Woman says she didn’t realize an influential bishop sexually abused her for 20 years — until he called her 6-year-old daughter 'sexy'

By Kelly Mclaughlin
July 27, 2019

Kimberly Pollard in 1995, left, and recently, right.

Kimberly Pollard first met Bishop James L'Keith Jones, a pastor in the Church of God in Christ, in Clovis, New Mexico, 1994. Pollard was helping her godmother make phone calls for a June youth convention organized by the church, also known as COGIC, which describes itself as "the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States," with 6.5 million members across 63 countries.

Jones, then a 29-year-old youth group leader, was in charge of COGIC youth groups across New Mexico. During their first phone conversation, Pollard said, Jones didn't believe how young she was — 15 — and noted her maturity and confidence.

"He was just kind of like, 'Well, I'm gonna date you when you turn 18,'" she recently recalled. "Of course, it didn't happen like that." Instead, as Pollard claimed in a lawsuit she filed in 2016, the bishop pursued an on-again-off-again sexual relationship over the next decade, during which he groomed and sexually abused her.

Pollard said she waited more than 22 years to file the lawsuit because she didn't always recognize Jones' behavior as abusive or exploitative. Her recognition came three years ago, after she and Jones reconnected, when she witnessed him calling her six-year-old daughter 'sexy' in a video he sent to the child. The comment reminded her of the way he had treated her as a teen.

Pollard's subsequent attempts to hold Jones accountable — at first through the church's internal grievance process, and later through the federal courts — have dragged on for years. Those efforts left Pollard with a victory she considers an empty one: A $750,000 default judgment against Jones that she is still trying to collect, while the same court dismissed Pollard's claims against COGIC, Inc. and the church's Board of Bishops.

The allegations against Jones recall broader patterns of sexual abuse within major religious organizations, including the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. They also belong to a growing list of accusations against COGIC and its leadership.

This account of Pollard's experience in the Church of God in Christ is based on internal church documents; court filings from her federal lawsuit against the church; interviews with Pollard and one of her childhood friends; and correspondence between Pollard and Jones.

Pollard also provided the names of two individuals in whom she confided around the time of the alleged abuse. Pollard is no longer in touch either of them, and both appear to still be affiliated with COGIC. Neither acknowledged or responded to our attempts to contact them, which included emails, phone calls, and physical letters mailed to their last known addresses.

Jones responded to INSIDER's request for comment with the following statement: "Kim Pollard has never been a member or visitor to my church. I have never had physical contact with her daughter. Any attempt to publish, speak beyond the final resolution of the judge in the Northern District Court of Texas would be slander."

While he did not address further inquiries, including a detailed list of the allegations mentioned in this article, there is little question — based on texts, videos, and the testimony of a mutual friend — that Pollard and Jones have known each other for years. Pollard alleges that Jones took advantage of her naivete and sexually exploited her for two decades, and used his position of authority to escape accountability.

Bishop Jones was a youth group pastor when he first met Pollard

Pollard was born and raised in Clovis, a small city near New Mexico's border with Texas. Her family joined COGIC when she was six years old, after her Baptist mother spoke with its local leaders. She later began participating in the church's various youth groups, through which she eventually crossed paths with Jones.

Pollard claims that she and Jones entered a sexual relationship in August 1995, when Pollard was 16 and Jones was 30. That was the month Pollard and a group of other young congregants traveled to Jones' church in Albuquerque to help out with the denomination's nationwide convention. Traveling with Pollard was her best friend, Dorcas Lawson, whom she met that June at a youth convention in Hobbs, New Mexico. Lawson was also close with Jones, whom she regarded as a brother because of her father, a pastor at a COGIC church in Las Cruces.

The pair eventually found themselves assisting Jones himself. One day, according to Pollard, the trio went out to collect several fruit baskets from a DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Albuquerque where church delegates were staying. After they arrived, Jones went inside to retrieve the baskets, while Pollard and Lawson waited in his car, a dark-colored Nissan Infiniti Q45.

What she claims happened next is detailed in an affidavit that Pollard filed as an exhibit in her federal case:

When he came back to the car, he was empty handed and he asked me to go in and help him with the baskets, I went in with him. Once in the room, I grabbed a basket and headed towards the door, only to be stopped by him. He said he needed to ask me something. He said someone had told him that I said we had kissed and was that true, did I in fact tell someone we kissed? My reply was no. He then asked, "So if I kiss you now, would you tell anyone?" I told him no. That's when he kissed me, took the basket out of my hand and lead me to bed, we had sex.

Pollard didn't characterize the alleged incident as violent or forcible, but sexual intercourse between a 16-year-old and 30-year-old is a fourth degree felony in New Mexico.

Lawson, who now lives in Atlanta, doesn't recall exactly when Pollard told her about Jones' behavior, but remembers watching her friend and the bishop entering, and later exiting, the DoubleTree.

"We get to the DoubleTree hotel, and I'm thinking nothing of it because it's my best friend and my brother," Lawson explained. "So we pull into the hotel, he gets out and asks her to come with him. So I'm sitting in the car, five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes later, 20 minutes later." Eventually, Pollard and Jones returned to the car, and the trio made their way to a nearby church service.

Lawson kept quiet, she said, because she feared her father, who also served as a pastor in COGIC, would be disciplined if she ever spoke out. And she didn't yet understand what Jones was doing. "I was young, I really couldn't think about it," she said. "As a young girl, it's flattering to have an older guy interested in her."

Pollard said the first woman she told about the incident other than Lawson was a young woman in the church she was close with, and that woman told her youth group's adult chaperone. She described a fallout in the same affidavit:

[The chaperone] called me letting me know what she had heard, how disappointed she was because she spoke to Elder Jones and he said he viewed me only as a little sister, since I was Dorcas' best friend. She also said that she would not tell my mother. A week or so later she ended up telling my mother and when my mother brought it up to me, she stated [to] me that she was going to have him put in jail. As a 16 year old, in love with him, I did lie and say that we were not sleeping together because I didn't want him to go to jail. By doing that, I then had a scarlet letter carved into my head.

"He let me know," Pollard said in the same passage, "that if I ever chose to speak about it again, he would always have the upper hand."

Pollard found this difficult to square with what she says he was telling her in private: that he loved her but needed to keep their relationship a secret. Meanwhile, Pollard began to feel like a pariah within COGIC, and said its leaders temporarily banned her from participating in activities like choir and youth group. "I couldn't do any of that because I was looked at like a liar that caused trouble," she said.

Pollard says Jones told her she would suffer "embarrassment and humiliation because no one would believe her" if she publicly discussed their relationship.

Her relationship with Jones continued until she was 18, Pollard said, when Jones got married to another woman. Pollard went silent, according to her affidavit: "After he married, I did not contact him at all, trying to respect his union but at the same time, deal with the hurt and devastation that it caused for me."

"I was devastated because he had me believing we were in this relationship," she recently told INSIDER. "Looking back, obviously it wasn't, because I was a child and he was an adult."

The bishop's marriage, and its interruption of her relationship with him, caused suicidal thoughts and drove her to self-harm, Pollard continued: "It was a very dark time for me and there was no one I could talk to about it because he had trained me to think, 'If I'm not saying anything you shouldn't tell anyone, either.'"

But Pollard says that a little over five months later, in December 1997, Jones called Pollard and said he missed her. They soon resumed their relationship, which continued on and off for the next 15 years, as Jones ascended the church's hierarchy.

Then, in 2010, Pollard had a daughter of her own with another man.

Pollard alleges Jones told her then six-year old daughter she looked "sexy"

Jones was furious that she was involved with someone else, Pollard claimed in her complaint, where she described him as "irate and demeaning." She said he accused her "of violating the trust of their relationship," and that they temporarily broke things off.

Four years later, after Pollard broke up with the father of her daughter, she received a message from Jones. He was planning to visit his mother at a hospital in Lubbock, Texas, where Pollard had moved in 2000, and wanted to reconnect in person. According to Pollard's affidavit, she and Jones met, and later had sex, at a hotel near the city's downtown.

At the time, Pollard did not yet consider Jones dangerous, so she later allowed him to contact her daughter, then 5, over video chat and telephone. At the time, the bishop still lived in Albuquerque, hundreds of miles away from Pollard's new home in Texas.

The first red flag came during a video chat, when Jones joked about wanting to date the young girl, Pollard said. "He said he wanted to date my daughter when she turned 18 to see if she loved him more than I loved him. He said it jokingly, and I was like, 'what are you talking about?'" Pollard told INSIDER.

Pollard's complaint and affidavit describes a subsequent incident, in February 2016, in which Jones allegedly told Pollard's daughter, via a video message, that the then-almost-six-year-old looked "sexy" in her nightgown. Pollard provided copies of several video messages depicting Jones, and screenshots of text messages between her and the bishop, to KRQE in Albuquerque. The CBS and Fox affiliate aired a clip showing Jones describing someone as "sexy" in a nightgown.

To Pollard, the video clarified Jones' intentions. " This billboard went up in my head and I began to see everything … all of this that he did with me, he's doing this to my daughter," she said.

Pollard initially complained to COGIC

Three months later, in May 2016, Pollard wrote a letter to several members of COGIC's Board of Bishops, the main governing body of the church. She attached a formal complaint in which she described her relationship with Jones and his behavior toward her daughter, and included copies of photos, videos, and screenshots of their correspondence.

An internal unit of the board of bishops, known as the Grievance Committee, launched an investigation based on Pollard's complaint, which involved soliciting a formal response from Jones. Neither the complaint nor the response appear in the public court docket, but other documents describe their contents in detail.

According to the committee's final decision, a copy of which Pollard submitted to the court as an exhibit, Jones denied most of Pollard's allegations, questioned the legitimacy of the evidence she provided to the committee, and insisted that the statute of limitations had long expired.

While Jones admitted to a portion of Pollard's allegations, including the video message where he referred to her young daughter as "sexy," he also attempted to reframe them as relatively benign. The bishop "concedes that he made the video statement and that it might have been in 'bad taste' but he challenges the notion that the video message to Ms. Pollard and her daughter rose to the level of sexual misconduct, malfeasance, or conduct unbecoming a Bishop," the committee's chairman wrote.

Although the Grievance Committee found that there is "just cause to believe" that Jones had a sexual relationship with Pollard, and that Jones' relationship with Pollard amounted to "conduct unbecoming of a bishop," the judicial body left any decision, including about the bishop's comments about Pollard's daughter, to the committee's national counterpart. The board suspended Jones for a year and one day, but voted not to refer Jones to the church's national body for a formal trial.

In his response to the church's final decision, which later appeared as an exhibit in Pollard's federal case, Jones expressed regret about the investigation's impact on the larger church:

The case and allegations of Pollard vs. Bishop James L'Keith Jones is an exception to the life I have lived for over 50 years. It was never my intent to bring any exposure or reproach against the church and most importantly, the Board of Bishops. I take full responsibility for my actions, my err in judgment, and any interaction that is considered to be a violation of the rules and doctrines of the Church of God in Christ.

When Jones' suspension expired, in November 2017, he went back to working for COGIC.

After complaining to COGIC, Pollard went to the courts

Pollard responded to the outcome of the internal investigation by suing the Church of God in Christ and its board of bishops for negligence, and Jones personally.

"As a result of Bishop Jones' sexual abuse, sexual molestation, manipulation and controlling behavior, he abused his position of authority, trust and position as a bishop and authority figure," the complaint stated.

The ensuing dispute brought attention to the culture of COGIC's leadership. In the initial complaint, for instance, Pollard said she repeatedly tried to end her relationship with Jones and come clean about their infidelity. She alleged that she never went through with it, however, because Jones told her his stature within the church protected him from punishment.

"Multiple times during the 20 year illicit affair, Plaintiff Pollard would attempt to disengage from the relationship and advocated to confessing her sins to the church," she wrote. "Each time, Bishop Jones would inform Plaintiff Pollard that no one would believe her because he was too powerful and had too many connections within the church. He told her the only result of her confession would be her embarrassment and humiliation because no one would believe her allegations."

Pollard's case encountered several setbacks. Attorneys for COGIC and the board of bishops persuaded the court that the church was immune to liability because Jones "was not acting within the course and scope of any employment provided by the church."

The judge overseeing the case ruled that Texas's statute of limitations for sexual assault, plus the absence of a connection between Jones' official role within COGIC and his actions toward Pollard, shielded the church or its leadership from legal claims.

"Even if Jones was a national church employee," the judge concluded, "the church as his employer is not liable for [his] wrongful acts if and when he as an employee strayed from his employer's work for a purely personal pleasure or pursuit."

Jones, on the other hand, never answered Pollard's complaint. In March 2017, the assigned judge entered a default judgment of $750,000 against Jones, and upheld it after the bishop tried to invalidate it.

In the order upholding the default judgment, the judge noted: "It is clear from the record that Defendant Jones is not disputing any factual allegations asserted against him in the complaint, but admitted to his co-Defendant" — COGIC — "the truth of the core factual allegations asserted against him in the original complaint."

The utility of that default judgment, meanwhile, remains unclear. Pollard obtained a writ of execution, a legal instrument that allows her to seize Jones' property, in December 2018. But she still hasn't received any money from Jones.

Neither the judgment nor the case itself have affected Jones' position within the church. The bishop remains the head of the entire New Mexico jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ. COGIC did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding his current role in the church.

COGIC's response to the internal probe and the subsequent lawsuit has reinforced Pollard's skepticism of the church. "When does the church start to care about the victims as well as accused and help all parties involved come into a place of healing and restoration?" she asked. "Isn't that what the church is for? Instead, they bully and threaten you. Or better yet, do what COGIC is doing: remain silent in hopes that you will just go away, as they continue to cover the abusers, collect enormous amounts of money and live their lavish lives, while so many are left to fend for themselves."

Pollard's case isn't the first time a COGIC leader has been accused of sexual abuse

In 2007, a 53-year-old woman alleged COGIC pastor Charles Smith sexually abused her four decades earlier, when she was 12 years old. Smith died in 2009, before the case was decided; his funeral was held at New Comforter COGIC in Dallas, Texas.

In 2013, COGIC pastor Michael Bryant was sentenced to six years in prison after he admitted to inappropriately touching and exposing himself to a 16-year-old girl over the course of two years.

And in 2017, a woman filed a civil suit against longtime COGIC pastor Lewis Clemons of Columbus, Ohio, claiming he abused her as a teen and used the Bible to justify his actions. It's unclear if Clemons still has a role within the church.

These and other incidents inspired the launch of at least two dedicated websites, Report COGIC Abuse and COGIC Abuse Watch, devoted to tracking allegations of sexual abuse and violence within COGIC.

Religious communities face a global reckoning over allegations of sexual abuse. Nearly 400 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have been accused of sexual misconduct over the last two decades. The Roman Catholic Church has been accused of covering up thousands of alleged incidents of sexual abuse. In May, Pope Francis announced a new law requiring Catholic clergy to report allegations to the church's hierarchy, but critics of the church have argued the measure falls short of fully addressing the church's sex-abuse scandal.

Laura Palumbo, the communication director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said it's not uncommon for men to stay in power within a church after drawing accusations of sexual abuse.

Church leaders, warned Palumbo, are "able to use that position of authority and the power and trust that they're given to discredit the voices of victims."

"There's a message sent to the entire faith community because that bishop is still in a position of power, and about who the faith community will show support for," she said. "Unfortunately, it certainly poses a risk to other members of the community."

"Until you prove you're a wolf, you can get away with almost anything."

Two ordained elders within COGIC, Ron Stidham of Wichita, Kansas, and Moses Tyson, Jr. of San Francisco, spoke to INSIDER about Pollard's story.

Stidham said Pollard's claims were likely ignored because the church believes its leaders are more important than its lay members. "Just like with any group, you get someone charismatic, and until you prove you're a wolf, you can get away with almost anything," he said.

Stidham added that part of COGIC's reasoning for distancing itself from the lawsuit was that Jones is not technically an employee of the organization. COGIC is a nonprofit organization registered in Tennessee. While the bishops serving on its board are in salaried positions, other bishops, pastors, and leaders are not employed with the church, and are instead considered 'agents,' who receive money from the organization for their congregations, but do not have a strict salary.

"Getting a bishop to be held accountable is extremely rare," he said.

Tyson said church leaders bear responsibility for confronting abuse in their ranks: "We should not use the pulpit to take advantage of people and those in power cannot remain silent, because silence is consent." He highlighted the church's failure to follow up on Pollard's accusations against Jones and ensure Jones paid Pollard the court-ordered judgment.

"The Pollard situation was totally mishandled," he said. "Bishop Jones and Miss Pollard should have been brought to the table. Whatever his issue was, they should have dealt with it before ever putting him back in the pulpit, if ever. They did not do that. They threw him back in the pulpit knowing he had no money to pay her."

Lawson, too, stood by Pollard's side after she came forward with the lawsuit. "Everybody turned against her," she said. "But at the end of the day, even if I've known these people longer, what he did was wrong. She was a child when he came at her. He got her at a young age and molded her as a young child."

Pollard said she's received death threats and had to change her phone number after coming forward with allegations against Jones. No longer a member of COGIC, she attends a nondenominational church in Lubbock that has been "100% supportive" of her and her daughter.

"They shut me up when I was 16, but now I have a voice," Pollard said. "And because [Jones] came after my daughter I have bigger voice and a louder voice and I'm not going to shut up. Eventually the world is going to hear our cry and the world is going to start doing something about it."


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