Thanks to Pastor Mitch Olson, pastor of Grace Ministry Center in Kimball, Michigan slipping free on criminal charges for inappropriate sexual behavior with a female church member, Michigan Senator Rick Jones is working to add clergy to the sexual assault law so it:
afford [s] children, students of a certain age, patients of medical doctors and clients of mental health professionals, among others, special protection. The law states these victims cannot give consent because of the authority the perpetrator has in the relationship.
Astoundingly, clergy are not considered authority figures under Michigan law.
Nicole Hayden, a reporter for The Times Herald, writes:
Senate bill is being drafted in Lansing to address clergy members and sexual assault laws.
The action is being taken after Sen. Rick Jones, Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, read a story in the Times Herald detailing a prosecutor’s decision to deny criminal charges against a pastor who put his hands on the breasts, buttocks and genitals of a female member of his church.
“I am angry this could happen and that this pastor could get away and not be charged,” Jones said. “I think that it very inappropriate and in most cases a pastor has just as much power over a person as a teacher or a doctor. I have requested a bill be written by the Legislative Service Bureau to address this situation.”
Pastor Mitch Olson, of Grace Ministry Center in Smiths Creek, was investigated for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman, who was 19 years old at the time, during a religious ceremony.
he prosecutor’s office called Olson’s actions “morally reprehensible,” but concluded no criminal activity took place as the victim consented to the act.
Michigan’s criminal sexual conduct laws afford children, students of a certain age, patients of medical doctors and clients of mental health professionals, among others, special protection. The law states these victims cannot give consent because of the authority the perpetrator has in the relationship.
Jones said he believes the law should be clarified to say that a pastor giving counseling services should be regarded in the same way a therapist or psychologist giving counseling services is.
The victim said she felt happy to learn that a bill would be drafted to protect others from experiencing the same trauma she did.
I feel rewarded and happy that even though justice was not served for me, in the future it will be served for other women,” she said. “I’m happy I was able to protect (others) and made a difference.”
Jones said the bill will take a couple months to write before the bureau introduces the language to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Jones said because he is the chairman of the committee, he will make sure there is a hearing to review the bill.
“I suspect the bill will get a lot of support,” Jones said.
Jones said, as a former police officer of 31 years, he feels legislators should do everything they can to protect victims of sexual assault.
Klint Kesto, Michigan House of Representatives Law and Justice Committee chairman, said he is also reviewing the case involving Olson.
“Overall, non-consensual sexual touching is definitely a crime,” Kesto said. “I don’t know enough about the facts of this case … but I have a call into the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. They are getting me case law that will hopefully shed light on the issue.”
David Moran, University of Michigan clinical law professor and co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, said he is less optimistic about the proposed bill.
Moran said he would be surprised if an amendment to the law actually happened.
“Where the lines have been drawn so far makes sense because the law is typically talking about children or prisoners – someone who is under complete control of an authority figure,” Moran said. “Once you start expanding the (special victims) list, it gets hard to draw the lines of who is an authority figure and who is not. You also run the risk of getting into constitutional issues as well, as churches and religion are protected under the First Amendment, so it’s dicey.”
Nicole Hayden, a reporter for the Times Herald, reports:
A pastor accused of sexually assaulting a young woman will not face prosecution because the woman doesn’t fall under any classes of victims as outlined by state law, officials said Wednesday.
Pastor Mitch Olson, of Grace Ministry Center in Smiths Creek, was being investigated after the 20-year-old woman filed a police report in June alleging that Olson sexually assaulted her while performing a religious act. The Times Herald does not publish names of sexual assault victims. At the start of August, the St. Clair County Sheriff Department submitted the case to the prosecutor for review seeking a criminal sexual conduct charge.
The prosecutor concluded no criminal activity occurred.
“The conduct of suspect Mitchell Olson directed towards 19 year old Victim was morally reprehensible. The Grace Ministry Center head pastor’s conduct appears to be highly questionably and not religious in nature. It also appears to have violated the standards of the church. However, based on the information and law cited above, this conduct despite being immoral is not illegal according to Michigan criminal law. For these reasons we are unable to prosecute this case,” said Senior Assistant Prosecutor Paul Soderberg in the case review released Wednesday morning.
The woman told the Times Herald that she was heartbroken by the decision.
“It’s frustrating to know that it did happen but that Michigan law can’t protect me,” she said. “It’s very frustrating. I think if Michigan law was different he would be prosecuted … it’s frustrating that he can continue to do to other women what he did to me … I have learned through this experience that sexual assault is so minimized and that it’s easier for people to brush it under the rug rather than take action.”
The prosecutor’s case review does not argue if Olson committed the alleged acts or not, but states that the allegations are not criminal according to Michigan law.
“In reaching this conclusion, the People thoroughly reviewed the evidence presented in the sheriff department’s criminal investigation. It included the multiple disclosures and statements made by victim, which were consistent and reliable … The review also considered the statements of suspect Olson, who appeared to minimize his actions and while also deflecting away from the issue at stake,” said the prosecutor’s review.
To be a criminal act in Michigan, the victim either had to fall under a special class of victims or there had to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt that there was force or coercion involved in the alleged sexual assault. The special class of victims includes children under the age of 16, incapacitated victims, family members, students of a certain age, special education students, persons in foster care, clients of mental health professionals, prisoners, and patients of medical doctors, among others.
“In contrast, there currently are no laws in Michigan that specifically list or protect members of a religious organization as ‘status’ victims against sexual contact by religious leaders, authorities, or pastors, etc,” according to the prosecutor’s review.
But while Olson may have manipulated the victim to consent to his touches, the actions were deemed consensual and not criminal by the prosecutor as there was no force, violence or threat of injury.
“It should be noted that a knowing consent to the touching is a valid defense to this (criminal sexual conduct) charge,” said the prosecutor’s case review.
David Moran, University of Michigan clinical law professor and co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, said consent is generally a fair defense to all criminal sexual assault charges.
If a victim knows the sexual conduct is happening, even if they are tricked into it, it’s hard to criminalize the action, Moran said.
“If a guy at the bar says I am a second cousin of (the president) and can get you a job in the government if you sleep with me, but it turns out he actually is not related, is that rape?” Moran said. “It’s very hard to draw the line between the different types of lies people use to get sex … everyone can agree it is unethical for a pastor to take advantage of a member of his flock, but it’s hard to draw the line if it’s criminal … It is innocence in a legal sense.”
Moran said often times sexual harassment lawsuits in civil court are available in cases where it is impossible to charge someone with a criminal sexual conduct charge.
Grace Ministry Center board members Gordon Farnsworth, Joseph Forth, Dave Frazier, and Lewis Hurley declined to comment for the story. We could not reach board members Caremy Snellenberger, Bev Wilson, Tim Holcomb or Hannah Herr. Some of the board members have since resigned, according to the police report. Former Assistant Pastor Justin Mcburney declined to comment and has since resigned from his position.
You can read all of Hayden’s excellent article here.
Mitchell “Mitch” Olson, pastor of Grace Ministry Center in Kimball, Michigan, stands accused of sexually assaulting a woman he was counseling during an anointing ritual. When asked about the accusation, Olson said his hand may have — are you ready for it? — slipped in the anointing oil.
The Marysville woman [Justine Morden], who then lived alone in a Port Huron apartment, said she was not happy with the way she was living her life and wanted to do something to get closer to God. She began seeking counseling from Olson, she said. She had known him since she was in middle school because her parents were dedicated members at Grace Ministry Center, 4731 Lapeer Road, Smiths Creek.
Olson suggested she be anointed to cleanse her of her sins. He said he didn’t have anointing oil at the church during a meeting in July 2016, but told her they would make time for the procedure. The practice of anointing is a religious ceremony that typically involves crowning subjects with oil.
“Later on that night, around like 8 or 9, he texted me and asked what my address was,” the alleged victim told the Times Herald. “I gave him the address and didn’t think anything of it since I trusted him … He got there and said, ‘I have the anointing oil if you want to be anointed,’ so I said ‘OK.’”
According to the police report, “Olson then said a prayer and placed oil on her head, Olson then did the same on (her) shoulders. Olson then asked if he could put the oil on her breasts (she) said yes and Olson put his hand down the front of (her) shirt making skin to skin contact with (her) breasts. Olson then put oil on (her) stomach/mid-section. Olson then asked he could put oil on (her) buttock, (she) responded yes. Olson then put his hand down the back of (her) pants and made skin to skin contact with (her) buttock cheeks. Olson then asked if he could put oil on (her) pubic area (front of pants), (she) responded yes. Olson then put his hand down the front of (her) pants and made skin to skin contact with (her) pubic region. Olson then touched (her) knees and ended with her feet.”
Grace Ministry Center board member Gordon Farnsworth does not dispute that Mr. Olson anointed the victim and touched her on her breasts and pubic region, but said that “the intent and extent of the touching” is in dispute, according to the police report.
Grace Ministry’s board conducted a disciplinary hearing in March attended by Mr. Olson, the alleged victim and the victim’s stepfather, and the resulting action was a mere “slap on the wrist,” according to the stepfather, who recorded the proceedings.
WXYZ reported that Mr. Olson in the same board meeting described the anointing ceremony as an exorcism as he considered Miss Morden possessed.
“Do you want your daughters coming to this church where this could possibly happen … I feel like it (has) been covered up,” he said, the Times Herald reported.
According to the police report, Mr. Olson’s misconduct may not be an isolated incident of impropriety involving a member of his flock: Another young woman has come forward to relay an incident from four years ago when the pastor attempted to record her changing her clothes on a cellphone left in a church changing room.
Prosecutors are currently reviewing the evidence and will decide on whether to move forward on the case in the next few weeks, WXYZ reported last Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the Times Herald is requesting that other individuals who have either a “story of sexual assault or of an inappropriate occurrence” to contact the paper’s investigative reporters.
An October 23, 2017 news report published by The Times Herald states:
A civil lawsuit was filed in St. Clair County Circuit Court on Friday against Grace Ministry Center in Kimball Township and its former pastor Mitch Olson.
The suit was filed on behalf of the woman who accused Olson of groping her during a religious ceremony. The suit seeks in excess of $25,000. Allegations against Olson include battery, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Allegations against Grace Ministry Center include negligent supervision, negligent retention, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and violation of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
The lawsuit comes after the St. Clair County Prosecutor’s Office declined to bring criminal charges against Olson after he was accused of sexually assaulting the woman, 20, of Port Huron. A police report was filed in August that stated Olson placed his hands on the woman’s breasts, buttocks and pubic area during an anointing ceremony inside her apartment.
Olson resigned from his position at the church on Oct. 8, according to a recorded farewell letter he read to church members. Olson was served with the lawsuit on Sunday at Grace Ministry Center during his farewell gathering.
Olson told the Times Herald on Monday that he looks forward to defending his church and himself in court.
“I was served with a lawsuit filed by the plaintiff in this case (Sunday) evening at Grace Ministry Center, a church I founded and served for nearly 11 years and am no longer a part of due to the false allegations of the claimant,” he said. “My heart aches that this person, who was never a member of the church and whom never had counseling from me, would deliberately lie and use the judicial system to advance a personal agenda at the cost to a church who has faithfully served this community for decades. I am left with only one choice: to vigorously defend the church and myself in this matter. We look forward to defending this case in court and restore our reputations that have been so grievously ruined by this person.”
The lawsuit states that “Defendant Mitchell Olson coerced (the woman) on multiple occasions to submit to unwelcome touching, including to touching of her breasts, buttocks, and vagina under her clothing … Plaintiff was fraudulently coerced into believing that the offensive touching was necessary to the anointment and an essential extension of her counseling because of the counselor/counselee relationship Plaintiff and Defendant maintained at the time of the incident and Plaintiff’s consent was therefore not voluntary .. Defendant Mitchell Olson’s actions caused Plaintiff (the woman) irreparable physical injury and emotional harm.”
The lawsuit stated that Olson falsely represented his action. The lawsuit also states that the incident has caused the woman much emotional and mental strain.
The church is also being sued for alleged negligence in how it handled the report of the assault. The lawsuit claims that the church failed to protect the woman when the church board declined to take action against Olson.
The last claim argues that the church was in violation of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act because Olson targeted the woman because of her gender.
“It’s clear that Pastor Olson targeted the victim because she was a young woman,” said Kathleen Garbacz, one of the non-profit attorneys representing the woman. “Not only has this been devastating for her personally, but we want to send a clear message that women should be safe from these kinds of horrors in all places, but especially in places of faith and counseling.”