Protest & Claims of Abuse Halt Chicago-Area Land Deal with Plymouth Brethren Church

The Roys Report [Chicago IL]

August 31, 2023

By Josh Shepherd

Dozens of Chicago-area residents are speaking out against a city plan to sell public land to Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC) to build a local church. Some claim the religious group will benefit from the deal at taxpayers’ expense, while others allege a pattern of abuse in the denomination.

On Wednesday, at a South Barrington Park District board meeting, residents objected to the proposed $1.7 million purchase of public land by PBCC, a Protestant denomination headquartered in Australia. The group had planned to construct a church and school on a 34-acre site in the wealthy northwest Chicago suburb.

An attorney for the park district, Scott Puma, announced at the public meeting that “The real estate closing is on hold,” according to a report in the Daily Herald

Several residents spoke up against the proposed land sale in the meeting and later to media. Resident Sage Fattahian told NBC 5 Chicago: “(The city) purchased this land for $3 million in 2004, they’re looking to sell for $1.7 million. Real estate is just as hot as 2004. We’re concerned about taxpayer dollars and why it’s sold at such a loss.” 

Some residents also expressed concern about the culture and practices of PBCC, which has more than 300 congregations located in 18 nations worldwide, according to its website. PBCC allegedly does not allow outsiders at their gatherings and also requires members to have no contact with former members, according to multiple sources who spoke to The Roys Report (TRR).

“Some say it’s a high-demand religious group, but I call it a coercive cult,” Cheryl Bawtinheimer, a former PBCC member, told TRR. “They govern every aspect of your life in there—to the point that you don’t have contact with family members once they leave.” 

The official PBCC website states: “The Plymouth Brethren are not a cult . . . (Our) members extensively engage with the wider community on a daily basis.” petition calling for the Park District Board to halt the land sale to PBCC has garnered 1,148 signatures. “We strongly oppose the development of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church on Bartlett Road and Route 59,” state petitioners. They call on the city to preserve this “unique natural area of South Barrington for the benefit of all residents.” 

In a statement provided to TRR by an Australia-based public relations firm, Russell McAbery of the PBCC described the stalled deal as a “sale of unwanted land to our community.”

He stated that the denomination’s site plan has “been developed with deep consideration and commitment to the environmental sensitivities of the site as well as the fabric of the neighbourhood.” 

Insular community allegedly fosters abuse

At a protest prior to the Park District board meeting, residents chanted “Stop the Sale” and held signs that stated: “PBCC is NOT a public place of worship” and “No PBCC!” 

Bawtinheimer told TRR that she briefed local residents via video call about her negative experiences with PBCC and her research. She said the residents also shared their concerns with her.

“Many residents are worried about the safety of their neighborhoods because these people keep pedophiles safe,” she told TRR. “They do not go to the police. You are taught not to go to the police.” 

Bawtinheimer grew up attending a PBCC congregation with her family in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, Canada. She alleges that, from the late 1970s to mid-1980s, she was sexually abused by an elder in that congregation. She said she fled the church in her late teen years. 

Bawtinheimer recently filed a police report regarding the alleged incidents. According to email correspondence provided to TRR, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has opened an investigation into Bawtinheimer’s case. 

Formerly known as the Exclusive Brethren, the denomination was reincorporated as Plymouth Brethren Christian Church in 2012. 

“They make a slick presentation, but they are not who they say they are,” said Bawtinheimer. “That’s why they rebranded themselves. All of it is false.” 

Similarly, Richard Marsh, who spent years at a PBCC congregation in Cambridge, England, before leaving the denomination, said PBCC is “not an open organization.” 

“The whole community is extremely insular and self-supporting,” he told TRR. “For instance, Brethren members only work for Brethren-owned businesses.” 

In a statement provided to the Daily Herald, a PBCC spokesperson stated: “We have lived and worked in communities in this region for more than 150 years. We help our neighbors, and they help us.” 

GoFundMe page from South Barrington residents noted concern about the process by which the proposed PBCC church and school site plan had been approved.

Specifically, the residents call the land deal “pre-arranged” and that PBCC was the “single, desired bidder” for the public land in what was supposed to be an open auction.

PBCC did not specifically address this issue in its statement to TRR

“As with all communities we are part of, we are sensitive to the concerns of the South Barrington neighbourhood,” the statement read. “. . . Indeed, after listening to concerns of our neighbours and community we have already altered plans.”

In the public board meeting on Wednesday, Teresa Jennings, executive director of the South Barrington Park District board, reportedly announced that further action on the plan is expected “in the near future.”