Sex charges rock Baptist church

by Kelly Pedro, Patrick Maloney, and Randy Richmond (London Free Press, September 9, 2005)

London, England - Charges of sexual abuse and assault -- some involving young children -- have stung a London Baptist church, put its leaders behind bars and prompted police to continue searching for others who may have been assaulted.

Ambassador Baptist Church pastors Roy Wood, 55, and Brian Fast, 51, along with deacon William Dalton Fletcher, 44, and church member Russell Wilson, 48, were charged yesterday with sexual assault, police said.

Fletcher was also charged with sexual exploitation and Wilson was charged with sexual interference.

Wood was also charged with sexual exploitation and three counts of assault with a weapon relating to three teenage boys.

News of yesterday's arrests sent shockwaves well outside of London.

Though all Ambassador churches are independent of each other, Pastor David Axler, who leads a congregation in Brantford, was stunned by news and expressed concern over its potential fallout.

"It will affect all independent Baptist churches in the area," Axler said. "I'm still kind of in shock."

All of the sex charges involve females -- some children and a woman, police said.

Police are not releasing ages of the children, but under the Criminal Code, sexual interference involves touching a person under 14 for a sexual purpose. Sexual exploitation involves the touching for a sexual purpose by a person in a position of trust of a youth between the ages of 14 and 18.

Some of the charges are historical, dating back decades.

The sexual assaults occurred at the church or while the children were in the care of the church, police said.

Police wouldn't say how many children are involved.

The charges relate to separate incidents and investigators have not found evidence of a sex abuse ring, Const. Amanda Pfeffer said.

Police said the probe was the culmination of an intensive months-long investigation into "suspicious activities" at the church.

Reached at their West Lorne home last night, Wood's wife politely declined to comment.

The Fast family of Glencoe also declined comment.

"We have no comment. Have a wonderful evening," said a woman, before abruptly hanging up.

The families of Wilson and Fletcher, who live in London, could not be reached for comment.

A small group of people gathered in the church parking lot last night as news of the charges spread. One woman angrily rebuffed a reporter while another politely declined an interview request.

But some congregation members defended the four men.

"These are men who have given their lives to helping people. We have no doubt God is going to vindicate everybody in the end," said Angela Bunch, a church member for 22 years.

"I would trust my kids with any of these men."

Internal disputes within the church led to a few members gathering others against leaders, Bunch said.

"I have three words for you. Witch hunt, vendetta and conspiracy."

A teenage member of the congregation, who asked to remain anonymous, said most members think the charges are unfounded.

"It's stupid because it's not true. These are all good men."

Fletcher was charged in May with two counts of sexual assault and two counts of sexual interference after patrons at a Wendy's restaurant in London called police after allegations that two teen girls were inappropriately touched.

He was on an outing as part of an authorized children's program at Ambassador Baptist Church at the time.

That probe led to the most recent charges, Pfeffer said.

The culmination of the investigation came yesterday when three of the men were arrested at home about 7 a.m. Another was arrested yesterday afternoon.

The four were still in police custody last night until a court appearance today.

In an interview following the May charges, Wood said the church had been having problems with police for a long time after "someone decided it was a cult."

There had been unfounded accusations, he said, adding the church was open to an investigation by police or anyone.

Wood isn't the only one to have accusations levelled against him.

In a recorded sermon July 17, Fletcher told the congregation he had gotten close to some church members following the charges against him. The church members had been charged and threatened with jail, he said.

"I don't know how many times people have asked me what they could do for me during this hardship I've gotten. I say pray that no matter what happens I don't cave in my principles," Fletcher told the congregation.

The London church had an enviable weekend outreach program for children, said Axler. A sign trumpeting the Saturday Kids Club was still up near the Adelaide Street entrance yesterday.

Between 50 and 100 children participate in the kids' club -- many of them teenagers.

The church at Adelaide and King streets started 23 years ago and draws between 150 and 200 people each Sunday.

Though Axler has no strong connections to the Forest City church, in the past he worked briefly with Wood and considered him an impressive church leader.

"(He's) a model senior pastor to look up to, is my opinion," he said.

London police said they are still investigating and believe there are other witnesses who have not yet come forward.