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Parents of 5-y-o girl sexually assaulted on Palm Sunday at Sunday school settle with church

pews, church, cross
Unsplash/Gregory Hayes

The parents of a young girl who was sexually assaulted at the age of 5 on Palm Sunday in 2017 during a Sunday school session at the First Presbyterian Church of Plymouth in Michigan say they have reached a confidential settlement with the church but are still seeking the public’s help in identifying their daughter’s attacker.

“Our lawsuit with the First Presbyterian Church of Plymouth (MI), Victoria Barkoff, and Lisa Williams, regarding the reported sexual assault of our daughter, has been settled and dismissed on confidential terms,” the parents, identified as John and Julie Doe, said in a statement to The Christian Post late Wednesday.

Barkoff, according to a 2019 lawsuit filed by the couple in Wayne County Circuit Court, was formerly the director of children’s ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Plymouth while Williams was director of the church’s Bridge midweek program.

The young girl's parents, who marked the fifth anniversary of the attack on their daughter last Sunday, were represented by Monica Beck of The Fierberg National Law Group and former child abuse prosecutor Boz Tchividjian of Boz Law.

When contacted on Thursday, an official at First Presbyterian Church of Plymouth told CP that a senior officer at the small-town church, which reportedly had 789 active members in 2017, could not comment on the case until the end of Holy Week.

According to the complaint, the young girl identified as Jane Doe was allowed to go to a bathroom in the basement alone during a Sunday school session, allowing a predator to assault her in an area with no security cameras or adult monitor.

“The Doe family entrusted their daughter, Jane Doe, to the church’s Sunday School program and believed, based on the Church’s representations, that their daughter would be properly supervised and safe. Instead, Jane Doe was completely and dangerously unsupervised,” the complaint said.

The court filing states that the daughter left the classroom alone for about 20 minutes. During this time, an adult man wearing a cross "was able to target and accost" the girl and direct her into a bathroom where she was sexually assaulted. The perpetrator reportedly left DNA in her underwear. 

The young girl said nothing of the assault until she was with her parents later on the night after the assault.

“That night our brave girl told us what happened, even though the perpetrator instructed her not to. In doing so, she joined other survivors who courageously share their story of abuse occurring in their place of worship. If you have information regarding the assault or the perpetrator, we ask that you help protect other vulnerable children by contacting the Plymouth Police Department,” the parents said in their statement.

The complaint says that the parents quickly filed a report with the Plymouth Police as soon as they learned what happened to their daughter. A 17-month investigation was conducted, and the case was eventually closed because the church could not provide sufficient information to help with the investigation.

 “Throughout the police investigation, the church leadership only minimally cooperated with the detectives, focusing instead on minimizing the incident and protecting itself,” the complaint alleges. “The church did not notify other parents in the congregation that the police were investigating reported sexual abuse during Sunday School until one month after the incident. During that time, parents continued to send their children to the Church’s Sunday School Program, unaware of the ongoing criminal investigation and potential danger to their children.”

The couple further claims that once the church informed parents of the report and investigation, their message was vague and referred only to “an alleged incident.”

“The only indication about what had happened was the church’s announcement of its new bathroom policy for its Sunday School program,” the complaint said. “Despite the church’s documented knowledge of the risk of child abuse and supposed concern about preventing child abuse in its Sunday School program, defendants failed to keep any accurate records of who attended Palm Sunday services that day, monitor who had access to the children participating in Sunday School in the basement, or maintain any policies or practices for increased supervision of children during high-attendance church events.”

The church released a statement in January 2019 contending that church leaders "immediately commissioned an investigation" once they were made aware of the incident.

"The church has fully cooperated with, and provided information to, the Plymouth Police in connection with the police investigation," the church's 2019 statement reads. 

The couple and their daughter suffer from PTSD due to the sexual assault, according to the complaint.

“Children should be safe and feel supported in their place of worship," the couple said in their statement to CP. "Pastors, please believe and support children, and show them the gospel in your response to abuse suffered under your care. The role you play will impact a child's life and faith for a lifetime.”

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