Bobi Gephart hadn’t planned to go to church that Sunday – not to the worship service where the pastor intended to make a confession about the oppressive secret she had carried for so long.
But she quickly changed her mind, realizing she couldn’t trust the pastor – the man she says began sexually preying on her as a teenager – to share the whole truth.
Gephart hurried to New Life Christian Church & World Outreach in Warsaw, Indiana, arriving mid-service, and made sure her story was told.
Nearly a million viewers have witnessed what happened next in that May 22 confrontation, captured on video and posted on Facebook.
John B. Lowe II, the congregation’s longtime pastor, confessed on stage to “adultery” 20 years earlier. “I sinned,” he said, acknowledging he never previously admitted it publicly “to protect myself.”
Bobi and her husband, Nate Gephart, who had been watching from the congregation, then walked onto the stage and took the microphone.
“If you love us, please let us talk,” Nate said, handing the mic to his wife.
It was 27 years, she said, not 20, that she had “lived in a prison of lies and shame.”
“For years, I thought I was a horrible person, having suicidal thoughts, not realizing what had truly been done to me, that I was a victim,” she told him. “I was just 16 when you took my virginity on your office floor. Do you remember that? I know you do.”
She told Lowe “you kept me in your prison,” but “I’m a prisoner no longer.”
Bobi Gephart, now 43, told The Associated Press she wanted the church community to know the truth and had no idea the video, recorded by a family member in the congregation, would generate such a viral response. She’s received “overwhelming support,” she said.
“I didn’t realize how much this is helping and will help people,” she said. People “not just in this area but all over the world are reaching out to me. Their stories are so heartbreaking.”
Lowe resigned as pastor, the church said in a statement on May 23. The church said no one on staff had previously known about what happened, and it offered to help Gephart with “healing in any way in which we are able.”
In the church’s May 29 service, Lowe’s son, associate pastor Bryan Lowe, read a statement saying the church would be restructuring and holding meetings with members.
Indiana State Police, in a statement, asked anyone with “information as a victim or a witness” about the situation to contact investigators.
Bobi Gephart said she spoke with police but acknowledged prosecution of Lowe may be unlikely because of the passage of time and because Indiana law defines the age of sexual consent at 16. She said she’s aware of other past abuse within the church.
She did say Lowe began “grooming” — in which a sexual predator gains the trust of a victim through favors and other means — before she was 16. The sexual relationship continued into her early 20s. Lowe, now 65, was more than 20 years older than her.
Gephart said from the time she was young, her family’s life “revolved around the church and the Lowes.”
“We were like family with them,” she said, and when one set of parents was traveling, the other would often watch over the children.
She said a few people in the church had known what happened, but it remained secret to most of the congregation, and no one helped her get counseling. She said she felt obligated to protect the reputation of the pastor and the church and hadn’t even told her husband.
Things changed recently when her brother told her he was haunted by a memory from when they were teens. She said he recalled seeing “his pastor in bed with his younger sister, T-shirt and underwear on.”
When she told him what had happened, she said her brother immediately confronted Lowe by text, calling on him to resign.
She said Lowe began to talk to some in the church, confessing to adultery but not telling the whole story.
The church formed an advisory committee, which said in a later statement it hadn’t finished investigating, couldn’t verify the accuracy of Lowe’s version and had advised him not to make the May 22 confession.
Ages of consent vary between 16 and 18 in U.S. states.
Victim advocates say such sexual activity by clergy is beyond “adultery,” which implies consent among equals. They say it amounts to an abuse of power by a spiritual authority. Some denominations, such as the Catholic Church, define clergy sexual abuse as involving any victim under 18.
New Life is an independent church.
After Bobi Gephart confronted Lowe at the service, Nate Gephart tossed a necklace Lowe had given Bobi onto the podium, followed by her “covenant purity ring,” which many churches have given to youths to promote virginity before marriage.
“We are working through love and forgiveness,” Nate said. “But people have to be held accountable, and they can’t just bamboozle people and say, ‘Well, I just committed adultery.’ It was far beyond adultery. So here’s the covenant purity ring back. I don’t want it in my home.”
Some in the congregation voiced support for the couple and questioned Lowe, who admitted that Bobi was 16 when the sexual relationship began. Later, some circled around him in prayer.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.