From as early as I can remember, my family attended Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) churches. I also went to the Christian schools run by the IFB churches my family attended. After graduating from an IFB school, I went on to college--to the biggest IFB university of all of them at the time--Bob Jones University. From the time I graduated from Bob Jones University and got married, my husband and I attended IFB churches (except during the time he was working on his doctorate at University of Virgina) until the summer of 2002.
I'm sad to say that I've seen other stories like Tina's over all of my years attending IFB churches. As a military dependent I moved a lot while growing up. I've attended a total of twelve different IFB churches/schools.
I first met Tina when she was a little girl about two years old in Arizona. She, along with her brother Tom and mother, Chris Leaf, attended an IFB church with my family in Glendale. My mom taught her brother in the IFB Christian school associated with the church. It was during the time Tina lived in Arizona that her stepfather, Daniel Leaf, was imprisoned for physically abusing Tina and Tom (based on evidence of severe bruising).
At some point during Daniel Leaf's imprisonment in AZ, Chris Leaf moved with her children to Concord, NH, where her mother lived. Some family members report that Chris was afraid her children would be taken from her in AZ and at one point her brother cared for Tina and Tom. I was living in Concord, NH as well, having moved there after marrying my husband. He and I both attended Trinity Baptist Church and taught at Trinity Christian School.
Chris began attending Trinity Baptist Church shortly after moving to Concord, and I befriended her, babysitting Tina and Tom often. I also helped Chris by doing her laundry for her while she worked and with household cleaning tasks. I remember vividly when Daniel was going to be released from prison talking to Chris about how she would handle things. Was she going to take him back into her home? She did. Was she going to allow him to hit the children? She said she wouldn't, but as I know from another arrest and prison sentence Daniel served while in Concord, she did allow him to beat Tina and Tom.
The second physical abuse case against him included pictures that showed extensive bruising of Tom. Tina says she will never forget that beating that Tom took from Daniel. She was so scared she hid in the closet and lost count of the "swats" at 70. No--that is not a typographical error. SEVENTY strikes with a belt. To this day, Tina has scars on her back from being hit by Daniel with the buckle end of the belt. His favorite belt to use had metal rivets up and down the length of the belt.
Daniel Leaf was arrested again in 1993 just before I moved to Virginia with my family for my husband to do his doctoral work at the University of Virginia. The crime for which he was convicted? Felonious sexual assault of a six year old girl. Daniel Leaf is still a registered child sex offender in New Hampshire, where he lives with Chris Leaf.
It was after Daniel's 1993 arrest and imprisonment that Tina finally felt safe enough to tell a volunteer youth worker and church member at Trinity Baptist Church that Daniel Leaf had been sexually abusing her. As Tina remembers, the youth worker reported the information to the pastor of the church, Charles "Chuck" Phelps. As Tina testified in court, Chuck Phelps met with Tina and her mother and advised her to to "confront and forgive" Daniel for his sin. Chris Leaf took Tina to visit Daniel Leaf at the prison where Tina followed the instructions she was given.
Though I was no longer living in NH, I kept in touch with friends at Trinity, and received a call one Sunday night in the fall of 1997 from a friend, Sue Cappucci (who later testified in the trial of Tina's rapist), and she told me what had happened that night at church. In tears she told me that Tina had been brought before the church for a church discipline session. Tina was forced to read a letter "confessing" her fault for allowing herself to be in a "compromising position" and getting pregnant. At the same church meeting, Ernie Willis, an usher and respected leader in the church, had confessed to the sin of "adultery."
Sue was upset because the pastor at the time, Chuck Phelps, told the members of the congregation (several hundred people there once the children were required to leave the sanctuary) that the two situations were SEPARATE MATTERS. What Sue knew, because her sister Sarah Harrison had told her (as she later testified at the trial), was that Ernie Willis--father of four children and 38 or 39 years old at the time had fathered the child Tina was carrying (15 years old when the child was conceived). Though Sarah wasn't asked about it on the witness stand (and I don't know why that would be--hearsay rules?), she knew that Tina did not want Ernie to do what he did. Sue expressed to me he grief that Tina had been disciplined in front of the church in spite of the fact that she had been raped.
Sue Cappucci and I spoke several more times over the course of the next few days, often crying together. She told me that Tina was kept away from her friends in seclusion at the home of Chuck Phelps until she was sent away to have the baby somewhere else. Sue did not know where Tina had been sent, and no one would tell her. Sue and I were both upset about the situation and talked about how we could find Tina and see if she wanted to be where she was and if she was okay.
The day after Sue told me Tina had been sent away, I called another woman in Concord, NH with whom I had been close during the time I lived there. I wanted to find out if my friend knew where Tina was sent. I was rebuffed by her and told there were facts about the situation I did not understand. Until recently, I have not been able to forgive myself for not trying harder to find Tina and see if she needed help.
It was after Tina's story became public in May of 2010 that I was able to regain contact with her and her brother Tom. Tom and I connected through facebook and he put me in touch with Tina. Over the course of the coming year, I became more outspoken about the abusive IFB churches I had attended and my own difficult experiences at Trinity Baptist Church with Chuck Phelps. On April 8, 2011, ABC 20/20 aired Tina's story. That story was so emotional for me to watch. I knew every single person involved in the story of what Tina had experienced at Trinity Baptist Church. It brought back so many memories of the abuse I had experienced and witnessed in IFB churches growing up, and forced me to deal with my own deep sorrow about not working harder to find Tina.
At some point after the 20/20 show aired, the rape trial of Ernie Willis was scheduled. Tina and I had been communicating regularly and I offered to go to the trial that week to support her, and she accepted my offer. I can hardly think about the trial itself without feeling very emotional. Knowing Chris Leaf as I had for all those years before, I was stunned and devastated to see Chris treat Tina so harshly--to present Tina as a rebellious difficult child. Other witnesses at the trial disputed Chris' claim and portrayed Tina as a good student, great with kids and all around good kid.
There are a few good things I can say about the trial
- I watched God work in the life of Tina. I watched her pray and depend on Him and I watched Him give her courage and strength.
- Approximately 30 people come from all over the United States to support Tina at the trial--most of whom had never met her.
- I watched people that I had loved while at Trinity, especially Fran Earle and Sue Cappucci, have the courage to come forward in spite of the censure they received from former "friends" at Trinity Baptist Church and testify what they knew.
- I watched God begin a work of healing in other abuse victims because of Tina's willingness to allow her name to be used and to tell her story. So many victims never come forward (see resources here and here).
- I watched God continue to do a work of healing in my own life.
- Ernest Willis was found GUILTY. Justice would finally have a chance to be served.
Now you know more about me and why I care. This story about Tina--I've seen it repeated too many times. I've seen too many victims try to become survivors without anyone ever knowing the abuse they suffered. I've seen too many like myself learn patterns of survival when really the goal should be to thrive and love life.
I think it is time for Christians to stand up and say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Tina's bravery and courage has spurred me to talk more about my own experiences and I'm proud to give her my verbal, emotional and spiritual support. I'm thrilled that we were able to reconnect after her story came out in May 2010.
Tina--you are an inspiration. Because of your courage, it is my hope and prayer that other children will be saved from suffering abuse at the encouragement of and covered up by their church.