Discover more from Friendly Atheist
At 14, she was "betrothed" to her pastor. She's finally sharing her side of the story.
Sarah Carr's abuser remains free in Australia despite facing criminal charges in the U.S.
This newsletter is free, but it’s only able to sustain itself due to the support I receive from a small percentage of regular readers. Would you please consider becoming one of those supporters? You can use the button below to subscribe to Substack or use my usual Patreon page!
When Robert Fenton was 26 and a youth pastor at Abide In the Vine Fellowship in Owego, New York, he told a couple that attended the church that he was drawn to their daughter and “meant to be with her.”
She was 14 at the time.
The church didn’t allow them to get married because of the age difference. (New York, at the time, actually permitted 14-year-olds to marry under certain conditions.) Still, the girl’s family approved a “courtship” with the support of church leaders. There were boundaries present, and the two weren’t supposed to be alone or touch each other, but they could write letters until she was of legal age.
None of that stopped him from pursuing her. In fact, the girl later said she was “betrothed” to him, while her parents admitted Fenton would often “push the boundaries.” They had no idea how seriously he was doing that.
For example, at his request, they pulled her out of her public school and began homeschooling her. They were led to believe they were helping their daughter academically, but it also created an opportunity for Fenton to spend more private time with her outside of prying eyes. He started visiting their home a few times a week.
That’s when the sexual assaults began. First with his fingers. Later with her hands.
When she was officially engaged to him a couple of years later—but before they were married—he made her perform oral sex on him. It wasn’t just illegal since she was underage; it violated their own religious beliefs regarding abstinence before marriage.
According to another youth pastor at the church, this was a religious community that held very conservative, very puritanical, very misogynistic beliefs about the subject. The church believed “if a man lusted for a woman, it was the woman’s fault.” Even if the girl knew something was wrong, she likely believed she couldn’t tell church leaders what was happening because they would have blamed her.
The pastor of the church back then, Fred Hoover, had misgivings about the relationship when he first learned about it. But according to Hoover’s son, the families persuaded him to support the plan by citing the marriage of Joseph and Mary in the Bible. Mary was much, much younger than Joseph and “how could they be against God’s will”? It was Hoover who blessed the relationship… but only when both families agreed there would be no dating or kissing before the girl became a legal adult. (By this point, however, he had allegedly assaulted her many times over.)
A couple of weeks before the wedding was supposed to take place, Fenton got sick with pancreatitis and went to the hospital. He soon called off the wedding and told the girl that marrying her would “ruin his ministry.” After his recovery, he moved to Australia.
That was in 1998.
He’s been in Australia ever since.
In 2019, more than 20 years after all this happened, the victim informed law enforcement about what had taken place when she was a child. She also gave investigators the names of other church members and leaders who could corroborate her story… which they did over the course of several months.
In April of 2022, Josh Shapiro, then the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, announced that Fenton had been charged with sexual assault.
“The defendant used his power and authority in his religious community to lie, manipulate and regularly abuse a young girl in his community. I promised we would hold anyone who was abusing children accountable – and Robert Fenton is no exception,” said Attorney General Shapiro. “Survivors experience a lifetime of anguish and trauma trying to overcome the impact of abuse. I want survivors to know – we believe you, and we will not let predators get away with the sexual assault of children.”
It wasn’t just one charge of assault either:
Fenton has been charged with Indecent Assault of a Person under 16, Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse with a Person Under 16, Aggravated Indecent Assault, Corruption of Minors, and Statutory Sexual Assault.
Shapiro said at the time that his office would work with the U.S. Justice and State departments to get Fenton extradited from Australia, where he resided in Queensland, so that he could be arrested and tried over here.
That was well over a year ago.
Shapiro has gone on to become Pennsylvania’s governor.
Daniel J. Dye, the Assistant Chief Deputy in the AG’s office who was tasked with prosecuting the case against Fenton, now works as Chief Counsel to the Office of State Inspector General.
Fred Hoover, the pastor who blessed the “relationship,” was still working at the church as a senior pastor and president of their “School of Ministry” until he died in late 2021. He never explained why he ever thought a fellow staffer could just call dibs on a child in the congregation. His church never explained why Hoover had any business educating future religious leaders. (Incidentally, Hoover’s son Paul was, and still is, married to the sister of the victim.)
Meanwhile, Fenton still lives in Australia, having never faced any legal consequences for his alleged assaults.
This past April, when the victim asked the state for any updates to her case, she was simply told “there is nothing new to report” and that the office “has requested assistance from the FBI to apprehend the Defendant.”
The office did not respond to my more recent request for comment. (Update: In a brief statement, a spokesperson for the PA attorney general simply said, “our office is currently seeking extradition.”)
Because there’s no indication of forward progress, the victim in this case, Sarah Carr, has now decided to go public with her story.
Sarah wasn’t sure she wanted to attach her actual name to this story, considering the charging documents only listed her initials. But she also knew none of this was anonymous to the people in her religious circles. Her parents and sister were named in the paperwork and “anyone who knew about the relationship knew it was me.” The news spread in her small town like wildfire, with the documents passed around person to person, so it’s not like she could escape it.
In her first public interview since those charging documents were made public, Sarah told me she was “bothered by a version of the story being out there without my own voice, my own insights, my own commentary as the one who embodied the experience.”
That’s why she wants to come forward. She wants to take control of this story and help create change so that it never happens again.
Part of her frustration has been that many adults in that religious community still don’t really have a problem with child marriage. While they might condemn Fenton for what he did, she said they still don’t see him as a “predator.” (They may be more inclined to blame her for causing his lust.)
And yet predator seems to be an accurate description of the man. In fact, before Fenton went after Sarah, he went after another child in their religious circle (who was also named in the charging documents). It was only after that girl’s family moved away—and Sarah’s moved in—that he turned his attention on her.
And yet the people in the community didn’t seem to balk at either incident. They always found justification for his behavior, whether it was pointing to “prophetic” dreams or blaming the girls for supposedly leading him on.
Sarah said she wants people to understand that what happened to her wasn’t just the fault of one bad apple. She (rightly) blames the system that allowed Purity Culture to thrive, that revoked autonomy from girls while urging them to be submissive and obedient, and that blamed children for the abuse adults inflicted upon them. She wants people to ask themselves: “Can a teenage girl raised in a church where women submit to authority say no?”
Her younger sister Rebekah echoed many of those same points in a phone call with me, saying the whole situation made her second guess her relationship with God. Or at least what kind of relationship that is.
"I still have faith,” she said. “I still believe the Lord talks to people." But it takes some work to reconcile that belief with the fact that God supposedly told Fenton to pursue this relationship with her sister. She now believes that if God talks to you about someone else, it needs to resonate with what the Lord told the other person. If there are mixed signals, someone’s not getting the right message.
Rebekah also wishes that her church had been more open to discussions about sex, women’s bodies, and simply dealing with emotions. She thinks that if religious leaders had done that with her peers, there wouldn’t have been so much to hide. Their desire to shut down those conversations contributed to the problem.
Sarah’s childhood friend Faith was even more blunt. While Faith wasn’t a member of Sarah’s church, their youth groups often came together for meetings, so they heard the same messages growing up. Those messages weren’t very useful.
“We were never taught women have a right to say no," Faith told me. She was told to submit to men. Her own mother said to her that, upon marriage, she should never resist her husband when it came to sex, effectively denying the existence of marital rape.
"It's a culture that sets women up for abuse," Faith said. And for a while, she was part of that culture. She remembers that a lot of her friends in youth group thought the relationship between Sarah and Fenton was “gross,” but they didn’t dare speak out about it because they “didn't want to hurt Sarah's feelings." Faith just assumed that’s how Sarah’s church operated. Therefore, she had no right to criticize it.
“As girls, we didn't have a voice anyway.”
Sarah’s parents, who initially supported the relationship with Fenton, have since come around to her side. Her mother says allowing Fenton to abuse Sarah was her “biggest regret,” while her father, who is still an elder in the same church, insists he’s only sticking around in order to create positive change.
Indeed, shortly after Fenton was charged with his crimes, there was another abuse allegation in the very same church. The victim came forward (having been inspired by Sarah), and Sarah’s father wanted to make sure this case was handled properly. But because charges weren’t filed with law enforcement, and the case was only handled internally, the details were never made public. The case was only “resolved,” Sarah explained, in the sense that the elder accused of abuse was pushed out by other church leaders.
Unfortunately, not everyone close to Sarah is on her side. One aunt still clings to that conservative narrative; she believes Fenton had honest intentions and that it was only his inability to find a wife his own age that led him to target younger women. (As if that’s a perfectly normal thing to do.)
The church, despite her father’s efforts, hasn’t changed much either. Sarah told me no one in leadership has ever reached out to her to apologize or hear her story. Apparently, when the charging documents were released, Fred Hoover’s wife (who now leads the church) believed this would “just blow over.”
It’s no wonder that Sarah no longer considers herself a Christian. While Abide In the Vine Fellowship was a non-denominational church, Sarah now considers herself “spiritual.”
“One of the most hurtful aspects for me to reckon with,” she explained, “was that because of how Fenton positioned himself as a prophet speaking on behalf of God, I truly believed that God was saying I was unworthy when he ended the relationship.”
That attitude, combined with a harmful Purity Culture mentality, led Sarah to believe she “was unworthy of love and belonging.”
But that alone wasn’t what pushed her away from traditional Christian faith. A family tragedy that occurred several years later tipped the scales, followed by a more general conservative Christian opposition to LGBTQ rights.
That shift had its benefits, though. It was only after Sarah deconstructed that she understood what she had endured was abuse and that she wasn’t personally responsible for it. That’s what motivated her to finally go to law enforcement and tell them what Fenton did to her.
Now she’s hoping others will come to the same conclusions.
If nothing else, she hopes people won’t give religious leaders unearned trust. She hopes they’ll realize the harm caused by treating girls as the property of men, both as children and as wives. She also hopes they’ll disavow the concepts of “courting” and “betrothal,” both of which were on full display in the recent Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets docuseries. Those aren’t good Christian ways of merging two souls into one; it’s grooming, plain and simple.
Sarah also wants to help other victims. It was listening to another survivor’s story that allowed her to recognize what happened to her, so if someone else can benefit from her telling her story, then she’s both helping them and healing herself.
Sarah now works as a financial planner and is working toward certification as a financial therapist. She writes on her website that, when she was younger, she “didn’t feel [she] had much, if any, choice in creating a plan of [her] own.” It’s why she’s working to bring stability to other people’s lives after spending so many years unable to achieve that stability in her own.
Without directly mentioning her own past, she also urges readers to practice self-care when they’re going through difficulties:
The trauma I came out of twenty years ago resurfaced in 2019 leaving me no other option but to address my mental health needs.
Looking back, I wish I had more permission to do what I needed to do to take care of myself. Thankfully I had a few friends and life coaches that reminded me that there would be a time again where I could run hard but for now take the time to heal. (And they still remind me of this when I have a hard day or series of hard days.) Perhaps you need some permission to take care of yourself, to slow down, to pause for a moment, to do whatever you may need in order to prioritize your own well-being, I hereby grant it.
As of this writing, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office still hasn’t extradited Fenton. Whether the charges will lead to prison time for him remains to be seen. But it’s incredible how many people blessed a relationship that never should have been permitted.
Just about everyone in Sarah’s circles, including family members and church leaders, were all fine with them being together when they believed sex would only come after the wedding. The idea of an underage girl “betrothed” to a youth pastor nearly twice her age didn’t seriously bother them because they thought God approved.
"I was convinced it was God's will," said Sean Eberly, a member of Sarah’s youth group and a worship leader at the church. Even after the wedding was called off, "I hadn't come to terms with what had happened." It took him several years after leaving the church to recognize what happened and think seriously about what he could’ve done differently.
"I wish I had spoken up and said something,” he told me. The regret haunted him for years. Today, he has a much more straightforward take on churches like theirs: "High-demand religions are extremely toxic."
It’s no wonder the former youth worship leader now considers himself an atheist.
Robert Fenton used the Bible to abuse everyone’s trust. His victim carried those memories—and that trauma—for decades. Sarah is taking a different kind of risk now, stepping out from behind the cloak of anonymity. And yet Fenton remains at large, overseas, possibly protected by a new church and the luxury of distance.
If you appreciated this article, please subscribe to my newsletter for free (!) or share this post on Reddit, Facebook, or the godawful Bird app.