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Survivor Wins Settlement Against Florida Megachurch & Goes Public with Abuse Story

Por Jéssica Eturralde
chellee taylor survivor
Chellee Taylor won an undisclosed settlement from Southern Baptist megachurch, Journey Church in Orange City, Fla. (Courtesy image / TRR collage)

Last year, Chellee Taylor, won an undisclosed settlement from a Southern Baptist megachurch in Florida, which she says silenced her and protected the campus pastor who sexually assaulted her. Now, Taylor is going public with her story, naming the church, Journey Church in Orange City, Fla.

She’s also naming Journey’s lead pastor, James Hilton, who’s also a trustee at Cedarville University—a Southern Baptist school, plagued by a recent escándalo de abuso sexual and allegations of mishandling Title IX cases.

And Taylor is naming her alleged abuser—former Journey Orange City Campus Pastor Tom Wycuff.

Wycuff has since deleted his social media accounts and moved to his wife’s hometown in New Jersey. El Informe Roys (TRR) reached out to Wycuff for comment but could not make contact.

Taylor told TRR that when she first disclosed what Wycuff had done, Journey gave her an ultimatum: resign or be fired. Then the church, spearheaded by Hilton, reportedly requested her silence and publicly thanked her alleged abuser for his sacrificial service.

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james hilton
Pastor James Hilton preaches at Journey Church in Orange City, Fla. (Photo: Facebook / Journey Church)

Shortly afterward, when Taylor discussed filing a police report, she says Pastor Hilton called her and urged against it. Then, after she reported the alleged assault to police, Journey hired an employment attorney to conduct a sham investigation, Taylor said.

About a week ago, Journey sent a statement to TRR and church members. In it, the church denied the allegations and said that both staff members (Wycuff and Taylor) initially acknowledged they had “an inappropriate, allegedly consensual relationship.”

Later, church leaders heard allegations that the relationship was “non-consensual,” the statement said, so Journey hired an attorney to conduct an “independent investigation.” Journey also encouraged the former employee to file a report with police, the statement added.

Journey’s “independent investigation” concluded there was no “wrongdoing” by the church, the statement said. Also, police decided not to pursue criminal charges.

Taylor said she’s shocked by Journey’s recent statement, which she claims contains “lies and half-truths.” Most notably, she says, is the church’s claim that she described her sexual encounter with Wycuff as consensual—something Taylor emphatically denies.

Allegations of grooming

en un video podcast posted online, Taylor explains that in early 2019, her campus pastor, Tom Wycuff, convinced her to take a church job for which she felt unqualified. The next year, Wycuff became Taylor’s informal counselor, when Taylor’s teen suffered from suicidal thoughts. Taylor said Wycuff would listen while she cried, and then “lift her up again.”

She said his praise and flattery made her uncomfortable, but she and her husband would justify it, saying that’s just the way Wycuff is.

tom wycuff
Tom Wycuff (Video screengrab)

She said Wycuff then began expressing his worry for her and pressing her to talk to him. At the end of every work and counseling meeting, Taylor said Wycuff would also ask for a hug. When these hugs increased in frequency and intimacy, she said she told Wycuff she wouldn’t hug him anymore.

“That’s when he told me he was in love with me,” she told TRR. “I didn’t want him to think I didn’t appreciate his openness, but I was not okay with his feelings.”

At one point, Taylor said Wycuff confessed he wanted to rape her, but wouldn’t unless she wanted him to. Because of Wycuff’s months of grooming, Taylor said she “thanked him” for not acting on his desires and “genuinely felt like he was doing me a favor and protecting me.”

She said she talked herself out of telling anyone because it would “destroy him.” “God had chosen him to do big things. My pastor had told me so,” she told TRR.

The alleged assault

On February 17, 2021, Taylor said Wycuff came to work early because he knew she was there alone. The day before, Taylor said Wycuff had told her to wear a tank top and leggings if she wanted to be physical with him. Instead, Taylor wore the opposite—a men’s t-shirt and cargo pants and arrived to work late.

Wycuff asked if he could have a hug, which Taylor said she agreed to. Then, he began kissing her, and Taylor said she repeatedly pulled away. Wycuff then asked, “Don’t you want to kiss me?” Taylor said, which made her feel responsible for what was happening.

“This is my fault” I let this happen,” she recalled thinking.  She then kissed him back, something she now calls a fawning trauma response—an instinctual bodily reaction to danger.

Taylor says he demanded she give him oral sex after she refused to take her clothes off and have intercourse. When she said no, he said it was expected because he was aroused and wouldn’t take care of himself in the bathroom again.

Feeling like her only choices were between “awful or worse,” Taylor did it against her will, fearing Wycuff would act on his desire to rape her.

As the alleged assault progressed, Taylor said she was frozen. “I couldn’t breathe, and I was so dizzy,” she said. “I didn’t have much strength, but I pushed away from him and told him I would pass out.” Wycuff was undeterred, Taylor said, and then forced her to continue to have oral sex with him.

Afterwards, Wycuff told Taylor she couldn’t tell anyone because no one would understand, Taylor said. She added that Wycuff told her he planned to tell his wife they had an emotional affair that turned physical, but they didn’t have sex. He suggested she tell the same to her husband.

According to Taylor, later that day, Wycuff grew fearful from her detachment and told his wife and church leadership that they had an affair.

Taylor discloses incident to Journey leadership

That evening, the church called Chellee Taylor and her husband, Peter Taylor, into a meeting with Journey pastors James Hilton, John Sellers, and Jeremy Beeler, Chellee Taylor said.

Taylor said she tried to protect Wycuff, adding, “I thought it was my fault.” Yet Taylor said she told the pastors she had rejected Wycuff’s requests for sex “a million times.”

Taylor said the meeting closed in prayer and the pastors advised the couple not to tell anybody about what had happened.

The next day, the pastors called and implied they had fired Wycuff, Taylor said. She added that they told Taylor she could resign or she would be fired.

Taylor added that leaders said that “for her protection,” she should not talk to anyone about what happened. In addition, the church asked her not to visit any of the Journey campuses for six weeks, though her husband Peter and the couple’s children were welcome.

journey church survivor
Journey Church in Orange City, Fla. (Photo via social media)

TRR reached out to Journey for comment about the church’s handling of the situation, and on May 30, the church released a statement to TRR and church members. The statement claims that when church leadership met separately with “both staff members” on February 17, 2021, “both acknowledged that they had an inappropriate, allegedly consensual relationship, and both staff members resigned.”

Taylor denies Journey’s claim. “I never said we had a consensual affair,” she told TRR. “During the disclosure I repeatedly said ‘I let this happen. I wasn’t strong enough,’ as I was trying to take ownership,” she said. “I never said it was an affair or that it was consensual though. In fact, I repeatedly said, ‘I didn’t want this!’”

Hilton praises Wycuff, reportedly advises against going to police

Days after learning of the incident between Wycuff and Taylor, Pastor Hilton sent an email to the congregation.

The email announced Wycuff “is no longer on staff” and added: “I know this news is a surprise to you, but we want you to be informed. It would not be appropriate for us to go into further details. We thank Pastor Tom for the way that he has served sacrificially over the years to help people take steps to follow Jesus Christ. We are grateful for the impact that he has made in the lives of so many.”

Former worship coordinator and pastor David Washburn, who left Journey on good terms in 2022, told TRR that he had concerns about the way Journey handled Wycuff’s resignation.

Washburn said his primary concern was that any information leadership withheld would create a vacuum that could hurt people more than protect them.

“There was no public admission of guilt,” he said. “No actual using the words, ‘This bad thing happened’ to the staff, the congregation—ever.”

Washburn also noted that the open rates on church emails were “terrible” and people for weeks were asking, “Where is Tom?” because they hadn’t seen the email.

“We were coached to reply to the effect of, ‘He’s moved on. He had another opportunity,’” Washburn told TRR. “It almost felt like we were forced to lie about events or risk our jobs.”

Taylor said that during this time, rumors that Wycuff and Taylor had had an “affair” began to spread throughout the church, which church leaders did nothing to dispel.

Taylor told TRR that once the “fog of confusion” began to lift, she requested a meeting with Hilton. However, Hilton refused to meet, she said, saying it was too hard emotionally and he had to prepare for Easter services.

chellee taylor
Chellee and Peter Taylor (Courtesy Photo)

On March 04, 2021, Taylor and her husband, Peter Taylor, met with pastors Beeler and Sellers. In the meeting, Sellers reportedly asked Taylor if she considered reporting to police. Taylor said she did not know what to do. “We had no desire to hurt them—we just wanted them to love us,” Taylor told TRR.

The next morning, Hilton called Taylor to talk her out of reporting the assault to police, Taylor claims. During the 40-minute call, she said Hilton used Scripture to explain why she was not responsible to call out another person and said she needed to focus on removing the plank from her own eye.

In its recent statement, however, Journey claims it “encouraged the former employee to file a report with the Orange City Police Department-which was submitted. We cooperated fully with law enforcement authorities during this process.”

The criminal investigation

Taylor filed a report with Orange City Police in March 2021. Journey then told Taylor that the church had hired an impartial “investigator”—Sally Culley. Taylor said she was excited about the news and met with Culley.

The Taylors said they later discovered that Culley is an employment attorney who, according to her webpage, “represents . . . employers in defending against employment-related claims including . . . whistleblower violations, wrongful termination, harassment, and retaliation.”

Journey said in its recent statement that the attorney it hired “determined there was no wrongdoing on the part of the church.”

Police also did not pursue criminal charges against Wycuff. According to the incident report, Taylor told police Wycuff “used his authority of the pastor over her for sex.” Taylor said police asked her whether Wycuff had physically forced her to engage in sexual activity. “He [Wycuff] didn’t have a gun, he didn’t beat me, he didn’t threaten to harm me or my family, so I said no,” she told TRR. Based on her description, police concluded the incident was “a consensual affair involving two adults.”

Fourteen states have laws criminalizing clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse of adults (CSA). Experts define CSA as “any sexualized behavior (verbal or physical) on the part of a religious leader toward a person under his or her spiritual care, who by nature is in a position of less power and authority.”

Florida, however, has no laws against CSA.

Taylor prepares to file a civil suit

In May 2021, the Taylors met with pastors Hilton, Sellers, Beeler, and Justin James an additional time.

Chellee Taylor told TRR that in that meeting, Hilton urged the couple to refrain from discussing what had happened with Wycuff and the church’s handling of the situation.

en un follow-up email to Taylor and her husband, Pastor Justin James wrote: “(E)ven though it is unintentional on your part, you cause hurt to others at our church when you process your own hurt from this situation with them.”

James then clarified that “processing the hurt” includes “Talking about Tom Wycuff as it relates to this situation”; “Discussing the independent investigation”; and, “Discussing thoughts on how you feel the Executive Team has handled the situation.”

A month later, the Taylors submitted requests to remove their membership.

journey church james hilton
Journey Church in Orange City, Fla. (Photo via social media)

Taylor told TRR that five months after the church’s investigation, the couple hired sexual abuse attorney Boz Tchividjian. With Tchividjian’s counsel, the Taylors intended to sue Journey Church for negligence under a Florida law that holds employers liable for sexual harassment of staff members.

Taylor and Journey Church settled out of court in October 2022. Both Tchividjian and Journey told TRR they were not at liberty to discuss details of the settlement.

Reporting to the SBC

Taylor told TRR she also looked into filing a report with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) but was concerned the denomination, which has been plagued by sex abuse scandal, would not take action. An investigation by Guidepost Solutions concluded last year that SBC leaders mistreated sex abuse survivors and denied responsibility for the way local churches mishandled sex abuse cases.

Taylor said she consulted abuse advocate and SBC attorney christa marrón, who told her SBC churches don’t have to report claims of sex abuse to SBC leadership.

Brown told TRR that although she spoke with Taylor before the SBC released the Guidepost report, very little has changed since their conversation. “Until survivors can see a real likelihood & track record for meaningful action, then the emotional cost of extending themselves may not be worth it,” she said.

On June 13, Taylor will be one of three speakers at a breakout session during the SBC 2023 Pastor’s Conference in New Orleans. The session, Understanding Adult Sexual Abuse, features Taylor as an emerging voice in the survivor community. For Taylor, speaking at the SBC conference is a huge step.

“We (survivors) often hear about trainings and sessions about adult clergy sexual assault (ACSA), but they rarely offer insight from a survivor,” she said.

Taylor told TRR she doesn’t know if any of the Journey pastors will attend the SBC conference, but hopes they have since become more trauma informed.

“God can do anything,” she said. “He can tear this church apart and build something bigger.”

This article has been updated to include additional details from the Orange City Police Department incident report.

Jessica Eturralde es una esposa militar de 18 años y madre de tres hijos que se desempeña como escritora independiente, presentadora de televisión y cineasta. Las firmas incluyen Yahoo, Huffington Post, OC16TV.



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9 pensamientos sobre “Survivor Wins Settlement Against Florida Megachurch & Goes Public with Abuse Story”

  1. What a courageous couple to share their horror hoping it will raise awareness to protect others and prevent the naive from being complicit in the cover up and minimization of abuse!

    Unless someone has experienced the mind twisting by an abuser who has targeted them, it is impossible to really understand the insidious and devastating nature of the carnage.

    I pray for strength and protection for Chellee and Peter in the days ahead! May the many places evil thrives under the guise of Christianity be utterly destroyed!

    Shiny, happy churches, my foot!

  2. Very common sadly, people are so susceptible to the power of deception,, the devil will not come to you with horns and bad words but sugar and false promises, todays church has focused so much on forgiveness they are giving it away like candy when it is not theirs to give only to gain followers and money, they have become the Pharisees of old.

  3. Pastor Justin James wrote: “(E)ven though it is unintentional on your part, you cause hurt to others at our church when you process your own hurt from this situation with them.”
    That is pure protection speak…….why would anyone trust a Pastor who espouses this lie. Any victim of sexual abuse deserves empathy and support from fellow Christians……that pastor portrays her as a leper who can infect other believers. He also thinks very little of those in the flock if he thinks she could hurt me by expressing her pain

    1. You’re correct about this being “protection speak.” It is, sadly, a very old, often-used, and quite standard approach to shutting down victims. Church leaders say, “Processing your own hurt from your situation with them” is a type of gossip, as they gaze sincerely into the eyes of traumatized victims, foreheads wrinkled with sincerity, acting as if they are guiding the traumatized victims in the ways of God. It is breathtaking how broadly they–and many fawning church members!–define “gossip” when it comes to protecting the church or church staff from tort or criminal liability.

  4. The church had the legal and moral responsibility to call the police immediately when they learned of this abuse as this pastor was in a position of power as a pastor, counselor, and employer, and they failed. Instead, they sent an email extolling the abuser’s virtues, and shamed the victim by both spreading gossip and gaslighting her. Glad Chellee is finding healing in telling her story and hopefully other churches take this as a cautionary tale.

  5. Kimberly M Chastain

    I’m eating lunch at a restaurant, so it is inappropriate for me to scream as many times as I wanted to reading this article. Since, the church did such a “lovely” job in covering this up we have no idea if there were anymore victims at the church. Also, seeing how Chellee was treated who would speak up. Chellee thank you for standing up and speaking at the SBC convention. I was a life long SBC member and left a few years ago to become Presybterian. I no longer can stomach or be a participant in covering up abuse. My heart aches and is furious at the same time.

    1. This is a horror story. Whatever happens to the man is justified, along with any cover up (if applicable). Men (yes even pastors) being alone with women, has a poor track record of success. Pastors: turn your computer screen to the glass door. Talk to women with someone else present. Give an accountability partner access to your email and passwords. We need TRANSPARENCY!! You won’t be guilty of anything because you won’t EVER be alone with someone! Or keep doing this. This seems to really be working out.

  6. This is so sad and disturbing. From what I see here, James Hilton cares more about protecting the church than protecting its people. Regards of what you think about Chellee or if it was abuse, the lead guy hid it from the church. He swept it under the rug. Protecting his reputation mattered more than protecting the flock. The settlement and lawsuit were covered. The church had no idea until last week. They hushed her when she was hurting. Terrible!

  7. This is really heartbreaking news to me as someone who used to attend this church. I am very disappointed in Mr. Hilton and company for refusing to take responsibility in this scandal.

    I truly though the people in charge of this church were above this, even after I left the faith, but sadly they don’t seem to be any better than any other mega church out there. It seems to always be a case of them gaslighting and guilt tripping the actual victims.

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