Former members of Christian Fellowship Center demonstrate in Potsdam and Canton in support of CARE Act

·5 min read

Sep. 5—POTSDAM — Former members of the Christian Fellowship Center congregated Sunday in front of the CFC in Potsdam to protest alleged systemic abuses within the church and advocate passing of the CARE Act, a state bill that would make clergy mandated reporters of child abuse or mistreatment.

"We're gathered here to support the CARE Act, and the purpose of that bill is to add clergy to the list of mandated reporters," said Abigail Nye, a former CFC member and founder of CFCtoo, which aims to educate the larger community about abuse and assist anyone who wants to leave the church.

"CFCtoo formed in late May this year in response to news that (Sean M. Ferguson) had been arrested on charges of child molestation," Ms. Nye said. "When it became clear to us that CFC leadership had known about his abuse since 2017 and didn't report it, that was really disturbing and concerning to us, and we decided to do something about it, so that's how CFCtoo was born."

Ms. Nye said she was born into the church in 1986 and was a member until 2005. Her parents are still part of the church. Her father approached her outside at one point during the protest to try and talk to her, but quickly returned inside the CFC building at 41 Main St. She said her parents chose the church over her.

"Our short-term goal is to pass the CARE Act, but we see ourselves existing to support CFC survivors more broadly," Ms. Nye said regarding the goal of the gathering. "As long as there is a need for us to support survivors, we will be here giving people a safe place to share their stories and seeking to educate communities about their abuse."

Stories of abuse are shared by former CFC members on CFCtoo's website, cfctoo.com.

"As a mother, wife and Christian, I believe that our call is to take care of the least of these," said Britny D. Harmer, another former CFC member, referring to children. "And I don't think hiding abuse is doing that."

"It's horrific to me that leaders knew children were being abused and allowed the abusers to come to services and nobody was told," she added. "Children were not kept safe."

Former CFC member Michelle Wilbur said that she and her children were abused, and the church did nothing about it.

"I was a member of the CFC for about 20 years until my ex-husband molested our children," she said. "Not only did the church not report it, but they told me I didn't have a biblical reason to divorce my husband."

Her ex-husband, Gerardo D. Perez, was charged by state police in 2016 with two counts of felony first-degree sexual abuse and two counts of misdemeanor endangering the welfare of a child. The charges were dismissed after the St. Lawrence County District Attorney's Office failed to prosecute him in a timely manner.

"The church was well aware of what was going on," Ms. Wilbur said. She said she reported it to Ben Levendusky, who is currently a pastor at the Madrid CFC location.

"When we decided to leave, they accused my eldest daughter and I of having demons," Ms. Wilbur said. They finally left in 2015.

The CARE Act is personal for her.

"Passing the CARE Act is incredibly important to me because pastors should not be allowed to know that children are being molested and not report it," she said.

She said instances of child sexual abuse in the church are not isolated incidents.

Ms. Wilbur alleged that a senior member of the church abused one of her children.

"It's absolutely systemic," Ms. Wilbur said.

Ms. Nye agreed. "There are probably 20 cases of abuse," she said.

Rick Sinclair's son-in-law, Benjamin E. Hull is a deacon at the CFC and is currently running to represent Madrid on the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators. Ms. Nye said it is "deeply dangerous to elect a CFC member into a position of political power."

At the gathering, members of the public who weren't ever affiliated with the CFC were there to support those who were speaking out.

"I want to see the CFC go down," said SUNY Potsdam senior Toki Mukai. "I'm for freedom of speech, but against these oppressions perpetuated by the church."

"I think it's crucial that we as a society protect our children," said former CFC member Emma G. Massa. She said she left the church after graduating college because the abuse she reported was "grossly mishandled and covered up."

"Church is supposed to be a safe place for kids or anyone to go," she said. "From a congregation that says God hates abuse so much, and for them to then turn a blind eye and not report it, it's almost irredeemable and villainous."

Ms. Harmer's husband, James C. Harmer, another former member who was once "all-in," said he left before sexual abuse accusations came to light because of the overreaching authority the church sought to impose upon its members' lives, including what clothes they're allowed to wear and what political beliefs they're allowed to voice.

"As a former worship leader who was all-in, the lack of accountability is not OK," he said.

Leadership present at the CFC in Potsdam at the time of the gathering refused to comment on the protest. Members inside waited until the protesters dissipated to leave the service.

After the Potsdam gathering, protestors went to the Village Park in Canton around noon to briefly demonstrate there, hoping to catch the attention of some members leaving services at the Canton CFC site on Court Street.