Church of the Living God International: Allegations of sexual abuse plague Columbus-based reverend None
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He should be praying for his followers. Instead, he's preyed on them.
Bishop Joseph White has led the Church of the Living God International for more than 20 years. His followers venerate him as a holy man free of sin. His sermons claim he's above the law, but a group of men claims he has abused his power and influence to abuse them.
White is aware of the allegations against him. He was ousted from his former church amid accusations he did not deny. Victims have emerged to tell their stories, many of which depict similar events.
But instead of facing the law, White has maintained his influence over thousands of people across the world and with it, access to the young men he's accused of abusing.
WKYC aired this story in three parts. Watch Part I in the video player above. See Part II and III below:
Part 2 of Tom Meyer's investigation: How a worldwide church covered sexual abuse allegations against its leader
Is a controversial Bishop of a world-wide church resigning? WKYC
Who is Joseph White?
Joseph White is the founder and presiding bishop to the Church of the Living God International (CLGI). That's not to be confused with the Church of the Living God, where White was unseated due to allegations of sexual misconduct in 1994. He didn't deny those allegations.
Instead, White formed his own church and amassed a following of thousands as he built churches across the world. Branches span from Ohio to Georgia to Germany and South America.
CLGI has several Ohio ties, including one in East Cleveland called Gate Beautiful.
White is currently the pastor to Pool of Bethesda, the church's headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. He submitted his notification of retirement in December 2017 after denouncing some of the accusations against him. But he's still around -- and still free to influence young men.
Comments White made during a recent service implied retirement won't be anytime soon.
'I had to live under his desires'
Three of White's victims came forward to talk with WKYC, though more are anonymously recalling their experiences of abuse from White online.
WKYC traveled to Georgia to speak with the men, who paint similar tales of abuse and harassment.
Travis Durham says his encounters with Joseph White began when he was in high school.
Travis Durham says he was about 11 or 12 years old when he first met White. When he turned 13, the dangerous nurturing began.
Durham says White asked him to sing one day. White used that talent to get close to Durham, acting as a mentor. After that, it was the piano, organ and drums.
"He makes you feel important, like you're valued," Durham said. "...He started putting me in the spotlight."
Durham thought White was becoming a father figure to him, since his real father wasn't around. But soon, it became clear that White's actions weren't driven by paternal instinct.
Durham recalls an occasion when he stayed with White prior to the bishop's anniversary celebration. At age 17, Durham arrived a day before the other brothers, so the two were alone.
When Durham prepared to sleep in a separate bedroom, White called him into his own room. He had Durham lay with him in bed to watch TV.
"He brings me over, almost like we're cuddling," Durham recalled. "So I was laying on his chest and he was kissing me on my forehead, rubbing me on my back, we're watching TV and stuff. The whole time, I'm kind of trying to pay attention to the TV but I'm not really paying attention to the TV because I was kind of like, cringing."
Durham said he thought it was just him. He thought it was all in his head, that it was a perfectly normal act that he was making into a big deal. Then White crossed the line.
"All of a sudden while I was watching TV, he said, 'Travis, look.' When I looked, he had pulled out his penis fully erect."
Durham said he didn't know how to react, so he said, "Yes sir," and kept his eyes on the TV. About 10 minutes later, he says White stood up, removed his underwear in the bathroom and crawled back into bed naked.
"I could barely sleep that night because I was shocked about what was going on," Durham said.
Durham was still in high school at the time. Once he graduated, he was supposed to move in with White. But the experience left him shaken and when he tried to tell his mother, she didn't believe him.
"It was kind of like, brushed off and so then I just kept silent," Durham said. "Even though I kept seeing things that made me uncomfortable, I just thought, nobody's going to believe you, no way. Your own mom didn't believe you."
Flashbacks to that moment continued through the years as White continued to favor Durham. But Durham says he dismissed it. It also wasn't the only time Durham experienced abuse by White.
Durham traveled with another brother of the church to Hawaii with White. He recalls a day when the other brother was getting dressed and White made a comment on the size of his penis.
But White remained unscathed.
Durham told his mother, and she still didn't believe him.
"I figured, why even say anything?"
Lloyd Ocampo describes what it was like to live with Joseph White for four years.
Lloyd Ocampo, now 51, joined CLGI when he was serving with the U.S. Air Force in Germany in 1987. He first met White in 1988 at a youth conference in the U.S.
Even before he became active in the CLGI ministry, Ocampo says he knew something seemed off about White.
"I suspected something was improper, but because my pastor, who was very close with Bishop White, he led us to believe that there was nothing wrong with him and that many people have accused him of having homosexual tendencies, but [he said] don't bother listening to that."
Ocampo says his pastor's endorsement of White led him to brush off any bad feelings he received whenever he saw White do something that appeared off.
The first time things felt personal for Ocampo occurred in Germany, when White made a visit.
"I remember when he was sitting in the pulpit area, he would kind of stare at you in a way where, [I thought] I don't know how to take this. My pastor says there's nothing wrong with this guy, but I'm feeling something different from that."
Ocampo rose through the church rankings from educator to assistant pastor to district superintendent. As he progressed, so did White's actions.
"To me, it turned sexual when he began to hug me longer than he should have, hug me longer than I was comfortable with," Ocampo recalled. He also says White openly watched pornography in front of him.
"It didn't seem like church business but there was a way he would try to make it legitimate," Ocampo explained. "...He would somewhat make it a teaching moment, whatever that teaching moment was, and because we're taught to be spiritual, we kind of look over what a thing is really about because we've been groomed to believe this man is the closest thing to Jesus, so obviously there's a teaching moment in it and obviously there's something spiritual we can garner from this.
"You go in with your guard down and you go in with this expectancy that this man has your best good at heart."
Ocampo lived with White for four years during his 20s. Through those years, Ocampo said he knows what he endured was sexual assault and harassment.
The two shared a closet between their bedrooms and at night, Ocampo said he could see White watching him as he lay in bed.
"He made me feel like I had to live under his desires," Ocampo said. "...There was a degree of fear because I didn't know what he was going to do."
Ocampo also says he knew he wasn't the only victim. He'd heard stories from another young man who was a pianist at White's congregation, but he didn't think he should believe the accusations.
He was groomed to believe White could do no wrong.
Ocampo left the CLGI, but not because of the sexual harassment allegations against White. He left because White desperately tried to keep him with CLGI, and keep him from his wife.
Ocampo says White tried to break up his engagement to his fiancée, claiming White said horrible things about her, to her, and to his family. He even followed Ocampo around in attempt to end the relationship.
"We were engaged in 1996 and the man would follow me everywhere I went to see what I was doing and pretty much tell me I had no business dating this person. He tried to make it seem like, this is really your call here," Ocampo said.
Ocampo believes it was the result of jealousy, calling White's actions similar to those of an angry ex-lover.
Kevin Glover, a victim of Joseph White's abuse, recalls an uncomfortable encounter with the bishop.
Kevin Glover, 50, joined CLGI in 1991 when he was stationed at an Air Force base in Germany.
The first thing he noticed about White was his charisma. He saw White as a mentor and father figure, much like the others.
But when Glover moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, he began to hear whispers of White's alleged wrongdoings when he joined the Living Waters church under Church of the Living God.
"All of the members of that church, we received a letter from a bishop in the organization that spoke about Dr. White's homosexual behavior," Glover said.
He was told to tear up the letter.
Soon after that, White branched off and formed CLGI. Glover says White's followers were told the move was to escape the "narrow-mindedness" of the Church of the Living God leadership.
Glover's first sexual encounter with White happened in 1997 in Ohio, while visiting for White's anniversary celebration.
White invited Glover to stay at his house with other brothers of the church. But he assigned Glover to sleep in his room.
"One of the red flags was, when it was time to go to bed, he got in the bed with no clothes on," Glover recalled.
There was no cot or extra bed for Glover. He slept alongside a naked White, in the same king size bed.
"I thought it was strange, because that's not something that most men would engage in -- getting in another bed without any clothes on. It just was very strange to me," Glover said.
But nothing happened that night. It wasn't until the next morning that Glover woke up and realized White was spooning against him. Glover says his knee-jerk reaction was to elbow White in the chest, causing him to back away. Glover turned to face White.
"I said to myself, if he's going to make any more advances toward me, at least I could see that he's coming toward me and I could thwart him off," Glover said.
It was an uncomfortable moment. So much that Glover didn't say a word. He told no one, and the advances didn't stop there.
Glover recalled a night when he shared a hotel room with White. When Glover climbed into bed, White jumped on top of him "like a man would be on top of a woman."
A third incident mirrors Ocampo's. Glover said White turned pornography on the television when they shared a room. Glover hid in the bathroom until White changed the channel.
"I felt violated. I felt angry," he said. "And I felt there wasn't anyone I could really talk to that would really believe what happened to me."
The closest thing to Jesus
Joseph White's followers believe he is the closest thing to Jesus.
He's been placed on a pedestal so high, he believes he's above the law. He's said so during a sermon at the CLGI Augusta Worship Center.
Bishop Joseph White tells his followers he is above the law during a sermon. This video was captured via CLGI's livestream.
"No matter what laws they pass, no matter what decisions people may make, He said, 'None of those laws can cover you, because you are in His spirit,'" White said during the sermon. He also acknowledged the letter issued by the church asking its members to ignore the rumors and allegations about him.
"That letter is according to a law, some kind of a law," White said in the clip. "The Lord spoke to me a few minutes once and said, that law doesn't govern you. He said no matter what decision the lawyers may make, no matter what decision any body else may make, when you are in the spirit, you are free from all of the rules and regulations."
White's victims say his power has kept them silent through the years.
"That was something that was told to us," Glover said. "There were comments that were made that he is the holiest man on the earth. All of these comments would make one to believe that yes, he is the closest thing to Jesus," Glover said.
Glover says he felt like he was the only one dealing with the harassment, despite suspicions that others were involved.
Speaking up is cause for concern for White's victims, as CLGI has created a culture based on reputation. Making accusations against White could be damning.
"You can be damaged in one service. ...Once sentence about you, your whole reputation can be damaged," Glover explained.
It's also hard to make accusations stick when the remaining powers within the church are willing to cover for a predator.
"When a person is in a position of power, you tend to recognize them as such and you tend to be obedient and you kow if you go against the grain, there will be repercussions for doing so," Glover said.
Glover says he believes the CLGI Board of Directors, comprised of other bishops, are protecting White. Glover himself was supposed to be allocated a bishop, but he declined amid additional accusations against White from other victims.
"There was no way I was going to sit with the board of directors as a bishop, knowing that there are many victims in the CLGI, and sit in silence and protect the behavior that he's been exhibiting, in my opinion, over several years," Glover said.
Glover said the culture within CLGI can be volatile at times.
Joseph White victim Kevin Glover discusses the culture within CLGI.
"If you do not go along with the program per se, there is a lot of bullying that takes place over the pulpit. There is name calling that takes place over the pulpit," he said.
Since coming forward with his story of abuse from White, Glover says he's been called a liar, devil and fallen angel. The personal attacks have affected his family and church.
Retaliation extends beyond a damaged reputation under CLGI leadership. Glover, who was the pastor to a church under CLGI until he stepped down last month, says he and his congregation built their church with their own hands and money. But their $1.4 million church is deeded in the name of CLGI, making it difficult to leave.
"The members in my church feel that they have been slighted because their ties and their offerings and their blood, sweat and tears put into procuring these buildings are at the risk of being taken away from them and myself," Glover explained.
Days later, Glover stepped away from the CLGI organization.
"You've had a lot of pastors and a lot of people that have already left the organization because of the inability of the leadership to take the appropriate action," he said.
Ocampo cited the same fears Glover shared in revealing what he'd gone through with White.
"You'll be rejected, you'll be lambasted every time there's a service and every time someone has an opportunity to speak about the situation," Ocampo said. He also says he, too, lost friends over the allegations against White. It wasn't until another church member revealed their son was enduring abuse from White that Ocampo realized it was time to speak up. It didn't, however, shake his faith.
"That organization was the introduction to my salvation," Ocampo said. "And to see something being carried out and going on which is contrary to my convictions, that infuriates me, especially since they were the ones that taught me what it means to live upright before the Lord."
Durham sees things a little differently.
White's power has been so prominent, Durham says he still feels compelled to respect him, even after the abuse.
"I hold no ill will against him. I still respect him. I still admire him for who he is," Durham said.
Durham also said he was hesitant to talk with WKYC, in fear of backlash and fear of throwing White "under the bus." He said he didn't want it to seem like he was speaking ill of White. But he chose to talk anyway, in attempt to help young men in churches everywhere, not just CLGI, who may be suffering from abuse.
"They don't have the platform to say nothing. If they do say something, who's going to believe them against a powerful man or powerful woman?" he said.
Durham also acknowledged the dangerous culture within CLGI. He said he enjoyed being under a leadership that made him feel valued and important, but all the allegations made him feel lost. His own church was vandalized as a result of the allegations, but the threat within the organization was just as ominous.
"Any type of excuse, they'll come up with to justify that person's actions. I'm even seeing it now," he said. "...Who can you trust?"
Durham believes it's the lack of trust in churches and their leaders that have caused a crack in religion.
"The reason people don't want to come to church is because of people like Bishop," he said.
Still, Durham feels the scandal and the damning allegations plaguing CLGI could have been thwarted had the bishops simply taken action.
"This whole thing could have smoothed out if the board of bishops would have done the right thing," he said. "...In the end, I believe the organization will tear its own self down. In the end, they'll be dismantled, all because of the things they decided not to do."
Travis Durham, a victim of Joseph White, says he believes White's sex abuse scandal will end when CLGI folds due to its alleged cover-up.
Are there more?
Joseph White's victims thought they were alone. But now that his secrets are out, they say they believe there are more victims.
CLGIVictims.org was created by former CLGI members who left the church for various reasons, mainly citing the alleged abuse carried out by White. The site serves as a platform for victims to voice their experiences and share support for one another.
The site's logged thousands of visitors and dozens of stories and posts by White's victims, as well as some who witnessed his abusive behavior.
A post published Jan. 31 was written by a former minister, who said, "You all don’t know how much I thank God for this site. Just to see that I am not the only one who saw the sin and foolishness make me feel so much better."
There's also an Ohio victim who says he also had a physical relationship with White beginning at age 17. The victim has requested to remain anonymous. A former church member shared a recording of a phone conversation she had with him.
The victim says he was with White when he bought Viagra, took off his clothes and began the grooming process.
As more victims come forward, the outstanding question prompts what's next for White and CLGI.
Joseph White victim Kevin Glover says the CLGI board of bishops is to blame for allowing White's abuse to continue.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is aware of the allegations against White. But SNAP Executive Director Barb Dorris says bringing down a man like White remains difficult as long as his bishops continue to protect him and as long as those he's abused are hesitant to expose him.
"I think it has to do with our image of what a predator is," Dorris said. "Most describe a dirty, old man hiding in the bushes who jumps out and grabs kids, or lures them into van with candy or puppies. A predator is charming and charismatic. They do a lot of good things. It’s hard for a victim to say, 'White, who helped me and held my hand when my mom was dying, is the same man abusing innocent, vulnerable people.'"
But the emergence of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements has ignited a quieter revolution: #ChurchToo. The exposure of misbehaving Hollywood men has shifted to include holy men.
The #ChurchToo movement has garnered coverage from NPR, The Huffington Post and TIME, though it's not the first time sexual abuse and religion have combined. The Catholic church was rocked by scandal as portrayed in the film "Spotlight," in which Boston archbishop Bernard Law allowed priests accused of abuse to remain in their parishes.
Attorney Tyler Fox was hired to fight for many of the Catholic church victims in Boston. Now, he's representing White's accusers.
"This shook them to the core," Fox said of CLGI. "When people finally had the courage to come forward and they complained to the church, the church essentially whitewashed it."
As CLGI continues its attempts to thwart the allegations, it's also continuing a campaign to raise money on White's behalf, while denying others any refunds.
An individual on the CLGI Victims site wrote that he gave money to the church and asked for it back amid the allegations. Instead, he says he was told, "Those are seen as church donations and are not refunded."
Meanwhile, CLGI is still promoting its "50 is Million" campaign for White's 50th anniversary. The church is urging its members to raise one million dollars, not for the church, but for White.
CLGI's website says, "50 is Million campaign was created to raise funds over a three-year period for our founder and presiding prelate, Dr. Joseph White. The goal is to raise $1 million to commemorate Dr. White’s 50 years of faithful devotion to the ministry in 2019."
Joseph White victim Lloyd Ocampo says he doesn't believe the bishop has stopped abusing young men.
If White's victims and clergy maintain their silence, the culture inside CLGI will remain toxic. His accusers say the church has crafted a hostile environment for those who stray from its message. Now, his victims are encouraging others to come forward to put an end to the abuse of power and suffering.
"I think even now, it's being exposed because there are more victims who are aware that there are more victims. Typically, when you are aware that some one else is being or has been victimized in the same way you have, and you all collaborate and come together with one voice, I think there's more strength there," Ocampo said.
If silence continues, White's victims believe he will, too.
"No, I don't believe he's stopped," Ocampo said. "And I don't think he still stop."
WKYC reached out to Joseph White several times for comment. When confronted outside his Columbus church, he refused to comment and closed the door on us. Five phone calls and an email also went unreturned.
WKYC investigator Tom Meyer attempted to confront Joseph White outside his church in Columbus. White shut the door on WKYC.
The afternoon prior to our story airing, CLGI issued a statement:
"The Church of the Living God International (CLGI) believes that these sensational accusations against former Presiding Bishop White are motivated to gain leverage in a financial dispute between CLGI and Gates of Heaven Church of the Living God International (GOHCLGI) of Hampton, VA, (aka Harvest of Hampton) in which litigation is pending in both Ohio and Virginia. A close examination of the accusations suggests that some people may have been provoked into making similar statements unwittingly in order to bolster the financial motivation of a party who stood to gain financially in the law suit.
CLGI has initiated litigation against GOHCLGI and its affiliates because CLGI has reason to be that the GOHCLGI is attempting to fraudulently misappropriate over $2,000,000 of property from CLGI.
We believe all of these issues will be resolved by the courts, and not by spurious allegations that impugn the integrity of the CLGI."
CLGI suspends White
A week after WKYC's original report on White and his victims, CLGI suspended White.
The church’s board of directors placed White on leave from any official duties or capacity with the church until the matter is resolved.
In a letter to CLGI members, the board said, “…these are serious allegations…we must allow the legal process to work…so that justice may be served.”
White has denied the allegations but has declined further comment.
Attorney Tyler Fox, who represents a number of CLGI sex abuse victims, said, “It is encouraging… that at least the Church and its board recognize that my clients’ allegations are serious, and that these allegations of ‘misconduct’ -- which are really sexual abuse of church members, including minors -- need to be addressed.”
Fox called for White and the church to compensate victims. He also demanded that the board fire White immediately. Board members did not return calls from WKYC.