The pastor of a fundamentalist Baptist church with two members already facing sex abuse charges was arrested Tuesday on charges that he failed to make a required child abuse report.
Robert A. Ross, the pastor of Open Door Baptist Church in Mesquite, is in the Mesquite jail. Bond has been set at $2,500. The police have not yet responded to a request for comment.
Open Door Baptist Church in Mesquite has had four members accused of sexual abuse in its 50-year history. Members and ex-members say a strict culture that reveres church authorities as nearly unquestionable has led to an environment conducive to ongoing abuse.
A tipster reported the most recent allegations to Mesquite police in late February. They involved a father-son pair described as belonging to a family deeply involved in the church.
Police arrested Steven Winn, 33, who volunteered with Open Door’s youth ministry, and charged him with three counts of sexual assault of a child on Feb. 22. Larry Winn, his father and the church’s 65-year-old bus minister, was arrested a few days later and charged with sexual assault of a child. The cases involve different victims.
In 2011, the church’s then-pastor, Matt Jarrell, committed suicide in a West Virginia jail cell, where he was being held on rape charges. He had a history of sexual assault arrests, at least one of which was known to the church’s assistant pastor, per news reports at the time.
Back in 1988, Donald Lewis — another bus minister — pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child. He died while on probation. One of Lewis’ victims claims that the church’s pastor, Sylvester Matthews, knew of the abuse before his arrest.
Steven Winn is accused of having a 14-month sexual relationship with a minor that began when the girl was 15 and a student at the church’s school, Mesquite Bible Academy. Winn volunteered with the church’s youth ministry.
Several congregants said they were long concerned about what they say looked like an obviously inappropriate relationship between a 33-year-old man in power and a teenager.
One former member put it like this: “Anyone with two eyes and an Instagram account could have seen that things didn’t look right.”
The girl, who is still a minor and isn’t being identified by the Star-Telegram, posted pictures of herself and Winn on her page, which the Star-Telegram reviewed. The two sat close — much closer than Open Door usually allows even dating couples —and were spending an excessive amount of time together, said the former member.
“I talked to her a couple times on my phone,” another member said. “I was like ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be calling this guy your daddy, he’s just some guy at church.’ And she’s like, ‘You know, it’s none of your business.’ ”
He said he discussed it with friends but ultimately chose not to bring it up to anyone else.
“When you’re in the church, you believe that the pastors are the authorities,” he said. “They know what’s going on. So you would just automatically figure, it’s probably not right that they’re doing that, but I don’t think there’s anything super wrong going on, you know?”
The girl did not respond to a request for comment. The girl’s mother, reached by phone, declined to comment.
After Steven Winn’s arrest, Ross, the pastor, called a members’ meeting, longtime member Austin Guthrie said. Ross gave no details beyond the charges and said that Steven Winn had turned himself into police.
Lt. Brian Parrish, the Mesquite Police Department’s public relations officer, said Steven Winn and his father voluntarily surrendered to police. However, he said, Steven Winn did not come forward and confess of his own accord. Police received a tip on Feb. 18 — four days before Winn’s arrest. The tipster did not know the extent of the assaults, but was concerned about the relationship.
The same tipster who contacted police about Steven Winn spoke to police about Larry Winn, the bus minister for Open Door, in charge of the fleet of school buses painted with the church logo that shepherds children to and from services. When police contacted the alleged victim, she told them that Larry Winn had assaulted her three years ago, when she was 16.
The accusations against Larry Winn are similar to those in a case involving Sherry May Sims in the 1980s.
Sims is 46 now, but when she was 12, an Open Door bus minister raped her. The assaults went on for four years, from 1984 to 1988, she said.
Donald Lewis was the bus driver. Lori Clark, who attended Open Door at the time, remembered Lewis as heavyset and graying, always in a suit. Kids nicknamed him the “Candy Man” for the brown paper bag of hard candy he carried.
A different victim, also a minor female, reported Lewis to the Mesquite police in 1988. When the news about Lewis broke, Sims’ parents asked her if anything happened. She said she told them the truth. On May 18, 1988, Sims told her story to the Mesquite police. Later, she told it to a grand jury.
She said she never thought to report it herself.
“He was an authority figure and you didn’t say anything bad about authority figures,” Sims said.
Donald Lewis pleaded guilty. He died while on probation in 1994.
When Sims told her parents what happened, her father met with the pastor, Matthews. Her father, who died last year, told Sims that Matthews said there had been other allegations made to him prior to Lewis’ arrest. Nothing was done.
Matthews is still employed at Open Door. He serves as a senior pastor and a math teacher at Open Door’s school.
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