On a pair of Sunday mornings in late November and early December of last year, a group of survivors and their supporters gathered in front of a megachurch located on Buck Jones Road in west Raleigh.

As members of Hope Community Church streamed in for services, the protesters held signs confronting Hope’s leadership on its record of handling sexual abuse and assault. Over the last few months, the INDY has worked to vet these allegations and the church’s response to them. Unfortunately, church leaders, including founder and lead pastor Mike Lee, have not responded to multiple inquiries, effectively stonewalling the INDY’s reporting around a fraught topic.

Sara Dye, who joined the megachurch looking for healing after she was raped by a stranger and went through a divorce, says she was assaulted by a member of the church’s worship team. Katie Griffith says she was assaulted by a church member and groundskeeper when she was a high school student. At the time, over a decade ago, Griffith was volunteering to help the man on a weekend afternoon.

“A lot of people turn to churches or organized religion when they are going through difficult times in their lives,” Dye told the INDY. (Dye also spoke to the INDY about sexual harassment allegations at Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana last summer.) “It seemed like a safe place to be.”

Dye and Griffith anonymously shared their accounts with the Instagram page of the North Carolina Protection Alliance—a small group of Raleigh activists that shared survivors’ stories of harassment and abuse beginning last summer, but recently dissolved. The INDY spoke with Dye and Griffith on the record, as well as with two other church members who allege harassment by men at the church, and several additional church members and corroborators—in a total of 11 women. Many of them described feeling dismissed and disregarded as women at Hope Community Church, prompting them to either leave or reduce their involvement. All allege that in these instances and in others, the church’s leaders, including Lee, did little to address their allegations or to hold the alleged perpetrators accountable.

Lee founded the non-denominational Hope Community Church in Raleigh in 1994 and has grown it since to include nearly 10,000 congregants across three campuses in Raleigh, Apex, and Morrisville. He is now its lead pastor. Pastors and elders lead the spiritual and Biblical development of the church. All of them are men, although one woman serves in executive leadership. A typical service includes a live worship band playing contemporary Christian rock and one of several pastors delivering a sermon that is broadcast on a podcast feed, oriented around Christian self-help dictums. Hope also offers various social and charitable programs, as well as financial and addiction recovery assistance.

Hope’s Triangle facilities are worth millions, and its annual revenues are clearly considerable, though they are not publicly accessible due to tax-reporting exemptions. The church owns a chain of coffee shops, Common Grounds, at each of its three locations. It also hosts a weekly service at a high school in Garner and runs an international campus in Haiti.

Much of Hope’s appeal to newcomers is the promise of fellowship and friendship—an entire social network built around shared values and beliefs.

“This is a new beginning,” reads a page on the church’s website, alongside links to attend informal meet-and-greets, join a small group, or enroll in an online lecture series on faith and the church.

“You might be thinking, ‘What’s next?’” the text continues. “Well, we’re here for you.”

In Dye’s anonymous Instagram post, where she first made her story public, she alleged that Diego Armando Rivera, a church group leader Hope had hired as a contract musician to play in its worship band, pinned her against the wall inside a private residence, kissed her, and assaulted her.

Rivera declined to comment for this story. He directed the INDY to his lawyer, Bill Finn, who also did not respond to requests for comment.

Griffith’s post, also anonymous and later removed by the N.C. Protection Alliance at Griffith’s request, followed, detailing a 2009 assault by an unnamed employee of GRACE Christian School, which shared property, facilities, and membership with Hope at the time. (Today, GRACE is a separate nonprofit and sole owner of half of the original Raleigh property.)

In both cases, the survivors said they or their families reached out to Hope administrators, including Lee, but that their abusers were not adequately reprimanded or removed from the community.

The posts spurred conversations as people tagged the megachurch’s account and shared concerns in the comments.

Lee rebuked the allegations.

“The thing about social media, we’re learning, is that you can pretty much post anything and it’s considered fact,” Lee said in an Instagram video posted on October 21, days after Dye’s and Griffiths’ allegations surfaced. He invited viewers to join him for in-person services where he would give “insights, facts, and … the other side of the story.”

The following weekend, during an in-person sermon that was also broadcast through the church’s streaming service, Lee walked through his and the church’s perspective on the events.

In response to Dye’s allegation, Lee emphasized that the alleged assault happened between two adults on their personal time, not on Hope’s premises. He also said the church’s understanding of the assault shifted over time as leaders received more information. Of the second post, he pleaded total ignorance, emphasizing that Hope and GRACE are separate institutions.

“As big as Hope is, I realize there are going to be times when people, even you, go through things and it’s like your world is crumbling,” Lee said in his October address to the congregation. “I will give you my word that we are going to work harder than ever to make sure that Hope continues to be a place where people can run to when they are hurting.”

Following Lee’s address, Hope published a longer response on its website, where it promised to assemble an internal task force to review and improve its policies. It’s not clear whether the church has done so.

When approached for comment, Lee’s assistant directed the INDY to the same web page and declined to answer further questions.

A History of Mishandling Harassment Complaints

Danielle Rogers joined a small group of Christian singles at Hope in 2018.

According to church members who spoke to the INDY, small groups are the church’s lifeblood. Groups meet in members’ homes or at Common Grounds. Equal parts Bible study, prayer circle, and social clique, the groups are intended to foster personal relationships and support networks.

Rogers, far away from family and struggling with PTSD, thought a small group might be the right place for her to connect with other Christians, as well as find healing after leaving an abusive marriage. Instead, she encountered what she describes as patronizing, “demeaning,” and “abusive” behavior from two men in the group, including one small group leader. Another member of the same small group who spoke with the INDY confirms Rogers’ account.

When Rogers brought these issues up to another group leader and later to pastor Andrew Yates, she says they encouraged her to privately address each man and offer him forgiveness. The INDY corroborated this through texts and direct messages from that time. Yates has not responded to requests for comment.

“They wanted me to Matthew 18 them,” Rogers says.

Rogers is referring to a Bible verse, Matthew 18:15, which advises those who witness wrongdoing to privately address the person who sinned first, and only to bring in outside authorities—such as church leaders—if that person refuses to admit to the sin and repent.

“Matthew 18 is about interpersonal conflicts,” says Amy Stier, programs director at Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, a Virginia-based ministry that works to combat sexual abuse in churches. Stier, who has nearly a decade of experience investigating church abuse, says Matthew 18:15 is often cited to encourage survivors to pursue privacy and mercy in their reporting of sexual assault cases.

“Churches do not always understand that the impact of their responses is often greater than the abuse itself,” Stier says. “People are leaving churches by the droves, and when they leave, they’re not just leaving your church because they’re mad and they didn’t ‘Matthew 18:15’ enough. They’re leaving because their entire faith in God has been shaken.”

Stier cautions against this approach because it’s not trauma-informed and can potentially re-traumatize survivors.

“We wouldn’t use Matthew 18 to advise someone who was shot,” Stier says.

But Rogers wasn’t the only woman who said Hope leadership advised her to follow this example.

Nancy, who asked that her real name not be used, joined the Raleigh megachurch in 2014. A single mom, she says she struggled to find a good Christian community where she felt like she belonged. But at Hope, she flourished; she became a leader of a Bible study group for women and worked to develop a singles ministry.

In a small group for singles, Nancy recalls, some men at the church openly scrutinized her romantic and sexual life and questioned her authority as a woman to comment on the Bible. Two other church members present during some of those conversations confirmed her account with the INDY.

In 2018, one of the same men who Rogers reported problems with began harassing Nancy, she says, repeatedly asking her out, texting her constantly, and crossing boundaries, like inviting her into his home when he was half-dressed. Nancy declined his requests for a date, told him his behavior was inappropriate, and eventually blocked his number as he continued to harass her, she says.

Nancy, too, reached out to Yates when the man wouldn’t leave her alone. She says she thought she had followed the Matthew 18 protocol, because she had privately addressed the matter with the man first, but he still wouldn’t respect her boundaries.

“Matthew 18:15 is telling me this is what I need to do, so I’m coming to you and I am looking for guidance,” she recounts telling Yates. She says Yates advised her to wait and see if the man’s behavior continued, but also offered to talk to the man in a general way about his behavior towards women.

A few months later, Nancy’s harasser showed up at her door one night, angry.

“He was like, ‘Are you just going to block me forever?’” she says. They argued, and she started crying. The man eventually left. A neighbor walking by saw the interaction and comforted Nancy. The neighbor confirmed this account with the INDY.

When Nancy brought the incident up with Yates, he said he believed her, she recounts, but discouraged her from pressing charges or taking other action that could harm the man. He said he feared the man might feel pushed out of Hope and go harm women elsewhere, she recalled.

The INDY viewed text messages from the time that corroborate Nancy’s account.

Yates did not respond to requests for comment.

“I definitely felt like I was pushed aside,” Nancy says. “If you’re a woman, and you want to be safe, you want to be protected, you want to matter, [Hope] may not be the church for you.”

Nancy reduced her involvement with the church after that. Rogers left altogether.

Stier says this type of church response protects predators.

“Churches are supposed to be a place of healing and of refuge for those who are most vulnerable,” she says. “But when they mishandle allegations of abuse, they instead become a safe haven for predators.”

Allegations of Abuse

Dye says she experienced similar inaction from the church when she reported her assault, outlined in her Instagram post, to Hope leaders in 2015.

Dye says that while she was house-sitting for his girlfriend, Diego Armando Rivera pinned her against a wall, pulled down her pants, and digitally penetrated her. She ran upstairs to get away, she says, but he followed her into a bedroom, backed her onto the bed, and attempted to get on top of her. She managed to grab her keys and leave the house, she says, and drive back to her parents’ home.

The next morning, Dye called in sick to her job at the church’s pre-school. On the advice of her mother, in whom she had confided about the attack, Dye drove to the church and requested a meeting with another Hope pastor, Donnie Darr. She described to Darr how she says Rivera assaulted her in detail.

Darr offered her five free counseling sessions and said he and other church leaders would look into the incident further and speak with Rivera, Dye says. Dye’s mother confirms her account.

Darr has not responded to the INDY’s requests for comment.

“Truthfully, I didn’t want [Rivera] to go to jail,” Dye says. “As much as I hated what he had done to me, I really just wanted some type of accountability. I wanted him to admit what he had done and say sorry. I didn’t know then what the response from the church was going to be. I expected them to do the right thing.”

Darr arranged a meeting between Rivera and Dye, in the spirit of Matthew 18:15, but Dye says Rivera didn’t admit to assaulting her. He claimed he blacked out, she says, and she left the meeting frustrated and crying.

Work colleagues who saw Dye regularly told the INDY there was a noticeable change in Dye after the assault, describing her as going from “joyous” and “expressive” to “sullen” and “withdrawn.”

Dye completed her five counseling sessions, but received no other updates from Hope leadership about how they were handling next steps, she says. She noticed Rivera was no longer playing music during services. But then, in March 2016, she returned from leading a mission trip for the church abroad and saw Rivera back on stage with the band. Dye says church leadership told her Rivera had completed counseling and was no longer a concern.

Dye, still a church employee, then contacted the human resources department. Once again, she gave her full, detailed account, she says; HR told her they would look into it and inform her of their decision. Then, when she was working in her classroom one day, Darr came in and asked her to join him in a conversation with Lee, she says.

“When we were walking up the stairs, [Darr] quietly told me, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I believe you and I advocated for you as much as I could,’” Dye recalls.

She says she knew at that moment that the meeting would not go well.

In Dye’s retelling, Lee told her he was sorry, but that there was nothing they could do, since she and Rivera told different stories. She says Lee emphasized that Rivera had gone to counseling at the church’s request, so he could remain on the worship team. Lee concluded, she says, by telling her they would keep their eye on Rivera in case he assaulted someone again.

“I remember thinking, ‘But it already has happened, and you’re not doing anything about it,’” Dye says.

Representatives from Hope did not respond to the INDY’s requests for comment on what, if any, disciplinary action the church took against Rivera.

Dye then reported the incident to Raleigh police.

In his public address in October, Lee said Hope had cooperated fully with law enforcement, referencing Dye’s statements about contacting the police on the N.C. Protection Alliance’s Instagram account but not mentioning Dye by name.

The INDY could not obtain records from the police department or courthouse confirming whether police investigated or if any charges were ever filed; if Rivera had his record expunged, these files would not be publicly available, and there is no way to verify an expunction. But Raleigh police did provide a heavily redacted copy of Dye’s police report, and Dye shared a screenshot of Rivera’s mugshot from that time. Details on the report are consistent with Dye’s account.

Last October, Rivera filed a no-contact order and complaint against Dye in response to allegations about him that she posted on her personal Facebook page. The next month, Rivera voluntarily dismissed the complaint, court records show.

Another contract musician in the church’s worship band told the INDY she received unwanted and inappropriate advances from Rivera in 2017, two years after Dye reported her assault to church leaders. Three more anonymous allegations against Rivera were posted on the N.C. Protection Alliance account shortly after Dye’s, but the INDY was unable to confirm any of them.

“I have no doubt that we handled everything legally,” Lee said in his October address to his congregation. “But I do wish looking back that maybe we would have handled things a little more effectively.”

Soon after her meeting with Lee, Dye says she quit her job and stopped attending services at Hope.

“That experience put the last little bit of desire in me to go to church out,” Dye says. “I didn’t feel safe there anymore, and I didn’t feel cared for anymore.”

Griffith, the author of the second anonymous post on the N.C. Protection Alliance account, says she not only left the church, but also left Christianity after a member of Hope’s community assaulted her.

In 2009, as a student at GRACE Christian School, Griffith says she volunteered one weekend to help renovate a multipurpose center the school and church shared. Griffith says she was assisting a man who built sets for church services and maintained the grounds of the campus. She asked that the INDY not disclose the man’s name. Griffith’s mother, who attended Hope, knew the man from her adult small group, Griffith says.

While they were alone in the center, Griffith says the man grabbed her by the wrists, held her against a wall, and digitally penetrated her. The next thing she remembers is being in the women’s bathroom with the shower running over her, she says. She used her cell phone to call her mother, who quickly arrived and took her home.

After the assault, Griffith says her parents met with Lee to report what had happened.

“I was told by my parents that [Lee] explained to them that this was my fault for wearing shorts, their fault for not teaching the value of modesty, and my fault again for being too tempting as a fully developed teenager,” Griffith says.

A source Griffith confided in following the incident corroborated her account over email. The INDY confirmed that the man lived in the area at the time. Records from AI HIT, a workplace website data aggregator, suggest that the man stopped working at GRACE school in 2014, about five years after the alleged assault.

In his October address, Lee denied any knowledge of Griffith’s allegation. Lee also said he did not remember having any conversation like the one Griffith recalls.

“There are a lot of things in life that I can’t be 100 percent certain of, but I can assure you with 100 percent confidence that that never happened,” Lee said of the conversation with Griffith’s parents.

Churches are required to report sexual assaults involving minors, or that occur on their premises, to law enforcement. Griffith says neither Hope nor GRACE took any action after her parents reported the assault to Lee. She says she continued to encounter the man who assaulted her on the school and church’s shared property.

Years later, her parents apologized for how they handled the assault, Griffith says.

“I didn’t know what sexual assault was until I was 22, because the adults in my life at the time didn’t really do anything about it, nor did they tell me it was wrong,” Griffith says. “I just adopted the idea that this was normal … that my voice and opinion didn’t matter.”

Dye says it’s a pattern at the church.

“Hope tries to position itself as semi-progressive about women,” Dye says. “But when now you have multiple reported stories of women coming forward with abuse, and the church’s response has been consistently victim-blaming and putting the shift of responsibility onto the victim, it shows they don’t love and support women.”

The demonstrations against Hope church have quieted, but the women INDY Week spoke with say they don’t feel Hope’s response has been adequate. These sources say Hope has taken no public action since Hope published its response online last fall. Many feel the church has not delivered on its promise of safety, community, and healing that it says it offers to women.

“I wanted to surround myself with Christian men and women that had the same morals and values as I did, and that’s not what I got,” Rogers says. “What did I get? I found a bunch of men that preyed on women that were vulnerable.”

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

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