DENTON, Texas - A North Texas megachurch recently released an investigation to church members that revealed a former youth pastor sexually abused 14 girls at two different churches.
The former Denton Bible Church youth pastor is in federal prison serving a sentence for sexually assaulting two girls on church youth trips.
Now, one of his many victims is sharing her story publicly for the first time with FOX 4 News.
The victim says she wants to shine a light on what happened to the 14 girls because Denton Bible Church kept it in the dark for too long.
FOX 4 is not showing the victim’s face and has altered her voice to protect her identity.
"I felt special, and that is what he was preying on," she said.
Denton Bible Church Pastor Tommy Nelson, who is also a best-selling author of Christian books, told his congregation on May 1 that he was not only deceived but used, by Robert Shiflet, the church's now-former junior high youth director.
FOX 4 asked Nelson for an interview three times, but our requests were declined by Curtis Elder, Chairman of the church’s Board of Elders.
"Out of respect for the many victims and families personally impacted by these actions and those who participated in the investigation, the church isn’t commenting or making public statements about this matter beyond the letter we shared with our congregation on May 1, 2022," Elder said in an email.
The same day, the 5-page letter was shared with the congregation, Pastor Nelson also spoke to the congregation about the findings made in a 10-month-long investigation conducted by a third-party attorney.
"Our youth group became a feeding ground for a deviant who was thought to be a trusted staff member," Nelson said. "He was manipulative, good at playing on emotions of teenage girls. Our church helped send him to Dallas Theological Seminary."
"We paid these guys to make sure there was not any cover-up in our church," Nelson said.
Scott Fredricks is that attorney and third-party investigator. He is not releasing the lengthy report, citing privacy concerns for the victims.
But one of the victims did want to share her story with FOX 4.
"He slowly treated me more like a girlfriend. I knew something didn't feel right," the victim said. "When he would touch me in ways that were inappropriate, he would ask me if it was okay. And if I said yes, he would keep doing them. And if I said no, he would ice me out emotionally."
For public release, the private investigation was summarized in the five-page update to the congregation. It found many failures on the part of Denton Bible Church.
The victim who spoke to FOX 4 says Pastor Nelson’s address to the congregation did not acknowledge what church leaders knew and when they knew it.
"Does it feel like they were more focused on keeping it in the dark than helping prevent it from happening to someone else?" asked FOX 4 Reporter Lori Brown.
"You know what frustrates me the most about this story? Is the number of times we’ve been told, ‘We did not know what to do,’" the victim said. "I don't have words for that. I don't think you need a seminary degree to know what to do. You need to do the right thing. Take care of the victims and report to police and CPS."
"All of this happened in the late 1990s," Nelson said. "It came to our attention in 2005. We didn't know it."
The victim says she was 13 when she first met Shiftlet.
"He slowly treated me more like a girlfriend. As a young teenager, I knew something didn't feel right. I knew that I felt uncomfortable.," she recalled. "And when he would do different things and touch me in ways that were inappropriate, he would ask me if it was okay. And if I said yes, he would keep doing them. And if I said no, he would ice me out emotionally,"
According to federal prosecutors, one of the crimes the youth leader pleaded guilty to happened with a girl who was 14 at the time he met her at Denton Bible Church.
In 1997, when the victim was 15 years old, Shiflet led an eighth-grade camping trip to the Buffalo National River in Arkansas. He isolated her from the group, sexually assaulted her and told her not to tell anyone.
According to the church's May 1 letter, Nelson's first clues about Shiflet came before Shiflet left Denton Bible Church to go to work for another church.
Youth workers reported seeing Shiflet spending time alone with girls in his car, home and a hotel room. The letter says two youth workers raised concerns directly to Nelson.
Nelson told Shiflet's supervisor that he should not spend time alone with girls, but no one disciplined Shiflet.
Another warning came in 1999. The church's letter says a college intern reported her discomfort and red flags to the wife of a youth pastor. Again, leaders did not discipline Shiflet. The college intern concluded that she had not been believed.
In 2001, the letter says Denton Bible turned down Shiflet’s request to be promoted to the high school pastor position because of "his pattern of being alone with girls."
But Pastor Nelson did not share that information with a church in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Shiflet applied for a job as a youth pastor. In fact, Nelson recommended him.
The church's letter states, "There was no evidence that any information about Shiflet's tenure at Denton Bible or reasons he did not get the high school position was sought by, or shared with, anyone at Fellowship Bible."
But that statement conflicts with Nelson’s explanation.
"One whom I endorsed, with what I thought to be true, to be the head of their youth program. No one had a clue," Nelson said.
The church’s letter reads "As youth director at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, the investigation found Shiflet abused three more girls. One sexual assault happened with a 16-year-old during a youth group trip in Panama City, Florida."
The letter says after the Arkansas church fired Shiflet in 2003, he moved back to live in Denton and continued the abuse of at least one girl.
In 2005, two victims bravely came forward and told a counselor at Denton Bible about their abuse by Shiflet while they were minors. But instead of Denton Bible reporting this to authorities, church leaders confronted Shiflet themselves, and he admitted to the crimes.
Both girls were 19 years old in 2005. The law, at that time, did not require church leaders to report the abuse.
The victim FOX 4 spoke with believes leaders in the church had a moral obligation to report it to protect others.
"We were 19 when we reported," she said. "To navigate that on our own and be abandoned by the church is devastating."
The church's letter says the Denton Bible Church Elder Board voted to revoke Shiflet's ordination in 2005.
And for years after that, Denton Bible alerted other organizations about Shiflet, including a school he worked. He worked at Liberty Christian School in Argyle from 2008-2010.
Yet, in his statement to his own congregation, Pastor Nelson claimed to have not known about Shiflet's crimes until the father of another victim came to him in 2015.
"A father saying, ‘I want to talk to him in your presence. I want to tell him what I think.’ And I said what about? I said, ‘You're kidding! There was physical contact?’ ‘Yes.’ And that was the first, and then another, and another, and another," Nelson said. "And between us and Arkansas, there were 14 girls."
By 2015, the law did require a person or professional, including clergy, to report it to law enforcement if there was cause to believe an adult suffered sexual abuse as a child. But Denton Bible's Pastor Nelson still failed to do so.
"Tommy portrayed there was no cover-up," the victim said. "If there was no cover-up, what did you do in 1999? If there was no cover-up, what did you do in 2005, 2015?"
"What there was, was times changed on us, and we didn't change," Nelson said. "A ‘pedophile’ was a term I never heard from 1974 to 2005,"
Nelson did admit to some failures.
"We saw smoke of inappropriate behavior," he said. "We did not look for the fire, and we should have. We would now."
But experts say it is actually not the church's role to do its own investigation.
"We need to remember abuse thrives in silence," said Lana Ahrens of the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center.
Ahrens says anyone with a suspicion that abuse has happened needs to report it to authorities.
"You do not have to have proof, you do not have to have evidence. If you try to collect those things, that can hinder an investigation," she said.
Shiflet's crimes finally came to light in 2019, when the two victims, who originally reported their abuse to Denton Bible in 2005, realized they needed to tell law enforcement.
"I feel like a light bulb went on for me that Rob was still living in North Texas and wasn't in prison," the victim said.
The FBI began investigating in June last year, and a federal judge sentenced Shiflet to 33 months in prison.
"I want it to be a warning to the global church that you cannot silence sex abuse victims in the church and expect to get away with it," the victim said.
"Even though I didn't do it, Curtis didn't do it, we were the guys in charge," Nelson said in his May address to the church.
Even though her abuse occurred in the church, the victim we spoke with says it is her faith that has allowed her to heal.
"The role of a pastor is to care for the flock of God," the victim said. "I believe Jesus dearly cares about abuse, about my story. He cares about all of the victims, those who are known and unknown. I'm proud of myself, and thankful to Jesus for his resurrection power that helped me come forward and do the right thing."
At Shiflet's sentencing, the federal judge lamented that the plea deal, agreed to by both parties, was too short of a sentence.
The judge said, "I would have sent you away for 25 years. I think you are a danger to society."
Shiflet is set to be released from prison in April 2023. He will be required to register as a sex offender, and he was also sentenced to a lifetime of supervised release.
Texas law requires anyone who has cause to believe a child has been abused or neglected to report it to the Department of Family Protective Services or law enforcement where the abuse occurred.
Again, you don't need any proof to make a report.
To report a suspicion of child abuse or neglect, you can call your local police department, or the Texas Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400.
Resources can also be found here: https://dcac.org/what-we-do/resources/making-a-report/
To reach reporter Lori Brown, you can call her at (469) 818-9113, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org