She was sexually abused by her teacher. She now finds support in the church he founded.

By Maria Devito
Newark Advocate
August 9, 2019

Jodi Priest has found comfort and support in an unlikely place: the church founded by her abuser, which is now called Cornerstone Church. Priest first came for a service on Christmas Eve after spending months talking to a woman on the church council. She’s been attending regularly since April.
Photo by Sara C. Tobias

The eighth grade yearbook page for Jodi Priest (then Garwick) showing teacher John Schouten.

The message then teacher John Schouten wrote to Jodi Priest (then Garwick) in her eighth grade yearbook.

A photo of Jodi Priest (then Garwick) with teacher John Schouten at her eighth grade graduation.

A note Jodi Priest (then Garwick) said teacher John Schouten wrote to her while she was in high school.

Jodi Priest is a survivor.

She didn’t always think that, but in the last few months, she’s come to view herself from that perspective.

Throughout her high school years in the 1980s, Priest said she was sexually abused by a teacher at her school. After she graduated, she become pregnant with the teacher’s baby and had a son in 1990 when she was 19.

That teacher was John Schouten, the pastor who stepped down in October from the Licking County church he started after a classmate of Priest’s informed the church of Schouten’s past.

In October, the church described Schouten’s behavior as "wrong, evil, and illegal" in an emailed statement to parishioners. A spokesman previously told The Advocate the actions were a “sexual sin.”

Priest, who is now 48, didn’t want to speak publicly at the time. She wasn’t ready. She said had she come forward even just a few months ago, her story would have been that of abuse.

 “It is now a story of healing and not just abuse,” she said.

History of abuse

Priest, who was Jodi Garwick at the time, said she was 13-years-old the first time Schouten kissed her. It was at the end of her eighth-grade year. Schouten had been her homeroom, history and Bible teacher that year at Liberty Christian Academy. The school, which is now located in Pataskala, had just opened that year and was in Columbus at the time.

When Schouten kissed Priest, she was babysitting at the home of the school principal, who was also Schouten’s brother-in-law. Schouten was 24 years old at the time and married.

A friend of Priest’s confirms Priest’s account and remembers when Priest told her about the kiss. The friend requested her name not be released.

The next school year, Priest said Schouten targeted and groomed her. He had sex with her for the first time when she was 14 years old, she said.

The abuse continued throughout the rest of her high school years. Schouten arranged to meet Priest two to three times a week, and the two would meet in a variety of places: the park, each of their houses, and even school. Priest said Schouten had conditioned her to believe he was in love with her even though he was married and had a child with his wife while he abused Priest.

Priest’s friend again confirmed the abuse. She remembered a time when Schouten came to Priest’s home while the friend hid upstairs out of his sight.

Priest said a classmate of hers told the principal she heard a rumor about a relationship between Schouten and Priest near the end of her senior year. The principal called Priest’s home an evening during the first week of May 1988. Priest said she had no idea why the principal had called her in.

“I had never been in trouble. I babysat the principal’s kids. I was comfortable with him,” she said.

When Priest and her mother arrived at the school, the principal talked to Priest alone. Priest said he told her he knew about her relationship with Schouten and gave her two choices.

“If I admitted to the sexual relationship, I would get my diploma and (Schouten) would just get fired and not go to jail. If I denied it, and he had to prove it, then I would not get my diploma and (Schouten) would go to jail,” Priest wrote in a blog post detailing the abuse and the impact it had on her life years after.

Scared to death and feeling pressured, Priest said she admitted to the relationship.

Schouten was fired and Priest left school immediately. Students were not told why either of them left, and Priest’s friend said students were told not to talk about it.

Priest’s parents took her to North Carolina until the end of the school year.

“I had to cancel my prom plans, miss my graduation ceremony, and leave all my friends abruptly,” Priest wrote in the blog post, which she agreed to share with The Advocate.

Priest wrote that the month she was away was a very lonely and confusing time.

“I had been blamed and sent away, so that must have meant I was guilty of something. When we returned home that guilt was further enforced in my mind when my friends’ parents would not allow them to see me,” she wrote. “I didn’t have the tools to process and rightly understand what was happening. I just felt tremendous shame.”

Her father told her later that he met with Schouten while Priest was in North Carolina. Schouten told her father he was sorry for what he did and would not contact Priest again.

But he did not keep that promise. In November 1988, Schouten contacted Priest and asked to see her. Priest wrote that because she wanted to believe he loved her, she agreed and the abuse continued. Five months later Priest learned she was pregnant. Priest wrote that when she told Schouten, he asked her to have an abortion. She said no and decided to keep the baby, who was born in January 1990, and raise him on her own.

Priest’s son does not have a father named on his birth certificate, Priest wrote, because you needed the father’s consent to be named.

Priest wrote that during the last year of the abuse, Schouten would talk about running off with his daughter he had with his wife. Priest was afraid if he was given visitation with their son, Schouten would take him. She met with a lawyer who was a friend of her father to see if she could get child support without giving Schouten visitation.

“Between the lawyer and my dad, they convinced me it would be better not to try. The lawyer said that everything that happened in high school would have to be brought forward,” Priest wrote in the blog. “Since I already was the criminal from the first round, I did not feel strong enough to go through what would be needed to get the child support.”

Both of Priest’s parents passed away more than 10 years ago, she wrote.

Schouten called Priest again when her son was about 6 to 8 months old. He asked if the baby was a boy or a girl and his name. Priest and Schouten would still see each other occasionally but did not have sex.

“The emotional connection was still there,” she said.

But Schouten never met her son while he was growing up.   

'There is anger, but of course you forgive'

School officials never reported the abuse that had been going on for years to police. And Schouten can’t be charged anymore. In Ohio, the statute of limitations for sexual assault of a minor is 20 years from the victim’s 18th birthday.

Priest said no one from Liberty Christian Academy has ever apologized for what happened. Representatives from the school did not respond to several attempts to seek comment.

“I don’t feel that I need to go after them but of course there is anger, but you forgive. Unless you want to be bitter, you have to work through that,” Priest said.

Priest went on to get married and have two more children. She said the busy everyday life of raising her children and running a business with her husband helped her push down the anger she felt. She also went to counseling when her son was about 2 years old.

But ultimately, one person helped her forgive: her son.

“To me it was realizing I wouldn’t change anything because I wouldn’t change the fact that I have my son and realizing ‘OK, so I wouldn’t change it so now you’ve got to live with it. So how do you live with it? You’ve got to forgive,” she said.

Abuse comes to light at VGF Church

Priest said she found out Schouten had started a church about three or four years ago. She Googled Schouten’s name randomly and VGF Church, located at 4905 Jacksontown Road, came up. She said it upset and shocked her to learn he was leading a church — a church that at one point had 1,500 members.

“It was another time I felt abandoned by God,” she said.

Even then, she still decided to stay quiet about the abuse she had endured.

“Growing up in a religious (family) you hear how God saves you, God redeems you, God forgives you. I had no idea whether he had told everybody the truth or not,” she said. “I had the fear that if I came forward, they would say, ‘We know. It don’t matter. We don’t care.”

Schouten had told one version of the truth. He told his parishioners he had an affair when he was younger, but never went into the details. He never mentioned the affair was with someone who was a child or that he was her teacher. He never mentioned they had a child together, members of the church Schouten started told The Advocate.

Priest was not the one who informed the church about the abuse — it was a former classmate.

The classmate, who requested his name not be published, said while he attended Liberty Christian Academy his senior year, he had an idea there was a relationship between Priest and Schouten, but he left the school before May 1988. He was told a few months later what happened. But it was the summer of 2018 when he learned Schouten was a pastor and he contacted the church.

He said he did it because he was afraid Schouten would do the same thing to another girl.

According to a statement sent to parishioners last year, Schouten offered to resign once church leaders were told of his actions. Church leaders did not accept his resignation and instead placed Schouten on paid administrative leave while leaders determined what to do.

A church council member contacted Priest so she was aware of what was happening. Priest said she was in disbelief.

“There had never been any tangible consequences for his illegal and devastating actions, so it was both comforting and scary that the truth would finally be exposed,” Priest wrote in her blog post.

Schouten admitted to the relationship with Priest to church leadership on July 19, 2018 and then admitted to everything again in front of the church congregation on July 29, 2018.

“I will not and have not ever attempted to justify what were horrible, disgusting, evil and abusive actions on my part,” Schouten said according to a recording of his comments provided by a church member. “The offense was and always will be something that sickens me. My acts damaged multiple lives 30 years ago and I will always have to own to that truth.”

Schouten said in his comments he has never done anything else like this.

Schouten is now preaching at another church called Redemption Church, which according to its website meets Sunday at The Skylight in downtown Newark.

Although Schouten’s name is not on the website or the incorporation documents, his name is mentioned in the incorporation notes.

Schouten declined to comment for this story.

How Schouten's church became an unlikely source of support

Priest has found comfort and support in an unlikely place: the church Schouten started, which is now called Cornerstone Church.

“Everybody in the (church) body has been the first people that’s supported me after hearing my story,” she said. “They didn’t know me, but they still prayed for me. It’s been wonderful.”

She spent months talking to a woman who was on the church council before she ever attended a service. Priest came for a service for the first time on Christmas Eve. She’s been attending regularly since April.

A group of women at the church have rallied around Priest and have played a crucial part in supporting her these last few months.

“Everybody needs to be supported,” Priest said. “It’s hard to do anything when you’re on your own, and especially when you feel you’re to blame.”

And even though Schouten founded the church, Priest can separate the two.

“I do not feel (Schouten) when I walk in these doors. I feel God,” she said.

Her faith in God is what has pulled her through the dark moments and helped her process what happened to her. It’s how she got to point where she could share her story. Priest said she hopes her story gives other survivors of abuse encouragement and so much more.

“That there is still hope. That there is still a way to gain that. It’s never too late,” she said.


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