A pastor at an Indiana megachurch has been accused of grooming and misconduct with two teenage girls while he was a youth leader more than a decade ago. Although church leaders admit the man’s behavior was “inappropriate,” they have kept him on staff.
Following an investigative report published last week by the Indianapolis Star (IndyStar), Tyler Bender remains as a pastor at Grace Church in Noblesville, Ind., despite his alleged misconduct with two then-teenage girls.
The IndyStar article reports that Bender allegedly behaved in ways consistent with grooming when he was a 25-year-old volunteer worship leader at the church, about 15 years ago. This reportedly included flirtatious joking, texting, sharing details of past drug use and romantic relationships, and inviting two girls to his condo.
Bender, reportedly a “rock star” to the church’s teen musicians, began a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old identified only as Jane Doe, the IndyStar reported. Another youth group member, Megan Byers, then a minor, said Bender also invited her into his bedroom, but it stopped short of a sexual relationship. Byers spoke with El Informe Roys (TRR) and authorized her name to be used.
The IndyStar did not name the man accused of misconduct. However, TRR has confirmed the man is Tyler Bender, pastor of digital experience at Grace. Bender has not been accused of a crime. But victims told TRR that they believe what Bender did was clergy sexual abuse. According to information posted at The Clergy Sexual Misconduct Information & Resources, 13 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have laws against clergy sexual abuse, but Indiana is not one of them.
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Last Sunday, during services at the 2,000-member megachurch, Grace Church Lead Pastor Barry Rodriguez addressed what he described as “an article about Grace, about some situations that happened 14 years ago here.” That segment of the service was not included on the church’s online sermon video or posted on social media, but TRR obtained a recording of it.
“It presents a pretty deep mischaracterization of both the situation and our process as a part of it,” Rodriguez said of the IndyStar story. “Grace Church is a church that cares about justice, that cares about empowering women, that cares about protecting the vulnerable. And the tone of that article conveying anything other than what I just said, it’s untrue and it’s misleading.”
En una entrevista con TRR, Byers responded to that church announcement. “It’s definitely upsetting to hear,” she said. “Once again, the church is trying to control the narrative and minimize the voices and experiences of victims.”
Rodriguez provided a declaración para TRR, which refers to a church-led investigation of Bender.
“Based on the investigation, we concluded that, although the relationship was consensual and the congregant was 18 years old, it was inappropriate,” Rodriguez stated. “The volunteer leader, who now has a full-time role with the church, accepted responsibility for his actions, apologized to the congregation publicly, demonstrated remorse for his mistakes, and participated in counseling sessions focused on the impact of his past actions.”
However, Ken Garrett, a pastor and author of In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse in Christian Churches, said Bender’s reported actions and words “appear to be a case of grooming, abuse, and predatory behavior.”
“There was certainly a process of grooming through intentionally private encounters, increasing emotional intimacy, and pressured secrecy,” Garrett said. “It was abusive, in that a younger person in a relatively subordinate relationship, and thus lacking power, was taken advantage of by an authority figure.”
He added: “The response of the church leaders, while seemingly well-intentioned, is unfortunate, hurtful to victims, and jarring to the sense of safety that a congregation expects and needs.”
TRR asked Grace Church’s lead pastor why the church’s statement only referred to one woman, when two, including Byers, had alleged misconduct. Rodriguez replied: “The investigation discovered just one physical or romantic relationship involving this (man).”
Rodriguez also did not specify any error in the 4,900-word story by the IndyStar, which took seven months to report, according to multiple sources.
En un comunicado a TRR, IndyStar Midwest Regional Editor Mary Irby-Jones said that the Gannett-owned newspaper “stands by its reporting.”
Beyond a ‘brother-sister’ relationship
Byers told TRR that she met Bender while attending Grace Church’s youth group as a freshman in high school.
She joined the youth worship team, where Bender was a volunteer leader and scheduled Byers often to sing and play keyboard. “I was the favorite,” Byers said. “He would give me special attention, and it escalated from there.”
Byers said Bender steered conversations to personal topics, like what boys she was interested in. He visited her during lunch hour multiple times at Carmel High School and ate lunch with her, she said. And Bender recruited her to go on a church mission trip in eastern Europe.
For the group’s transatlantic flight, she said Bender asked a stranger to switch places with him so he could be alone with Byers in the back of the plane. “He told me I could lean my head on his shoulder, and we slept like that,” Byers said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is probably not allowed, but I guess no one can really do anything about it right now.’”
Within weeks of returning to Indiana, Bender invited her to his condo for a worship practice — just the two of them, Byers said. The two went to his bedroom at one point, but Byers said she left before anything happened. “I had this strange, unsettled feeling about the entire thing,” Byers said, thinking back on that incident. “Like, ‘What was that with him?’”
The investigative story quotes an interview Rodriguez granted the Estrella reporter, in which he said the accused staff member displayed “unwise and inappropriate boundaries” — specifically in reference to Jane Doe, the 18-year-old with whom the man had a sexual relationship.
Rodriguez added: “It was wrong for a volunteer leader to have any kind of relationship, physical or otherwise, with a student. He crossed that line, and he should not have.”
However, Rodriguez and other church leaders have disputed that Bender’s behavior was grooming. In the story, Rodriguez described the youth leader’s sexual encounters with the 18-year-old Jane Doe in his youth group as “consensual.” And he compared Bender’s relationship with Byers to “a big brother’s interest in a younger sister,” and noted they didn’t have sex, the story reported.
Byers told TRR it was “creepy” that Rodriguez would characterize abuse of power in such terms. “I’m the person that gets to say what my experience was, not Barry,” she said.
“He wasn’t there, but he’s speaking on behalf of Tyler and letting him off the hook. For Barry to not only come up with his own definition, but to also refute mine and tell me that I’m wrong about what happened to me, that’s what gaslighting is.”
‘I wanted to throw up’
The story about the former youth leader’s inappropriate conduct came to light about 18 months ago when Jane Doe discovered Bender had become a pastor at Grace in 2019. She then sent the church an email. And the church responded by conducting an internal investigation, which concluded last December.
In an email to congregants last December, Rodriguez announced the findings. He wrote that Bender would not be fired and described what transpired with Jane Doe as a “‘consensual’ romantic relationship that ended poorly.” Bender had undergone “tremendous character growth, spiritual development and maturity,” Rodriguez added.
Former Grace Church member Rosalyn Carlson said the email bothered her and her husband, both of whom had been members of Grace Church for 26 years. Her husband, Keith Carlson, had served on church staff for 19 of those years.
“My very first thought was, ‘Where is the woman in this email? She is completely missing,’” Rosalyn Carlson told TRR. “Pastor Barry wrote and gave details about this relationship. And I learned later, neither of the women was told in advance that email was going out.”
To Carlson, Rodriguez’s response seemed uncharacteristic of Grace Church. The megachurch has an extensive Care Center that provides for the needs of the vulnerable, including a food pantry, vehicle services, and free counseling. In 2014, Grace Church llegó a los titulares when it changed a long-standing policy regarding the role of women in ministry, allowing women to be elders and pastors.
“This is the last place I thought this would happen,” said Carlson.
Within days, the Carlsons met with the alleged victims and their parents. According to the IndyStar report, Keith Carlson also sent an initial email outlining their concerns to Rodriguez and church leaders on Jan. 6, 2023.
On Jan.12, the Carlsons attended a church members’ meeting as Rodriguez and church elders addressed the investigation of Bender.
“They stood up there and said, ‘We prayed about this. Our decision-making process is that we talk about it and then we pray, and we move ahead if it pleases the Holy Spirit.’ And it was so uninformed, I wanted to throw up,” Rosalyn Carlson told TRR.
Carlson told TRR that a volunteer youth leader for over a decade and current Grace Church elder told her that he didn’t believe something could be sexual abuse if it didn’t involve intercourse.
“We have a big chasm in how we view the situation,” Carlson said. “The women and those who have listened to them and believed them see it one way — and I don’t believe that Grace Church leaders have ever seen this as real trauma or abuse.”
In the quarterly church members’ meeting in April, Rodriguez stated that a written apology had been delivered to Jane Doe — but he made no mention of Byers, the second alleged victim. According to multiple sources, his office had texted Byers a few hours before that meeting to ask for her address, but she refused to provide it.
Bender was placed on a leave of absence in January — “not as punishment but to focus on healing, restoration, and making amends,” the IndyStar reported. Soon after that period ended, in May, Bender resumed his role as associate pastor.
Then, at the members’ meeting in July, Bender tearfully apologized to Grace Church congregants. According to the IndyStar report, “(He) made no mention of atoning to the two women.”
Continued calls for third-party investigation
In his statement to TRR, Rodriguez referred to the church hiring “outside counsel” for its investigation of Bender but gave no specifics.
The IndyStar story confirmed the church used its longtime hired law firm for that investigation, rather than a third-party group with no prior connections to the church.
Carlson said she and her husband refrained from speaking with the IndyStar reporter for several months to give Grace Church leaders time to “do the right thing.”
The Carlsons left Grace Church in August, and reportedly dozens of others have also left over the past year.
Según un internal church document, from which TRR obtained excerpts, Grace Church leaders “referred to and consulted with” several resources during the investigation of Bender.
A leading abuse investigation ministry, Godly Response to Abuse in the Church Environment, or GRACE, is noted as among those sources. TRR asked GRACE executive director Pete Singer for comment.
“I cannot speak about any role GRACE may have had with the church up to this point, but I can state that GRACE does not have a contract with the church to complete an investigation,” Singer said. Multiple sources stated that Grace Church leaders met once with a representative from Singer’s group but did not engage further.
In the internal document, Grace Church leaders also referenced two books, Becoming a Church That Cares Well for The Abused y Una Iglesia Llamada Tov, as informing their process.
New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, co-author of Una Iglesia Llamada Tov, commented on the situation after reading the IndyStar investigative report.
“Churches should never investigate themselves or their own pastors and leaders who have been accused,” McKnight told TRR. “This church was insufficiently victim-sensitive. The impact of their decision to keep this man as a pastor is an unsafe church for victims of sexual and pastoral abuse.”
For her part, Byers stated that she and Doe believe it is “completely inappropriate” for Bender to remain in a pastoral role. And she said the church’s response has retraumatized her.
“They’ve spent so much energy defending their response,” she said. “Barry has been so adamant that he’s proud of how the church has handled this situation from day one. And I believe the church has consistently downplayed the harm that has been done.”
Statement from Grace Church of Noblesville, Ind. – Nov. 13, 2023Barry-Rodriguez-Grace-Church_Redacted
This story has been corrected.
Periodista independiente Josh Shepherd escribe sobre fe, cultura y políticas públicas para varios medios outlets. He and his family live in the Washington, D.C. area.