January 3, 2021
By Edward McKinley
“No matter what people say negatively, it’s painful, it’s hurtful, it’s discouraging, it’s angering and it can defame the Lord’s bride, the church, most of all,” Pastor Phil Smith, of Victorious Life Christian Church, said in an early August sermon. “The enemy seeks to defame our Lord and give Him a bad name.”
His message — only God is the source of ultimate judgment and forgiveness — was typical for a sermon. But the apparent inspiration for the message on that Sunday was atypical, and it was not the enemy harming the church’s reputation, but a young woman suing them for allegedly abetting and harboring a Sunday school teacher who she says sexually abused her as a girl.
Abigail Barker, 27, recently filed a lawsuit against Mark Rhodes, a member of the church who was her Sunday School teacher and deacon. The civil complaint alleges Rhodes took off the 5-year-old’s pants and underwear while he was babysitting her and put his face against her vagina, leaving her traumatized from the incident.
The defendants in the lawsuit are the church, Rhodes and Dominick Brignola, leader of the church. Brignola was a former close friend of Barker’s father, she said, and a contentious email exchange between them is included as an exhibit in the lawsuit.
The church, located on Fifth Avenue in the heart of downtown Troy, is like many churches: an interwoven community of tight-knit families. Barker’s family was active in the church, she said. The children in the church were friends. Their parents were also close, with relationships forged beginning when they were kids attending the church themselves. Officials with the church, including Rhodes, who is still an active member, declined to to be interviewed for this story, contending they are precluded from discussing a pending lawsuit.
Barker’s story of abuse is far from unique. The lawsuit was filed under New York’s Child Victims Act, signed into law in 2019, which opened a look-back window for people who say they were abused as children to file lawsuits outside the statute of limitations. Nearly 5,000 cases have been filed across the state, and the window is open until August. Thousands of claimants have identified religious organizations of all denominations as the settings of their trauma and church leaders as the perpetrators.
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