Additional potential victims and witnesses claiming sexual misconduct emanating from the Colorado Springs-headquartered Christian ministry Young Life are contacting Denver law firm Rathod / Mohamedbhai LLC for assistance, according to lead attorney Iris Halpern.
Meanwhile, four claims recently submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are working their way through the investigative process.
“A regular stream of survivors or witnesses are calling us, and the communications and context show there’s a national problem happening here, and the organization really needs to take harassment and discrimination seriously,” Halpern said Wednesday.
“It has policies and practices that don’t encourage survivors to come forward, and they don’t seem to address the heart of the problem — there’s a culture problem across the board.”
In a statement to The Gazette, Young Life contends: “The safety and well-being of all participants is a top priority for our organization, and abuse is not tolerated.”
Alleged victims from around the nation claim the 80-year-old organization, one of Colorado Springs' largest Christian ministries with revenue of $361 million in 2020, according to financial documents, for decades has covered up complaints of sexual assault and harassment involving members, staff and volunteers.
The ministry provides youth groups and camps for nearly half a million middle school, high school and college students around the world through 2,300 field offices.
Victims who say they faced sexual assault, unwanted touching or unwanted sexual attention while working for or participating in Young Life activities began speaking out in an investigation published in October by Business Insider, a New York City-headquartered financial and business news website.
At least one of the alleged cases occurred in Colorado.
A lawsuit filed in federal court in Denver in June 2020 claimed Laureana Arellano was racially and sexually harassed at a Young Life summer camp in Colorado in 2019. The case reached a settlement agreement in September, with undisclosed terms, Halpern said.
Arellano, who lived in Colorado at the time, describes in the legal complaint how a coworker assaulted her by “shoving his hand down her apron and groping her genitalia.”
A manager told her it was “God’s plan,” court paperwork states.
Arellano says she was let go from her volunteer position in the kitchen of the camp after reporting that she witnessed male campers grope a female camper’s breasts.
Young Life is a mandatory reporter in all jurisdictions, the organization said in its statement to The Gazette, meaning it is required by law to report to authorities reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect.
“Sexual conduct, anti-harassment and mandatory reporting policies, along with rigorous training, are designed to equip Young Life staff and volunteers to recognize improper or criminal behavior and to take immediate and appropriate action,” Young Life said.
“This is my story” begins descriptive posts from former Young Lifers on the recently formed @metooyounglife on Instagram.
One anonymous woman said she felt like she and other Young Life staff and volunteers led a double life in college. They’d hold Bible studies during the week and “party on the weekends.”
One night she got drunk and went with a male leader to his house, where she thought she’d sleep it off. Instead, he undressed her and “everything but sex happened” — without her consent.
When she reported the incident, she said area directors told her she wasn’t supposed to drink that much and “made me feel as if I had some responsibility.”
Since 2000, at least eight Young Life staff members and volunteers have been charged criminally, following claims of sexual abuse, according to Business Insider.
Among them, a volunteer leader in Michigan pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual misconduct after five men accused him of years of sexual abuse when they were teenagers. And an adult employee in California received jail time for allegedly having sex and impregnating a 15-year-old in his Young Life group.
Young Life had investigated five of the eight allegations raised by media, the organization said in its response to The Gazette.
“Three of those investigations resulted in the dismissal of a staff member or volunteer accused of misconduct affecting another adult staff member or volunteer,” Young Life said.
The organization had no record of the remaining three as having been reported but “opened new investigations into them immediately after they were reported in the media,” the email stated.
“We take every allegation of sexual misconduct and harassment seriously, and no one guilty of violating or abusing another individual is allowed to continue in relationship with Young Life,” the organization said.
Arellano is among the four EEOC filers, who individually cite “a pattern or practice of racial and sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation.”
The women argue the organization’s local and national offices ignored or mishandled their complaints.
Halpern said she doesn't know when the EEOC might release its findings.
The elements of what’s transpired in the Young Life cases can be found in every abuse situation that’s been uncovered involving churches or parachurch organizations, said The Rev. Kelly Williams, pastor of Vanguard Church, a Southern Baptist affiliate with two locations in Colorado Springs. Williams is a national voice on holding churches and ministries accountable,
Someone says they’ve been victimized and “the organization either ignores, belittles or silences in some means or capacity for the sake of the good of the organization, and the mission of the organization,” he said.
Williams said he understands the motivation to protect the reputation of the organization in question, as well as the effectiveness of the Gospel and the Christian faith.
“But unfortunately, these means we have used have produced a duplicity in us in that we have silenced people privately, and then things come out many years later publicly, and the very thing we were trying to protect — integrity — we’ve destroyed.”
Other Christian ministries with local ties have faced similar allegations, including Youth With a Mission, which has several offices in Colorado Springs.
The Christian missionary group’s Perth, Australia, office was accused of failing to report a sexual assault to police and telling alleged victims to apologize to suspected attackers for “leading them on,” according to media reports.
Also, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which after 32 years of being headquartered in Colorado Springs relocated to Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year, was accused of failing to investigate one of the largest sex abuse scandals of recent years, involving its ordained minister, the Rev. Ravi Zacharias.
The case revolved around the ministries’ use of non-disclosure agreements to settle cases and silence victims.
“A lot of organizations have used non-disclosure agreements and attorney-client privilege to try to protect the organization at the detriment of the victim and the holiness of God,” said Williams, the Vanguard Church pastor.
“My challenge to organizations, whether it’s Young Life, Vanguard, New Life or the Southern Baptist convention that my church is a part of, is we’ve got to stop using legal means to silence people who’ve been victimized by our leaders.”