Grace in Broken Arrow: A child sex abuse scandal at a Christian school in Oklahoma

Kiera Feldman, Grace in Broken Arrow. This Land Press, 23 May 2012. This is a story about how Grace Fellowship Christian School outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, handled a child sex abuse scandal. Nieman Storyboard: “In wrapping the piece around the larger culture of evangelicalism and consequences of abuse, [Feldman] elevates the story beyond the sensationalism that can sink a sex-scandal story.”

Excerpts from story:

No more sleepovers. No more babysitting, or car rides home. No more being alone with children or “lingering hugs given to students (especially using your hands to stroke or fondle).” Aaron Thompson—Coach Thompson to his PE students—sat in the principal’s office at Grace Fellowship Christian School as his bosses went through the four-page Corrective Action Plan point by point. It was October of 2001, the same month Aaron added “Teacher of the Week” to his resume.

Grace’s leader, Bob Yandian—“Pastor Bob” as everyone calls him—wasn’t there: no need, he had people for this kind of thing. Pastor Bob’s time was better spent sequestered in his study, writing books and radio broadcasts. His lieutenant, Associate Pastor Chip Olin, was a hardnosed guy, “ornery as heck,” people said. Olin brought a USA Today article on the characteristics of child molesters to the meeting. At age 24, Olin explained, Aaron was acting immature and unprofessional, and someone might get the wrong idea….

Young boys were leaving Grace over the past few years, and no one knew why. One boy moved a full 1200 miles away. He still skateboarded with friends and did normal kid stuff, but he was having horrible nightmares and failing classes, unable to contain his inexplicable fury at teachers. At one point, he told his mother he couldn’t stand how he felt and no longer wished to live. But Grace’s leaders would not know or would not admit such things about their flock until much later.

This is a cautionary tale. It is about deference to authority, and denial, and the human cost of privileging an institution above people. According to Oklahoma law, anyone having “reason to believe” that a child is potentially being abused must make a report to the Department of Human Services or the police. Child abuse experts urge us to follow the law and not take it upon ourselves to evaluate or investigate allegations or suspicions of abuse. But that is exactly what Grace did. And they reaped what they sowed.

Grace Church was Oklahoma’s Penn State of 2002. After such things come to light, we always wonder: how on earth did that ever happen?

Here is how it happened….