A female member of a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Bakersfield, Calif., has filed a lawsuit alleging a former pastor abused his position as a marriage counselor to make sexual advances.
The woman, who is not identified, filed a complaint July 22 in Kern County Superior Court requesting a jury trial and financial damages from Bridge Bible Church. In addition to naming the church as a defendant, the document names Eric Simpson, former pastor of transformation, and 50 congregational leaders, who are not identified.
The complaint alleges the plaintiff and her husband approached the church’s counseling center in 2016. Simpson served as head family and marriage counselor, and the three people met every other week for roughly nine months.
It is alleged that Simpson steered conversations toward sex and began making inappropriate comments outside therapy sessions and began one-on-one therapy sessions with the plaintiff in 2018 after she began suffering from depression. He told her to schedule appointments directly with him rather than through a receptionist, defying a church policy prohibiting male counselors from meeting privately with females.
“Defendant Simpson began sexually abusing Plaintiff,” states the complaint, which says he encouraged the couple to consider separating. “He used his position of authority and trust to initiate repeated physical contact of a sexual nature on Plaintiff. He also bombarded her with sexually explicit and graphic comments.”
Rather than reporting the alleged sexual misconduct to the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren’s Pacific District Conference, as outlined in denominational prevention and response guidelines, the complaint suggests the congregation determined the incident was a private, consensual matter to be handled only by the church.
The complaint alleges that when the couple contacted an elder at the church in August 2018 with concerns about Simpson, a group of men allowed the female to feel that Simpson’s behavior was her fault, insisting the incident was a “consensual affair” and ignored the power imbalance of a pastoral and counselor position. Shortly after that meeting, head pastor Jeff Gowling announced to the congregation that Simpson would no longer be working at the church because of “an inappropriate relationship with a female member.” He received a severance package and outside financial support and returned to counseling work, now at Hume Lake Christian Camps.
After seeking outside counseling and learning about practices that manipulate emotionally sensitive individuals and relationship power imbalances in leadership settings, the plaintiff contacted the church again. Gowling claimed again the relationship was consensual, and the plaintiff began suffering panic attacks and post-traumatic stress, according to the complaint.
Bridge Bible Church, Pacific District Conference and Hume Lake Christian Camps did not respond to MWR phone calls and emails.
In a statement to local California media, the church indicated it “believes that this is a private matter between the plaintiff and a former employee. The church takes the allegations in the complaint very seriously and recognizes the need to proceed forward with sensitivity and compassion. Therefore, in the interest of the privacy of anyone who may be involved, the church will not comment on the matter.”
This article was updated Aug. 14 to indicate the complaint alleges only Bridge Bible Church determined the incident was a consensual, private matter.