the stripping in Maine.”
Earlier this month, a teacher was placed on paid administrative leave from South Lancaster Academy after multiple former students contacted the principal alleging inappropriate behavior by the teacher during their time as students.
Scott Fellows will remain on leave until Worcester County District Attorney’s office investigates further and decides on a legal course of action, Dennis, of the Southern New England Conference, wrote in a letter dated Dec. 20.
Fellows, the chairman of the school’s English department, also went on the senior survival trip in Maine.
“In regard to Scott Fellows, our initial review of allegations did not reveal any connection to Senior Survival,” Dennis said Friday. “The police and District Attorney are conducting the investigation and we await their report.”
….. Heather is an associate pastor at the Atlantic Union College Church in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. She has spent seven years in ministry, two as the youth pastor at the Connecticut Valley Church, two as an ethics and religion teacher at Hong Kong Adventist College, and three in her present position. Heather holds a BA in theology from Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. She says, “I love people, creating, travel, running, pushing myself, and my babies.” Married to Dustan Cook, physical education teacher at South Lancaster Academy, Heather has twin girls …. **** and ****.