Devastating findings continue to surface amid the sex abuse scandal involving Willow Creek Community Church. The Illinois megachurch made headlines earlier this month after its entire board of elders stepped down following new revelations about former pastor Bill Hybels, who resigned in April amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
Now, The Chicago Tribune has reported that Willow Creek paid $3.5 million in lawsuits over the sexual abuse of two developmentally disabled boys. Court records obtained by the Tribune show that one payment of $1.75 million was made as recently as February, while another payment of $1.5 million was made last year.
The lawsuits involving the young boys were unrelated to the accusations involving Hybels, who is alleged to have sexually abused women during his time as lead pastor.
In 2014, then-Willow Creek volunteer Robert Sobczak Jr., who was 20 at the time, confessed to abusing an 8-year-old boy with special needs at the church, along with an older boy not involved with the church, The Christian Post reported. A year prior, Sobczak admitted he sexually abused another disabled boy at the church who was around 9 years old.
In a statement provided to local news station WFLD-TV earlier this week, Willow Creek officials called the incident “heartbreaking” but insisted that they are working “with law enforcement and security experts to learn how this happened and how we can ensure it never happens again.”
Cook County prosecutors detailed in the lawsuits that Sobczak molested the two boys separately on church grounds. Court documents also reveal that another church employee had raised concerns about Sobczak’s emotional instability as early as January 2013. Though the church worker described him as “emotionally unhealthy,” no action was taken to remove Sobczak, who went on to abuse the second boy while still a member of the church’s “Special Friends Ministry.”
The second victim underwent therapy after suffering “great mental and emotional harm” from the sexual abuse. But even though the church complied with the financial payouts, the settlement shows that Willow Creek leadership “has denied and continues to deny all material allegations of negligence and damages in this case.”
In 2013, Willow Creek released a statement responding to the initial child sex abuse charges:
“Willow Creek engages in a rigorous screening and training process for all volunteers and staff in our Special Friends Ministry that includes a detailed child protection application process, checking of references, a national background check, cross checking the sex offender registry, and offering training in child protection.”
The church noted that Sobczak “completed and passed this screening process before he began serving with the Special Friends Ministry.” The statement made no mention of the victims.
Heather Larson, who took over for Hybels as lead pastor at Willow Creek before resigning last week, said at the time that the church’s leaders were “very concerned for the child as well as the family.”
“We take rigorous steps to protect our children,” she added.
Larson unexpectedly resigned her role as lead pastor Wednesday, Aug. 8, following a new round of allegations of sexual wrongdoing on the part of Hybels, Willow Creek’s founding pastor.
“I am stepping down from my role as lead pastor,” she announced. “Because this is really important. Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return quickly. There is urgency to move us in a better direction.”
She continued, “It’s the job of a leader to define reality and it’s the job of the leader to put the team and the organization first, and I am absolutely committed to that.”
Church leaders initially sided with Hybels, who maintains to this day that he did nothing wrong, aside from “at times making people feel uncomfortable.” Though Hybels was ultimately cleared of the allegations, an April Chicago Tribune report details the pastor’s supposed wrongdoing, which included “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms.”
In July, Willow Creek officials issued an apology, admitting that Hybels had “fallen into sin” during his time at head pastor.
Larson, who was appointed earlier this year to lead the church alongside teaching pastor Steven Carter, announced last week that yet another investigation into Hybels, carried out by an advisory council of Christian leaders from across the country, is underway.