One after another, teenage girls or their mothers approached their prominent West Side minister and accused the music director at his rapidly growing church of rape and molestation.
Instead of alerting police, Apostle John Abercrombie in three instances confronted the frightened girls in his church office with the music director present, according to interviews with the alleged victims and their families, as well as police reports and other government documents obtained by the Tribune.
In 2009, a church member brought Abercrombie a recorded cellphone conversation in which the 40-year-old music director, David Gardner, allegedly invited her 15-year-old daughter on a shopping trip to New York and told the girl not to tell her family.
Only then — a decade after the first girl came forward — did Abercrombie call police, records and interviews show.
Abercrombie acknowledged to detectives that "numerous allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Gardner against numerous female minors had been reported to him," a 2009 Chicago police report obtained by the Tribune states. "Abercrombie provided the reporting detective with information needed to initiate investigations into each allegation."
Gardner, who was fired from the church, now faces criminal charges of child rape and sexual abuse, but his alleged victims and their families believe Abercrombie should have alerted authorities sooner and should not have forced the girls into confrontations with their alleged abuser.
"I expected him to take my side. He did not," one young woman said of Abercrombie. "David suffered no consequences. ... I knew he wouldn't stop doing what he was doing, because he never got punished." The young woman requested that her name not to be published, and the Tribune does not generally identify victims of crimes involving sexual abuse.
Another of Gardner's alleged victims has filed a civil lawsuit that contends Abercrombie allowed Gardner unrestricted access to young parishioners for years after the first reports of abuse.
Abercrombie's lawyers have denied the allegations. In a short interview, Abercrombie said: "I started the prosecution. I'm devastated if the allegations are true."
In a subsequent letter to the Tribune, Abercrombie said: "I do not permit sexual misconduct in the church and/or the workplace. Indubitably, I would never condone immoral and despicable behavior especially committed against children."
Gardner, now 44, is free on bail and awaiting trial.
He pleaded not guilty after being charged in 2009 with raping or abusing five girls ages 13 to 15 from 1998 through 2008 and attempting to lure the sixth girl — the one whose mother recorded the phone call — out of state.
Prosecutors later dropped the misdemeanor luring charge, saying they typically do not pursue lesser cases against defendants who simultaneously face multiple felonies. The case involving one other girl also was dropped because of the statute of limitations, leaving four felony child rape or sex abuse cases pending against Gardner.
Gardner declined to comment for this story.
At Abercrombie's Truth & Deliverance International Ministries, 5151 W. Madison St., followers turn to him for assistance and guidance on every aspect of their lives. But the Gardner case raises questions about whether the pastor sought to protect his church or his vulnerable flock.
"Sexual assault is a crime. You can't just decide to handle it internally. At the first tiny inkling of abuse, he should have called authorities without any question," said Char Rivette, executive director of the Chicago Children's Advocacy Center. "He clearly has a vested interest in keeping things under wraps. He is the minister. The last thing he needs is a scandal."
Gardner was a constant presence at the Truth & Deliverance church and one of the institution's early and important employees, according to Tribune interviews and government records. He started working part time at Truth & Deliverance in 1991, shortly after Abercrombie founded the church.
As the ministry expanded, Gardner led the choir, arranged liturgical music and offered piano and band lessons for youth.
Gardner also held a second job as a city Department of Streets & Sanitation laborer, earning $65,000 in 2011, his last complete year on the City Hall payroll, government records show.
In a February deposition for the civil lawsuit against him, Abercrombie described Gardner as "just a very mild-mannered, just a very humble, obedient young guy. ... I mean, I really trusted the guy."
Records in the sexual assault cases show Gardner met all of his alleged young victims through the church, where the girls sang in the choir, took music lessons or worshipped with their families.
In the fall of 1998, when Gardner was 29, he allegedly began to fondle a 13-year-old girl during piano lessons at the church, she told the Tribune. Gardner then took her to his home where he had sex with her "against her will," according to a report from a later police investigation.
"I didn't have the courage to say anything about it," the young woman told the Tribune. "I just had the feeling that coming forth would do no good. The abuse takes a hold on your life."
Months later, in January 1999, two more girls, ages 13 and 15, made allegations about Gardner to their families and then to Abercrombie, according to police records and interviews.
It is not clear who alerted the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to the girls' allegations, but case reports show Abercrombie was interviewed as part of an agency investigation.
Abercrombie told the DCFS investigator that he questioned the two girls in his office with Gardner present, as well as two deacons of the church and other adults. Describing that session, Abercrombie told DCFS that "he believes in confrontation (because) without confrontation there is no resolution," according to the agency's 1999 report.
The alleged victim, who was 13 at the time of the meeting with Abercrombie, told the Tribune she shook with fear, hid her face in her hat and sobbed as Abercrombie questioned her in front of Gardner and several church officials.
She sang in the choir and centered her life on Truth & Deliverance. But she left the church and said she has lost faith in spiritual leaders because of the alleged abuse. She said she believes that, "basically, Abercrombie let it happen."
In a separate Tribune interview, the woman, who was 15 at the time of the meeting, recalled being seized by anger when Gardner denied attacking her. After responding "Yes you did, yes you did!" she said, "I just remember crying and walking out."
The woman said her whole life changed. "After that, I started running away. I became angry. I was homeless. ... It took away my belief in God."
Prosecutors in 2009 initially charged Gardner over her allegations but dropped the case because of the statute of limitations.
The mother of the younger girl said she was present at the 1999 meeting and that it ended with Abercrombie pointing out that everyone in the room had faults and could be the subject of rumors. As for Gardner, she said, "they didn't remove him from his position and he was still walking around like (my daughter) lied and the other girl lied."
Child welfare experts questioned why a pastor would put the alleged victims in the same room as the man accused of harming them. "That sounds threatening, accusatory and blaming," said clinical social worker Amy Groessl, a child abuse specialist with Children's Research Triangle in Chicago.
Added Bruce Boyer, director of the Civitas ChildLaw Clinic at Loyola University Chicago School of Law: "There's no way an untrained individual will get honest information from the alleged victims in front of the alleged perpetrator in a coercive environment. A child who's been victimized would be terrified."
The DCFS investigator did not make contact with the 15-year-old girl during the 1999 investigation. But allegations that Gardner had molested the 13-year-old were "indicated" — meaning the child welfare agency found credible evidence that abuse took place, records show.
The agency sent county prosecutors a routine notification that it was opening the 1999 molestation investigation, the case file shows, but Chicago police and Cook County prosecutors told the Tribune they could find no evidence that they were notified of the allegation.
Around the same time, the mother of another 15-year-old choirgirl reviewed a family phone bill and found hours of late-night calls to and from Gardner's home, court records and interviews show.
That girl later told police that Gardner had taken her to his home and manipulated her into having sex, according to police reports and interviews.
The mother confronted Abercrombie with the phone bills, and again Abercrombie summoned Gardner and others to his office to question an alleged victim, according to Abercrombie's deposition and court records.
Gardner told the gathering he was phoning the girl to help with her homework or to have an innocent conversation, Abercrombie said in the deposition. Abercrombie said he asked everyone to leave his office except the girl, and told her to be honest with him.
In an interview, the alleged victim said she told Abercrombie that Gardner had been having sex with her. But in his deposition, Abercrombie said she insisted that Gardner had never touched her or made any advances.
Abercrombie then stated that he called everyone back and announced his conclusion: "There was nothing going on."
The girl's mother asked Abercrombie to fire Gardner, but Abercrombie said in his deposition that he couldn't because Gardner "hasn't done anything."
Abercrombie also said he placed restrictions on Gardner: "There was two actions: One, he did not play for the youth; two, he did not teach them music anymore. ... He had nothing to do with youth."
Abercrombie said in his deposition that he later came to believe that Gardner indeed had sex with the girl, and he called Gardner back into his office.
"You lied to me," Abercrombie recalled telling his aide. "I'm telling you, David, you do one more thing in this church, the third strike, you're out."
But he did not go to police.
Separate from the minors Gardner allegedly assaulted or abused, three teenagers filed civil court papers from 1997 to 2004 claiming they bore Gardner's children and were owed child support, according to Cook County family court records. The youngest mom said she was 15 when she and Gardner began having sex, court records show.
Then in 2008, another Truth & Deliverance parishioner alleged that Gardner had sexually assaulted her 13-year-old daughter, according to law enforcement records and Tribune interviews.
The girl had showed her mother a single-page letter, addressed to Abercrombie as "Dear Pastor," that outlined in explicit detail what Gardner allegedly did to her.
The mother told the Tribune she hand-delivered the letter to Abercrombie, who assured her he would take care of it.
"Nothing was done," the mother said in an interview. The girl's letter is now a key piece of evidence in the criminal case against Gardner.
Finally, in the summer of 2009, Abercrombie was confronted with the cellphone recording suggesting that Gardner had tried to coax a 15-year-old parishioner on a trip to New York without her mom's consent.
Abercrombie called the police. The criminal prosecution began.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun