Stunning reversal: Judge vacates former youth minister’s sex convictions
A highly publicized Pennsylvania grand jury report last year identified…
UNIONTOWN, Pa. — After a longtime youth minister’s recent conviction on corruption of minors and indecent exposure charges, a judge in this western Pennsylvania community did what the Uniontown Church of Christ’s elders refused to do.
The judge told Clyde E. Brothers Jr. to stay away from church services.
Brothers, 68, served for many years as the volunteer youth minister for the 100-member Uniontown congregation. Since at least the 1980s, he also interacted with hundreds of children as a founding board member for Camp Concern — a Bible camp directed and sponsored by members of Churches of Christ.
Generations of parents entrusted Brothers with instilling Christian faith and values in their children in this city of 10,000 that originally grew with the development of coal mines and the steel industry.
Victims’ relatives say his case points to a problem that plagues not just the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention — both embroiled in major sex abuse scandals — but also the nation’s 12,000 autonomous Churches of Christ.
“It truly is an epidemic, such sickness,” said one victim’s mother, a former Uniontown church member whose name is being withheld to protect her son’s identity.
The allegations that Brothers used his volunteer church and camp positions to prey on young boys were traumatic enough, several current and former Uniontown church members told The Christian Chronicle.
But church leaders’ decision to allow Brothers to keep worshiping with the congregation made it worse, they said.
“I was told I had hatred in my heart, and I needed to forgive.”
“I was told I had hatred in my heart, and I needed to forgive,” said member Debbie Williams, a former youth group sponsor who had traveled with Brothers and church teens to numerous Bible bowls and youth rallies.
Another longtime member said her son, now in his 30s, was one of four victims whom Brothers identified by name to the Pennsylvania State Police.
“It’s almost like Clyde is more important than the victims are,” the mother said about the perpetrator remaining in the pews.
Bob Coldren, one of the church’s three elders, stressed in an interview that Brothers twice came forward at church and repented of sins.
“Just like anybody else who comes forward at church, is it my place to judge him on his sins … or is it God’s to judge him of those?” said Coldren, who is also Brothers’ brother-in-law. “If I judge him if he’s sincere or not sincere, I’m judging wrong because I can’t see what’s in his heart.
“I’m in the middle of a bad situation. No matter what I do, I’m wrong,” Coldren added. “So if I say, ‘Absolutely not, he didn’t repent,’ then God’s going to be on me. I’m not going by the world. I’m going by what’s in Scripture.”
Coldren said the elders had taken steps to protect children and ensure the former youth minister was “never out of anybody’s sight.” Brothers was removed from his church leadership roles after the allegations surfaced in late 2016.
“Just like anybody else who comes forward at church, is it my place to judge him on his sins … or is it God’s to judge him of those?”
Asked if the elders supported the victims, Coldren replied, “Yes, we were very supportive of the victims, if they asked for the help. But none of them ever came to us for anything. What do you do when nobody asks? You can’t help somebody who doesn’t ask for help.”
Elder Dan Barnhart declined to comment when reached by the Chronicle.
Elder Eugene Smith did not respond to messages. However, he complained about the newspaper’s calls at a Wednesday night Bible study, Williams said, telling the congregation that “Clyde has to heal, and we have to heal … and we don’t need any more publicity.”
“After we were dismissed, I went up to Gene and asked him, ‘What does Clyde have to heal from?’” Williams said. “He said that Clyde has a sickness.”
More than two years ago, three of Brothers’ fellow board members at Camp Concern — conducted each summer at Raccoon Creek State Park, about 25 miles west of Pittsburgh — confronted Brothers at his home.
“He said, ‘I’m evil, just evil.’”
Brothers broke down and confessed to inappropriate behavior with “many, many, so many boys,” said Terry Lafferty, one of the board members and minister for the North Hills Church of Christ in Pittsburgh.
“He said, ‘I’m evil, just evil,’” Lafferty said of the December 2016 meeting. “And I thought that he was really going to open up and confess to all this stuff because there were a lot of names that started coming out.”
Brothers agreed to go with Lafferty, Richard Walton and Keith Wolfgong to make a statement at the Pennsylvania State Police station in this city about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh. By the time Brothers got to the station, though, he had become much less forthcoming, Lafferty said.
Some allegations against Brothers could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired, victims advocates said. Other claims involved alleged victims who were unwilling to testify. In at least one case, church members complained that law enforcement officials did not follow up on leads. Fayette County Assistant District Attorney Wendy O’Brien, who prosecuted the corruption of minors and indecent exposure charges filed against Brothers in March 2017, declined an interview request from the Chronicle.
At Brothers’ trial in the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas in October 2018, a 38-year-old man testified that he was 13 or 14 when the Uniontown youth minister took him to a church event in Arkansas and inappropriately touched him.
At first, Brothers took him and other youths to fun activities, such as watching movies and driving go-karts. But then the youth minister began showing pornographic movies to the boys, the man testified, according to the Uniontown Herald-Standard. Eventually, Brothers performed lewd acts in front of him and encouraged him to do likewise, the man said, reporting that this happened “at least 50” times.
“This man stole my son’s childhood as well as his innocence and basically ruined his life.”
“This man stole my son’s childhood as well as his innocence and basically ruined his life,” the man’s mother said in a victim impact statement. She alleged that the youth minister drugged and molested her son “on several occasions” and threatened to harm his family if he told anyone.
“I believe that Clyde Brothers deserves nothing less than the most severe punishment allowed by law, of course,” the mother told Judge Steve P. Leskinen before Brothers’ sentencing in January. “But I know in my heart that the more severe punishment will be the one that I pray God delivers to Clyde Brothers because he chose to prey on innocent children in God’s name.”
Another mother directed her victim impact statement to Brothers, who did not speak when offered the opportunity by the judge. (That mother and other alleged victims’ relatives interviewed by the Chronicle said that while Brothers went forward at the Uniontown church, he never apologized to them directly.)
“Not one of your victims remain in church,” the mother told Brothers during the court hearing. “You have affected them in more ways than you could imagine. Were all these activities just so you could gain access to the boys? One is in jail. Some have turned to drugs and have trouble holding down a job. Counseling doesn’t help. And two have committed suicide.
“And all the while,” she added, “you have been walking around a free man while these boys are trying to deal with what you have done to them.”
Jimmy Hinton, a certification specialist with the advocacy organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), blames “bad theology” for congregations allowing abusers to remain in the pews alongside victims and their families.
“Shepherds are to guard the sheep from the wolves with their lives.”
“Shepherds are to guard the sheep from the wolves with their lives. Most churches I encounter have never been trained to distinguish the wolves from sheep, so they invite wolves in under the guise of ‘forgiveness and repentance,’” said Hinton, who preaches for the Somerset Church of Christ, about 60 miles east of Uniontown.
Hinton became a victims advocate after his sister Alex Howlett confided to him in 2011 that their father, John Hinton — who spent 27 years as the Somerset church’s minister — had sexually abused her when she was young.
Related: ‘Tell somebody. Don’t keep quiet’
Jimmy Hinton’s report to authorities prompted an investigation that resulted in the pedophile preacher pleading guilty to sexually assaulting and taking nude photographs of four young girls, ages 4 to 7. John Hinton is serving a 30- to 60-year sentence in a Pennsylvania state prison.
“Forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance.”
Discussing the Brothers case, Jimmy Hinton pointed to questions about whether the former youth minister has named all his victims, as well as Brothers’ decision to file a post-conviction appeal, as indicative of his heart.
“Forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance,” Hinton said. “A repentant sexual predator would name every victim, submit to the court authorities and would never do anything to retraumatize his victims or their families.”
On the other hand, he said, “Abusers don‘t disclose who their victims are or what they have done to them. They know that their presence alone causes incredible emotional distress to their victims. Because they are wolves, they don‘t care.”
Anger. Heartbreak. Regret.
A father, three mothers and a grandmother who shared tears and prayers around one family’s dining-room table in February said they’ve experienced all these emotions since the truth came out about Brothers.
“Mom, he was a pervert,” one of the women’s sons, now an adult, revealed to her for the first time in October 2016, opening the floodgates of allegations by multiple former church youth group members and Christian campers.
That alleged victim’s parents said they struggle not just with anger at Brothers but also anger at themselves for failing to notice warning signs — such as the former youth minister inviting boys on overnight trips with him.
“The anger that I feel, it just never goes away,” the mother said, lamenting that her son’s experience with Brothers caused him to give up on God and renounce his faith.
Others gathered around the table nodded their heads and reported similar experiences, saying their grown sons won’t have anything to do with church.
Leskinen sentenced Brothers to up to five years in prison. However, the former youth minister was released on electronic monitoring pending an appeal of his convictions.
As part of his ruling, the judge told Brothers to give up his firearms.
And to the relief of victims’ parents and supporters, Leskinen also ordered Brothers not to attend the Uniontown church “until and unless there is a signed waiver of this provision … by the governing authority of the said Church.”
“When he said that, it was just like a ton of bricks was off me,” said Williams, a former elder’s wife. “When I got in the car, when we were ready to leave, I started crying. I was like, ‘Two years, we had been fighting for (justice), and it seemed like nothing was going our way.’”
But this reprieve proved short-lived, as the elders quickly announced a congregational meeting to discuss whether to provide the waiver and allow Brothers to return to the Uniontown church.
“On the basis of compassion, we appeal to you to seriously consider the hurt and pain you are causing to faithful members of your church.”
The three Camp Concern board members who confronted Brothers in 2016 — and immediately removed him from the board and sent letters to parents of hundreds of campers informing them of the allegations — urged the Uniontown elders not to let the former youth minister back in church.
“On the basis of compassion, we appeal to you to seriously consider the hurt and pain you are causing to faithful members of your church by allowing the one who victimized their children to worship there in the regular public assembly,” Lafferty, Walton and Wolfgong wrote. “Please have compassion on them. Their lives and families have been turned upside down.”
They argued that Brothers “has not admitted to or confessed his sins/criminal actions, let alone repented of them.”
“The fact that Clyde is trying to overturn his conviction tells you that he doesn’t think he is guilty or doesn’t deserve to be punished,” they said. Walton is the minister for the New Brighton Church of Christ, north of Pittsburgh. Wolfgong is a New Brighton member.
In a post-sentence motion in late January, attorney Jack R. Heneks Jr. said Brothers’ convictions for offenses alleged to have occurred in 1992 and 1993 should fall outside Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations.
Heneks also asserted that the judge’s prohibition against Brothers attending the Uniontown church “violates the defendant’s First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and association.”
Like the camp board members, the elders of the Crossroads Church of Christ in McMurray, Pa., south of Pittsburgh, asked the Uniontown elders to abide by the judge’s order and keep Brothers away from the church. They cited the need to “obey the laws of the land.”
“Furthermore, we strongly urge you to guard and protect the flock for which you are overseers,” said a letter by Crossroads elders Jim Robison, Bud Wilson and Van Wolfe, whose congregation includes a victim’s family. “Again, Mr. Brothers was convicted of criminal acts that took place within your congregation and against those whom you are responsible for.”
They concluded: “Fellow elders, we beg you to prayerfully consider your motives in this matter and seek the Lord’s direction. Your decision will certainly impact the Lord’s Church and not just the Church at Uniontown.”
About 30 members attended the congregational meeting, Williams said, and “all but three or four said that we didn’t want him to worship with us and to go by what the judge said.” Some said the elders could take the Lord’s Supper to his home.
For now, the elders have not requested the waiver, and Brothers has not returned to church.
But eventually, the leaders will have another meeting with the congregation, Coldren said. They wanted to let a little time pass first.
“I’m not saying we are or are not going to let him back in,” Coldren said. “What’s the difference if he walks in our doors or if he walks in another church’s?”
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