Saskatchewan

Regina pastor expelled over 'abuse of power,' sexually explicit texts

A large Christian denomination in Canada waited more than a year and a half to expel a pastor who it found had abused his position of trust to groom a victim for sexualized conversations. Two women have gone public with their complaints, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance is apologizing for how they were treated.

Warning: This story contains graphic language and disturbing content

Rev. Jerven Weekes was a pastor of Rosewood Park Alliance Church in Regina. This is a screenshot from a video of him speaking, posted online. (We Are Warriors/Facebook)

A Regina pastor has resigned and been stripped of his licence to minister more than a year and a half after church leaders learned he had abused his power to prey on a woman in his congregation.

Rev. Jerven Weekes had been the lead pastor for more than a decade at Rosewood Park Alliance Church, one of 440 evangelical Protestant churches in the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) in Canada.

On Oct. 20, during Sunday service, the church's local chairman sobbed openly as he announced the pastor's resignation and called it a matter of "employee-employer confidentiality." A few days later, the national organization expelled him from all C&MA churches.

Rev. Jerven Weekes, left, pastor of Rosewood Park Alliance Church in Regina, was put on probation for a year for 'abuse of power' and 'sexualized behaviour.' (Rosewood Park/Instagram)

CBC News has confirmed that three women complained to the church about sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour by Weekes in the past two years.

In April 2018, an external investigator informed church leaders — both local and national — that there was sufficient evidence in text messages to show Weekes had been "grooming" one victim for "inappropriate sexual conversation" and that "inappropriate sexualized behaviour" was "an abuse of power" and his position of trust.

Grooming is a process in which a perpetrator gains a person's trust, breaks down their defences and then begins to manipulate them for sexual purposes, according to sexual violence experts.

We are just so, so sorry at the way that we did not listen to the women.​- Barry Doyle, spokesperson for Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada

The resignation and expulsion come in the wake of two women sharing their allegations publicly in a Regina podcast that examines faith and justice issues. 

Christa Hunt and Liz Herod said they wanted to expose how church leaders mishandled their complaints and kept the pastor's actions a secret from the congregation.

CBC News spoke with Hunt and Herod to verify details and confirm that their stories had been accurately reflected in the Shipwreck Over Safety podcast. They requested that CBC News use those accounts, with permission from the podcast producers, to spare them having to relive their experience.

'Grooming'

In January 2014, Hunt felt she had hit "rock bottom."

She was searching for help for herself, her kids and her marriage. A friend invited her to attend Rosewood Park church.

Hunt sought counselling from Rev. Weekes. Soon after, he started texting her. Hunt said it made her feel "so special." She said she found a sense of belonging she'd been looking for.

She valued Weekes's guidance and "put him on a pedestal."

Weekes was stripped of his licence to minister in all Alliance churches in North America. (Rosewood Park Alliance Church website)

Screengrabs of text exchanges, shared with CBC News, reveal that Weekes began to compliment Hunt and to introduce more sexualized content.

By 2016, Hunt said she started to feel "weird," but was plagued by self-doubt. She said she didn't trust her gut. She convinced herself to ignore "red flags" because he was a pastor.

She felt torn. On one hand, she relied on him. He helped her find a new place to live after her marriage broke down. On the other hand, she had started to stay off social media at night when she knew he might be online, in order to avoid contact.

The sexual nature of Weekes's text messages to Hunt began to escalate.

She tried to defuse the situation, texting him, "innocent flirting is harmless, and if it wasn't harmless, I would be crushed."

In August 2017, he texted her that he liked her lips. Then, soon after, Weekes asked her whether she was good at oral sex, deep throats, gags and screams in bed. He asked her if she likes men that are "big, medium or small."

Hunt answered the questions. Weekes encouraged her to delete the text conversation.

Hunt said that she felt guilty about the text exchange because Weekes was married. She said that Weekes had advised her on her sex life previously during pastoral counselling sessions, but this seemed to cross a line.

In October 2017, she complained to the Rosewood Park church board. She said some members of the local board and C&MA district's discipline committee — comprised of licensed ministers — blamed her or betrayed her confidence to others.

That same month, the discipline committee concluded that Weekes had abused his position of trust. He was asked to apologize to the congregation. He stood up in church and said that he'd been involved in an inappropriate electronic conversation with a woman, but that she had initiated it.

The pastor was put on a year's probation that included counselling and training, but the disciplinary measures and reasons for them were not communicated clearly to the congregation.

"It was a slap in the face," Hunt said in the podcast. "I lost [my church], and the pastor can go back to preaching next Sunday."

Not the only one

When Hunt confided in Herod, a friend who also attended the church, she learned that the pastor had been texting Herod in a similar fashion.

Herod said she trusted Weekes as a neighbour, a friend and a pastor. She said they would often joke that they had a brother-sister relationship. Then, over time, she said their interactions began to shift, and she tried to avoid him online.

"I started making excuses but that didn't stop him," Herod said in the podcast. "I would ignore texts, and he would be mean or make me feel guilty, then say 'LOL' at the end. It was all manipulation and grooming, but I can only see that now."

Screengrab of a text exchange between Weekes and Liz Herod, a member of his congregation at Rosewood Park Alliance Church. (Submitted by Liz Herod)

Screengrabs reveal that Weekes texted her, "Am a bad person for having a high sex drive and always have it on my mind?"

Herod responded that it must be a man thing and that the pastor should speak to her husband about it.

With Herod's support, Hunt decided to file an appeal to the Christian and Missionary Alliance in early 2018 over how her case was handled. Five other congregants sent letters to the national president to complain about the level of discipline and how it was communicated.

In April 2018, the external investigator concluded that Weekes had been "grooming" the victim.

Still, there was no further discipline.

Both Hunt and Herod have waited for more than a year and a half for the church to recognize that it made mistakes, and to make changes. Finally, they went public on Oct. 9 in the podcast.

Pastor and church response

CBC News was unable to reach Weekes for comment.

He did make a statement to his congregation in June 2018, after the external investigation.

In it, he said "I did not formally apologize to the individual that I offended and therefore would like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize for any and all hurt that has been caused by my actions. I am truly sorry."

The chairman of Rosewood Park church, Trevor Hohn, said Thursday any questions from CBC News would have to be discussed at the board's next meeting in November.

The C&MA's national administration said it will hire an independent expert to assess how the organization treated the women, its investigation and discipline process, and communication with congregants.

"We recognize that there have been failings, or there have been issues, that we as a church have to look at," said C&MA national spokesperson Barry Doyle.

"We are just so, so sorry at the way that we did not listen to the women," Doyle said.

Shipwreck Over Safety

At this time, neither Hunt nor Herod plans to take any legal action. 

The podcast producers, Blair Roberts and Dallas Verity, hope this story prompts a more open conversation about #ChurchToo — a variation of #MeToo — and the complicated dynamics of power and sexual misconduct within churches.

Blair Roberts, left, and Dallas Verity feature conversations about faith, doubt and justice on their podcast titled Shipwreck Over Safety. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

Both men have served as youth pastors before and say it is a position of trust that can too easily be exploited.

Churches need to have more accountability built into them. We feel like secrecy is wrong.- Blair Roberts, Shipwreck Over Safety podcast producer

"Churches need to have more accountability built into them," Roberts said. "We feel like secrecy is wrong."