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Black Collar Crime: Evangelical Youth Pastor Robert Fenton Accused of Sexually Abusing Church Teen

pastor robert fenton

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

Robert Fenton, a former youth pastor at Abide in the Vine Church in Owego, New York, stands accused of sexually abusing a church teenager in the 1990s.

WHTM-27 reports:

A former youth pastor from Bradford County has been accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl over 20 years ago during a church-approved “betrothal,” according to the Pennsylvania Attorney General.

Robert Fenton, 52, is being charged with sexually abusing and assaulting a 14-year-old girl from 1996 to 1998 in Bradford County, when he was 26 years old. According to the announcement from the AG’s office, Fenton allegedly claimed that “God wanted the victim to be his spouse” because of a vision he had. The AG further explained that Fenton allegedly got approval from leaders at Abide in the Vine Church to “betroth” the girl to him “with an understanding that no sexual activity would occur.”

The alleged victim, now over 40 years old, first told police about the abuse in 2019, according to the criminal complaint released with the announcement. After the “betrothal,” the victim said Fenton allegedly convinced her parents to take her out of public school so he could visit her at home. Fenton allegedly touched the girl’s genitals and made her touch him.

In 1998, the victim said she and Fenton got engaged, at which point he allegedly made her perform oral sex on him, the affidavit said.

After the wedding was called off because Fenton reportedly got pancreatitis, the relationship ended around August-September 1998. Fenton then allegedly told the girl that she ruined his ministry before moving to Australia. The AG’s Office said that Fenton is a paster at a church in Queensland, Australia.

Once the AG’s office took over the investigation in July 2021, officers interviewed friends of the victim, congregation members, and her parents. Her parents reportedly explained that they were aware of and agreed to Fenton’s betrothal. They also said that the church elders at one point set up a 6-month “no contact” period, during which Fenton and the girl could only write letters. However, the parents claimed that Fenton would “push the boundaries”.

The pastor of the church was reportedly unsupportive of the relationship when Fenton first explained his vision. However, the pastor’s son told the AG’s office that the girl’s family and Fenton pressured the pastor and likened the relationship to Mary and Joseph, with Mary being much younger. The pastor’s son said that his father didn’t know the relationship was sexual.

….

Fenton has been charged with Indecent Assault of a Person under 16, Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse with a Person Under 16, Aggravated Indecent Assault, Corruption of Minors, and Statutory Sexual Assault. The AG said his office will work with the U.S. State Department and Department of Justice to try to extradite Fenton from Australia.

“The defendant used his power and authority in his religious community to lie, manipulate and regularly abuse a young girl in his community. I promised we would hold anyone who was abusing children accountable – and Robert Fenton is no exception,” said Attorney General Shapiro. “Survivors experience a lifetime of anguish and trauma trying to overcome the impact of abuse. I want survivors to know – we believe you, and we will not let predators get away with the sexual assault of children.”

The website for Pennsylvania’s Attorney General states:

Attorney General Josh Shapiro today announced the charges against former youth pastor Robert Fenton for regularly assaulting a 14-year-old member of his religious community from 1996 to 1998.

Fenton, 52, is believed to be associated with a church in the Queensland area of Australia as a pastor. A letter has been dispatched to the church notifying them of the charges. The Office of Attorney General will seek his extradition in cooperation with the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Justice. He was charged with statutory sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, indecent assault and related charges. His alleged victim, now in her 40s, reported to the Pennsylvania State Police that the defendant began sexually abusing her when she was approximately 14 years old and Fenton was 26.

“The defendant used his power and authority in his religious community to lie, manipulate and regularly abuse a young girl in his community. I promised we would hold anyone who was abusing children accountable – and Robert Fenton is no exception,” said Attorney General Shapiro. “Survivors experience a lifetime of anguish and trauma trying to overcome the impact of abuse. I want survivors to know – we believe you, and we will not let predators get away with the sexual assault of children.”

In July 2021, the Office of Attorney General in partnership with state police began investigating the case following a referral by the Bradford County District Attorney’s Office. Investigators learned that Fenton was a youth pastor in Bradford County and declared that God wanted the victim to be his spouse. He sought and received the approval of church leaders to “betroth” the victim to him with an understanding that no sexual activity would occur. However, between 1996 and 1998 the victim sustained frequent sexual abuse by Fenton.

Between July 2021 and February 2022, investigators interviewed multiple former church officials and associates of Fenton and the victim. These interviews corroborated the victim’s allegations, stating that they recalled then 26-year-old Fenton was in a “relationship” with the victim and understood them to be “betrothed” with the blessing of their religious community. The victim came forward to law enforcement after leaving the religious community and seeking counseling for the trauma inflicted by Fenton’s abuse.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    As awful as his crime is, I am, unfortunately not surprised.

    The story is always the same: Someone exploited the trust a young person—and her community—had in him.

    But…saying he had a “vision” or comparing their “betrothal” to Mary and Joseph? That’s obscene.

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