Most victims of domestic violence and sexual assault that I spoke to for this series in the Seventh-day Adventist Church are aware by their own experience of how ill-equipped the Church is to deal with their trauma. They, however, aren’t prepared for the vast army of church lawyers and self-serving administrators to deny them any semblance of just compensation or restitution from the Church itself.
This article shows how far the Church will go to bury a victim’s experience and story.
Section I: A Match from Hell
After her parents moved to Jacumba Hot Springs, California, Lorissa Tino attended the El Cajon Seventh-day Adventist Church from 4 or 5 years old. In 2010, a deacon approached her in the Church. He was excited that his son, Dominick Tino, had shown up at the Church. Church members also encouraged Lorissa to make Dominick feel welcome at Church that morning.
After one week of attendance, Dominick was baptized in 2010. The church members began to orchestrate situations where they would be together, and after two months, Lorissa and Dominick began dating. During the three and a half years of dating, some situations made Lorissa uncomfortable. For example, Dominick was extremely friendly with very young girls at Church. They would openly flirt with him, in his personal space and theirs. Senior Pastor Richard Smith spoke to him after one of the girls slapped him.
After a year in a staff position as a pathfinder leader, Dominick became the director of Pathfinders for El Cajon SDA Church. He was director for two years and had keys to the church building. According to Lorissa, Dominick, before attending El Cajon, had served a stint in the Air Force where he had been jailed in military prison on charges of assault. Intelligent Adventist could not independently verify his military service, imprisonment, or early discharge from the Air Force. We are aware that all volunteers who serve children at the Church must undergo background checks. We could not verify whether the Conference conducted any background checks on Dominick and whether those checks would have revealed the nature of the charges filed against him in the military police system.
Lorissa and Dominick attended SOULS West Bible College for a semester but left because the program was too restrictive. They didn’t like the money-driven focus “vibe” at SOULS West. And Lorissa felt something was “off” regarding their teachings. SECC Literature Evangelism director Teddy Knapp was initially really invested in the two of them. He would meet and talk numbers with them and how they could make a lot of money selling books. They felt pressured, and they expressed it to Knapp. He flipped and told Lorissa, “You will leave Christianity.”
Despite signs of aggression and instances of controlling behavior, Dominick successfully convinced Lorissa of his narrative regarding all his inappropriate behavior that she witnessed in his work. She reasoned that the Church family had set the two of them together. She also felt that God was putting them together, so when Dominick proposed, she said yes. Pastor Smith gave the couple pre-marital counseling.
The Church threw a wedding for them, and they got married on May 25, 2014.
Unbeknownst to her, there had been complaints about Dominick by the members and the new youth pastor (Ken Grimes) to senior pastor Smith. Dominick was caught sending inappropriate texts to girls as young as 11 or 12. Moreover, Dominick had been “counseled” by the pastor regarding his porn addiction. None of this information was disclosed about Dominick to Lorissa during the pastoral pre-marital counseling.
A month after their wedding, Dominick strangled Lorissa for the first time during an argument. Soon it became a pattern. It didn’t matter how the fight started. Sometimes, she would catch him talking with other women, or he would be hiding in the bathroom watching porn, or it would be something else. Each time he would yell in her face, and, using his height of six feet four inches against her, he would grab her face with his fingers and push her down and squeeze her neck.
Then he would cool off and tell her that she needed to trust him and accuse her of not forgiving him.
After one and a half years of a hellish marriage, Lorissa moved out for two weeks. Dominick, who has relatives serving in the police precinct, turned the situation against her. He accused her of talking to other men. He called the police on her and turned her into a suspect. When she reached the police to report him, the police said, “we have a case on you, and we are looking for you.” The police never followed up on her report of domestic violence. There was a warrant for her arrest, but they never executed it on her.
After she left for the second time, she went to court to get a restraining order; the court threw out the policeman’s testimony in favor of her husband because he never followed up with her to get her side of the story.
When she went to therapy with her husband to the Church’s senior pastor, Dominick then ‘admitted’ to the pastor about porn. She found out much later that the pastor already knew about his extreme habit of accessing pornography. The pastor was more concerned about how she could be “a more attentive as a wife” to help her husband deal with his “issues.”
When it was clear that the Adventist pastoral couple’s marriage counseling wasn’t working out, Lorissa tried professional counseling.
They went to therapy for eight weeks.
She moved back in and got pregnant.
Later, she found out he was cheating on her while they were in therapy.
The fights resumed.
He once flipped the mattress over her and smothered her while pregnant.
He continued to choke her till she stopped breathing. She started having seizures. According to Lorissa, in all their fights during her pregnancy, he would try to harm her but not in a way that would directly physically harm the baby.
In December of 2016, she gave birth to her son.
Shortly after their son was born, she found out they were in debt. Her husband had a card with a credit limit of $8,000 with $12,000 on it. It was all pornography charges.
Then, she found out that he was sexting an underage girl at Church.
Then, one day, their son pulled a fan on top of himself because Dominick was not watching him as he should, and they got into a huge fight. The police came and they called Child Protection Services on him.
After this, they “mutually agreed to break up,” and Lorissa went to live on the Church property with one of the church deaconesses, Wilma Standley. Standley took Dominick’s side and continued to report on Lorissa to the Church and him secretly.
Lorissa was unaware of what the local church leaders and church pastor knew about her husband.
After seven years, the Church finally suspended Dominick’s membership.
Lorissa wanted to get divorced, but she didn’t know how.
She realized he had installed tracking software on her cell phone. He would text her pictures of her conversations on her phone. According to her, the local police never separated her case from his two brothers working in the same station.
She sought legal aid from a workshop and discovered that Dominick had already filed for divorce. Her restraining order request made it look like she was retaliating against his divorce attempt.
While looking for documentary evidence to include in her divorce case, Lorissa found a list of Dominick’s alleged sexual conquests, which had at least one confirmed underage girl from Church. Intelligent Adventist has viewed the contents of this journal.
She called the senior pastor at the Church. He advised her to contact the Southeastern California Conference (SECC). The Conference office directed her to speak with attorney Chuck McKinstry, director of Trust Services. He gave her the detective’s phone number, who was working on a case at the El Cajon Adventist Church. The detective advised her to get a restraining order, and now, she was able to do so on her third attempt. She went back to their house to get all her belongings and found a journal in which he had rewritten the list. She took the journal. Intelligent Adventist is withholding the publication of this journal as it contains names of possible victims, some of whom may still be underage.
By now, Dominick’s three-month suspension from church attendance had expired. After the judge declined to make the restraining order permanent, he returned to the Church. The pastor knew about the list in his journal, and the conference attorney had seen it.
The pastor called Dominick up on stage shook his hand, and hugged him in front of the Church.
And this is where this story takes a more profound turn deeper into the darkness.
Section II: The Safe Spaces of the Church
The General Conference Administration decided to work on issuing a Global Statement on Abuse for the Spring Session of the Annual Council of 2019. Accordingly, Adventist World prepared space for a feature article complete with victims’ stories and an interview with a multi-disciplinary team of church experts and administration officials. They just needed some stories from victims. So Associate Editor for Adventist World, Wilona Karimabadi, contacted Bucket Brigade, a now-defunct Adventist victims advocate organization, for a list of victims. She was provided with a list that included Lorissa’s name on it. Karimabadi’s interactions with Lorissa are included in this article’s evidence documents. Lorissa compiled a nine-page document with answers to the questions provided.
Karimabadi replied with a condensed version of her story that was to be included in the Adventist World feature. It is reproduced here below. Zoe is the pseudonym that was chosen for the Adventist World story.
Meeting Her Abuser in Church
Zoe* met her husband in Church. While he had previously been jailed and discharged from the military, he was received warmly by the congregation and quickly became involved in leading youth activities. Well-meaning members quickly found ways to put the two of them together. And all of this seemed to be good signs in Zoe’s mind.
The two dated for nearly four years before marrying. Zoe can see now that there were red flags early on, but she had no idea how much they were truly signaling. Once married, her ex’s true colors were revealed, and the relationship very quickly came to involve physical, sexual, and mental abuse.
Through all of that, a son was born, but the abuse never de-escalated. He continued the violence and Zoe learned of his addiction to pornography and adultery with young women in the Church. Once she was finally able to leave the marriage, the cruelty extended to fights over custody of their little boy, many of which included psychological manipulation and harassment.
The mess of her marriage became embroiled with members of the Church because of her ex’s inappropriateness with young women there. Needless to say, the Church was not much help to her in sorting through the mess and helping her to stabilize her life. Zoe’s attempts at getting help from local authorities also didn’t work out as she hoped.
Zoe is currently waiting for her divorce to be finalized. Because of all that she has endured, she suffers from panic attacks, depression, PTSD and has lost interest in many of the things that once brought her joy.
Her relationship with the Lord also struggled, but she believes now that no matter how horrible things appeared to be, God was still taking care of her. She knows He has brought her through way too much for her to run from Him.
You can compare it with what I’ve written on Lorissa’s experience.
This whitewashed version of events completely avoids the culpability of the pastor who knew about her ex-husband’s abuses before their marriage, his refusal to disclose these details to Lorissa during pre-marital counseling, and the aftermath of Dominick’s attack on another girl in the Church.
If the Adventist World had published even this version of events. It would have been a small measure of acknowledgment of what she went through.
Adventist World, however, chose not to publish her story.
Karimabadi emailed Lorissa to tell her that they had not included her story in the Adventist World feature. Here is the substance of the email:
Your story was not used, unfortunately. There were several stories that ended up having to be cut to allow more room for the main article on the topic. I’m truly sorry we couldn’t use them all, but that decision was out of my hands.
Adventist World, since it goes around the world, has to strike a more general tone to accommodate the many different cultures we try to reach. So we chose to deal with the issue of abuse in a more preventative nature. In the Church, we are dealing with so many instances of abuse, not just domestic, and it all needs to be addressed. We hope that the magazine’s focus will serve as a starting point to address abuse in all its ugly forms throughout the world church. The edition of Adventist World was never meant to target domestic abuse only.
Karimabadi made clear that the decision to cut her story was not hers.
I contacted her by email to ask about the editorial decisions behind the feature. I never received a reply.
Here is the final version of the Issue that was published. It can be accessed here: https://www.adventistworld.org/september-2019/
Whether it was senior editorial staff higher than Karimabadi or senior administrative staff, or General Conference Legal Counsel, that decided to cut Lorissa’s testimony, I do not know.
If I were an Adventist World journalist looking over this story, with the victim testifying to a broken reporting process at the local Church and an ineffective response at the local Conference. I would have contacted the Southeastern California Conference and the Pacific Union for answers to perhaps stimulate discussion on how to rectify the victim’s situation and prevent such a lapse. At the very least, the Church’s End It Now organization could have been tasked to work on developing a retraining program for this pastor and his leadership team at Church.
However, I believe that even if Karimabadi did take these steps, her queries would not have been a surprise to the Conference, the union, or the division, and certainly not to the Office of the General Conference Legal Counsel (OGC) for this story.
This is my analysis here; or perhaps speculation would be more appropriate a word. The OGC didn’t like what they read in Lorissa’s nine-page testimony, and they could see the potential of a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the Church’s entities, one that the Church could very well lose.
Adventist abuse victims are no match for the Office of the General Conference of Legal Counsel.
As this article will demonstrate, the power imbalance between victims and the Church’s lawyers is vast. The OGC writes the rules and interprets them in committees where executive committee members dissect victims’ stories. The OGC and their colleagues have an unfair advantage as they are often the first people the members turn to after their pastor has ignored them or has suggested that they contact the Conference. They are the first to hear the victim’s story in its rawest form. And, they are not only listening for the narrative, but are also listening for all the legal loopholes and ways to crush the victim should they eventually seek damages in court. It is their job. And their professional ethics require them to perform this duty on behalf of all of us in the Church. Victims often think that these “church lawyers” are paid by their offerings and therefore are “their lawyers.” This series again demonstrates that it is false. The lawyers are there to protect the corporation, and that corporation is the Conference, the union, the division, or the General Conference itself.
Adventist victims of Abuse are encouraged to hire their lawyers before approaching the church lawyers with their stories of abuse.
This story also raises the question of journalistic ethics. If Lorissa’s testimony could be altered not to reveal the facts, what about the other stories featured in Adventist World and other denomination publication outlets? What kinds of editorial decisions are being made, and under whose influence? If the flagship publishing organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church cannot publish a story without executive meddling or lawyerly edits how can members rely on it to make sound decisions regarding the work of God on earth?
While writing about abuse in the Church, if our Church further abuses victims by whitewashing or materially eliminating their stories, where can our victims’ voices be heard? And if a woman writing about another woman can have her own story cut by others, most likely men, what does that say about women’s rights in our Church?
Based on the overall handling of this story, we believe there is sufficient evidence for the General Editor Bill Knott to step down from his position.
Intelligent Adventist is also calling on the General Conference Session to ask for an independent investigation into the editorial decisions made for this feature in Adventist World and publish the findings so members can regain their confidence in this publication arm of the General Conference.
Section III: Time Runs Out
For years, some church members first confronted Pastor Smith over his lax treatment of Dominick and then began to take their concerns to the Conference. I spoke with individuals from the El Cajon Church. These were longstanding members of the Church who gradually grew disgusted with Dominick’s behavior and then were alarmed as inappropriate texts from him began appearing on their daughters’ cell phones. The Pastor and the Conference ignored their pleas.
Lucia (a pseudonym) began attending El Cajon when she was nine years old. As she participated in Pathfinders, he paid particular attention to her, and over the objections of his wife, he started to text her frequently. He justified these texts by saying that Lucia was an “informant” on the Pathfinders who let him know what was going on when he wasn’t present.
According to Lucia, Dominick started talking to her when she was nine years old. On February 5, 2015, he molested her. He kept telling her that this was a “friendship” between him and her. And, he would minimize any rumors she had heard from other girls of his predatory behavior. He turned her against her friends.
During Pathfinder camping trips, he would sneak into the girls’ tents and smell their underwear. He would at other times comment on the breasts of girls as young as 12 years old, saying their “chests were so big.” He could get furious and aggressive as well towards them. She took screenshots of text messages and turned them and eventually her phone over to the police, in which he admitted to the other sexual assaults he had committed.
One Sabbath in October 2017, Lucia came to Church with her mother and brother. She was wearing a tight skirt, and she kicked her brother, and the dress ripped. Lucia had a boyfriend by now, but Dominick was still molesting her at every opportunity. So, her mother told her to sit in the soundproof Mother’s room at the back of the Church.
Dominick came to check the audio quality in the Mother’s room. She told him that she had ripped her skirt and asked him to get some safety pins. He touched the rip in her skirt. She turned on the light so that everyone could see them in there.
He left and returned with the safety pins.
Lucia went to the bathroom adjacent to the pastor’s prayer room, where the pastors would pray before going up on stage.
Dominick followed her into the restroom, closed the door, and locked it behind him. Lucia turned around to face him and asked why he was there.
He grabbed her and put her on the sink.
She recalls immediately dissociating from her body. She could see herself in the mirror.
He covered her mouth as he raped her. She started to bleed.
He finished, fixed his hair, and left.
She was dripping with blood. Her skirt was ripped even more.
In shock, she walked back to the Mother’s room. She sat in the rocking chair. She saw him go inside with his wife and pull out his Bible.
She didn’t want to admit that she was raped. She didn’t want to accept it.
She tried to normalize the rape by messaging him: “Do you want to hang out?” She thought if I message him, it won’t be rape. She had sex with him on two more occasions. She tried to justify the rape and subsequent sex as “we are just hooking up.”
Then she became suicidal. She began to hate herself.
Dominick sensed it and stopped bothering her. She also stopped responding to his messages.
Post-Traumatic experts confirm that her experience is congruent with many rape victims assaulted by people they know.
A friend found her phone and went through the text messages from Dominick, and realized what had happened. This friend told Laura Peters about the messages.
Laura offered to take her to the zoo with her kids. When they were somewhat alone, Laura asked Lucia gently, “Is there something you want to talk about?” Lucia said yes, but her mind said no. But she began to talk about it. Six police officers showed up to speak with her and told her that she should not go back to the Church. They advised that the prosecutors ask, “why did you go back to the church?”
Rumors started at Church. Lucia had stopped going to Church. The church ladies gossiped that maybe she had made a mistake. Perhaps she had something to hide or was ashamed. But it was detective Ted Monsur who told her not to return to the Church.
According to Lorissa, El Cajon Church was served a search warrant by the police and searched for evidence (see the attached timeline of events for this story).
What complicated her case was that Lucia is an undocumented immigrant. The prosecutor eventually chose not to move forward with a trial. No reason was given to her. Lucia felt that the entire time she was giving her testimony, she herself was really on trial. She had given her phone with all the sexts from Dominick and his admission of other rapes to the police. She never went back to get her phone. It sits in the evidence locker. Immigration postponed her immigrant visa case for another two years due to the backlog of cases.
Conclusion and Observations:
Lucia told me that someone said to her that the administrative staff members at the Southeastern California Conference met to find ways to make her take down her social media posts about her rape.
The senior pastor, Richard Smith, met with Lucia and offered her his “therapy coupons,” and expressed regret regarding what happened to her. He also offered her a hug. She said, “no.”
His welcome back hug of Dominick in front of the Church set Lucia off, and she blasted the Church on Instagram. It was then that Lorissa learned what her husband and done. Her mother asked her why she was still with Dominick after what he did to Lucia. The truth was that she was kept in the dark about the rape.
When police raided a church in Africa, the Office of the General Counsel and the President of the General Conference knew about it. The General Conference administration even called the investigation an intrusion of the State on the Church.
I find it impossible to believe that the Conference with a female president, Pastor Sandra Roberts, the Pacific Union President Pastor Ricardo Graham, and the Division President Dan Jackson were unaware of these events. And yet, none of these individuals from the General Conference, the North American Division, END IT NOW, the Pacific Union, or the SECC, nor anyone from their offices contacted Lucia.
I listened again to Dan Jackson’s speech in which he spent 18 minutes talking about why women should be ordained and why women need more opportunities to serve and to be in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But he never found a single minute to talk to a girl who was stalked and groomed from the age of nine and violently raped during a sermon in his division.
I find it impossible to believe that having read Lorissa’s nine-page testimony, the Adventist World staff thought first to modify her story, and no one thought to ask what happened to the girl who was raped at Church during the Sabbath Service.
I lost contact with Lucia. For over a year and a half, she wasn’t returning calls on the number she had given me. I wondered what had happened to her. Had she survived the pandemic? Did she get deported? Did she succumb to drugs or violence?
When Intelligent Adventist gave the green light for publishing this story, I contacted Lorissa to let her know. And I asked her if she was still in touch with Lucia. She wasn’t, but she said she would ask around.
Yesterday evening, Lucia texted me.
She said Lorissa told her that I was publishing her story. I was beyond elated! I asked her how she was doing and told her yes, I was publishing it. She told me she is homeless and lives in a truck with her boyfriend. Lucia said she is mentally stronger than she was when she told her story to me a year or so ago.
I thought of all the delegates and visitors attending the General Conference Session this week from all over the world. All of them, including me, are staying in Five Star hotels, Air BnBs, and other places.
But one of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s most vulnerable victims does not have a roof on her head. I thought of Bible texts like Deut. 10: 19, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“‘Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.’ Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’” Deuteronomy 27:19
“I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the unrighteous and made them drop their prey from their teeth.” Job 29:15-17
“Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren you did it to me.”
I can’t believe what our Church did to these two young women, and what our leaders didn’t do for these women. If our Church is going to deal with abuse, it first needs to tell the whole story of its victims. Perhaps we can start with the facts in this article here and go from there.
Intelligent Adventist is raising money for these two women and other victims in this series. If you would like to donate, please contact us at email@example.com or click on our donation link to make your tax-deductible donation.
Updated Note: This article’s title was changed to remove uncertainty because of similarities with a ministry of the same name.