Scores of Former Interns Accuse Church & High-Profile Camp of Abuse & Exploitation of Minors

By Julie Roys

“Christian concentration camp.”

That’s how one former student referred to Youth America—a church-run camp and college that each summer attracts thousands of young people to its Oklahoma City campus.

The highly-touted, non-denominational ministry has over the years featured big-name Christian celebrities like Hillsong’s Peter and Laura Toggs, Carl Lentz, and singer Kari Jobe.

But today, Youth America, and the multi-site church that owns it—Church of the Harvest—stand accused by about 100 former members and interns of having a pattern of sexual misconduct, mismanagement of funds, and exploitation of minors.

Worship at Youth America

Those alleging wrongdoing have launched a petition, which now has more than 3,100 signatures, calling for the closure of Youth America and Church of the Harvest (COTH).

The petition also demands that founders, Kirk and Nancy Pankratz, along with their staff and board, be held accountable for their actions dating back more than two decades.

The controversy has garnered the attention of a local news station, KFOR-TV, which this week broadcast several stories about the allegations.

The church has responded by hiring Lawrence Swicegood, the executive director of communications at Gateway Church, who was also hired by Harvest Bible Chapel when facing its scandal involving James MacDonald.

Swicegood released a statement saying that much of what has been alleged “is simply false, misleading and hateful.” He added that the church is in meetings with “various parties to carefully listen to Valid concerns.” But he added that the church “will not be intimidated by, nor enter into dialogue with . . .  people who choose to spread false rumors, direct lies and both verbally and physically threaten members on our staff and people at our church.”

Sparked by a Facebook Post

The movement to expose and close Youth America and COTH exploded from a single Facebook post last week by Branden Palesano, an intern at COTH from 2013 to 2015. The post criticized church internships as “emotionally and mentally abusive” and said to anyone thinking about doing one, “DONT.” 

Palesano’s post, edited for profanity:

 

Within hours, dozens had liked the post. And now, nearly 5,000 comments have been added—many recounting specific incidents of spiritual, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Palesano said the response has been both heartening and overwhelming.

“It felt so validating to know that these people are saying, ‘I hear you’ and ‘I experienced the same thing you did, but differently,’” Palesano said. “And then that’s when these crazy stories came out about sexual abuse and manipulation.”

“It felt so validating to know that these people are saying, ‘I hear you’ and ‘I experienced the same thing you did, but differently.’”

Shelby, a former intern at Church of the Harvest, wrote in a Facebook comment about a sexual encounter she had with a married worship pastor at COTH that was “so rough that I bled for days.”

Shelby said the “sexual, mental, and emotional abuse” lasted for months until two other interns found text messages from the worship pastor on Shelby’s iPad and gave the iPad to Kirk and Nancy Pankratz.

According to Shelby’s mother, the church kept the worship pastor on staff but dismissed Shelby, paying her $1,000 to “start over, way less than what she had paid to be a part of the internship.”

I contacted the church, asking for comment and whether the worship pastor is still on staff, but no one responded.

Shelby’s mother’s post:

Another person who posted about alleged abuse is Havilah Capshaw Bagnaro, who was a student at a high school COTH ran in 2001. Capshaw Bagnaro told KFOR-TV that her abuser was Grant Pankratz, son of founders Kirk and Nancy Pankratz. (Grant Pankratz was also listed as COTH senior pastor in 2018, but it is unclear if he is still employed by the church.)

Capshaw Bagnaro said that in 2001, Pankratz drove her to a park where groped her breasts. She said when she yelled for him to stop, he ripped her button-down shirt open and grabbed her breasts again.

Capshaw Bagnaro said she did not report the incident when it first happened. However, on Monday, Capshaw Bagnaro filed a report with Edmond, Oklahoma, police. According to the report, Capshaw Bagnaro was 15 when the assault happened and Pankratz was 17.

Emily Ward, public information specialist with the Edmond Police said that police are investigating the incident and plan to present charges to the district attorney.

Other former interns wrote about being forced to work extremely long hours for the church and Youth America and live in deplorable conditions. According to Palesano, the church did not pay interns. Instead interns had to pay between $2,000 and $5,000 for the experience.

Campers at Youth America

One former intern said he remembered that during special events, he would be “up at 5-6 am and working through 4 am the next day . . . only to have to turn around in 2 hours and do Sunday services all day the next day.”

A former worker at the camp said he remembers “falling asleep standing up with a paintbrush in his hand at around midnight.” He added that one summer, the heat hit 112̊° and the air conditioning was not working in the kitchen. “With the ovens going 3x a day, the temperature rose to at least 120°.”

Former intern Chancey Brooke said female interns were forced to sleep on the floor above a gym “surrounded by rat sh-t and sharing one shower.”

 

Palesano said male interns slept in a locker room at camp and were told that if the fire marshal came, “to hide all of our stuff so they couldn’t get caught.”

Others talked about spiritually abusive leaders, who demanded absolute loyalty of members, staff, and interns.

Someone named Shanna wrote that she knew of a leader who had “‘plants’ in the congregation whose job it was to try and entrap staff in moments of loyalty to him or the church.”

Another person named Shelley alleged that Kirk Pankratz “would say how he on purpose tested staff members with certain things he asked them to do.”

Others complained about the “celebrity lifestyle” Kirk and Nancy Pankratz live. The Pankratzes live in a half-million dollar home in a city where the median list price is under $150,000.

One former intern, Cirissa Jones, said she once was tasked with going through a large tub full of receipts from past years, which opened her eyes to the Pankratz’s spending.

“The things I saw purchased over multiple days . . . made me sick to my stomach,” she writes. “Knowing that us interns had no money for food, or gas for our cars, that experience was so eye-opening. And it hurt my heart so much to think of how much we all were lacking—while working our butts off and seeing the extreme luxury they got to live in.”

 “I don’t want to see more kids get hurt”

 Julie Hodgden worked as a volunteer youth pastor at Church of the Harvest’s Norman campus from 2009 to 2013, and as paid, full-time staff from 2013 to 2015. (The Norman campus and two others have since closed. The church now operates only two campuses—one in Oklahoma City and one in Edmond.)

Hodgden said that until she saw Palesano’s Facebook post, she had no idea how badly some of her former students had been treated.

Julie Hodgden

“I cannot even tell you how upset I was,” she said. “I’ve recommended (Youth America) college to these kids to help their spiritual growth, and to see their souls be crushed . . . Many of them turned from the faith completely. And lots of them are reporting that they had to go through years of therapy just to feel normal again.”

Because Hodgden was their youth pastor, many of the former students have turned to her for spiritual care. Palesano, who used to be a student in Hodgden’s ministry, said Palesano “has been there for her students and for me personally too.”

Hodgden said she and a handful of women who are “movers and shakers” are encouraging those who could bring criminal charges against church leaders to do so. However, she said many of the interns and former students, even some with horrific stories of abuse, are not willing to bring charges.

“There’s too much mind control in all this,” Hodgden said. “They’ve left the church but they’re still afraid to go against the people in authority over them.”

The future of Youth America and COTH is uncertain. The church is currently meeting. However, some of web pages, like the staff page, have been taken down. There is scant information available online about Youth America Camp, which reportedly is not operating this summer due to COVID.

Youth America College, however, is operating.

The college is associated with Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. And according to Dana Davis, chief communications officer for Southeastern, Youth America College has 79 full-time students and 7 part-time students currently enrolled.

Davis said Southeastern is an independent contractor to COTH and not part of the church. She added that almost all the allegations relate to events that occurred prior to 2016, when Southeastern began providing services to the church.

“Regardless, Southeastern takes the allegations seriously and may assess its future relationship with the Church depending on the outcome of any investigation into those allegations by Oklahoma authorities,” Davis said.

Palesano said he, Hodgden, and a team of around 10 people remain in contact with victims and are engaged, but not sure of their next step.

“We’re still figuring that all out,” he said, adding that initially, all he wanted to do was “facilitate a place for victims to talk . . . and be validated.”

Despite everything that’s been reported, Hodgden said she has good friends from the church who won’t speak out. She said she’s also received pressure from some former members to be silent but she will not.

“These are my kids,” Hodgden said. “You hurt them and I’m furious. I don’t want to see any more kids get hurt like this.”

UPDATE: Church of the Harvest posted a statement saying that the church has “made some mistakes along the way.” However, COTH added that the social media posts by “a few former disgruntled employees and interns” were “unfounded, unsubstantiated, and misleading.” Yet, the church also said that Grant Pankratz has resigned from COTH staff and the board of directors.

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16 thoughts on “Scores of Former Interns Accuse Church & High-Profile Camp of Abuse & Exploitation of Minors”

  1. This is horrific. Unfortunately there are ‘internships’ like this all over the U.S. Interns PAY for the opportunity to be used and abused. Ron Luce did this with Teen Mania’s Honor Academy, until it went bankrupt in 2015. He still has an active arrest warrant against him in Colorado for taking funds from Compassion Intl to promote their org at Acquire the Fire conferences that never took place. He’s now attending Gateway Church and Robert Morris is on the board of his new org Generation Next. Watch out for any of these guys that have ties to Gateway Church.

        1. Good article and very concerning. When I was in youth ministry, we took our students to an Acquire the Fire event. Thy hype didn’t fly with our kids. We made a decision early on to focus on Jesus and not entertainment. As a result, we attracted kids who loved Bible study and worship, and weren’t fans of lights and smoke. I’ll never forget the line, “Pray your face off.” That was a bit too goofy for me.

  2. Up until about 30 years ago parents would often send their Children to similar Camps and Boarding Schools thinking it was the “Christian” thing to do and any complaint was either ignored or dealt with. Sometimes harshly. In many Christian families today that has only changed within the past 10 years or so. Unfortunately, Celebrity and the Personality Culture is alive and well in many even “Conservative Christian Churches” which promotes and attracts these so called “Ministers” because coolness is the way to go in our Post Modern Culture. These guys get high up the ladder until someone often of some influence reports and betrays them. The next thing you know the Church has to publicly apologize.

  3. There are too many churches like this that are more than comfortable with the collateral damage of God’s people as long as the institution/business keeps running and the money keeps flowing. Run, run for your lives. These types of leaders believe they are superior to the sheep. Businessmen masquerading as pastors. Wolves in sheep’s clothing. There will be a reckoning.
    These “super apostles” who set themselves up in “authority” over others need to be called out as the silly little clowns they are.

  4. I’ve never heard of this outfit but their mission statement tells me all I needed to know. Item three of their mission statement:

    Create and Impart the Sound of a Movement
    We believe that God has given us the mandate of creating a fresh sound that calls people of all ages and demographics to worship.

    Huh? Umm…no, I’m sorry. I don’t believe God told you any such thing. Also internships are supposed to pay you. So parents thought they were setting their kids up to excel in the work / ministry world by paying this place to use and abuse them? They are / were or churning almost 900 kids per week each Summer. That’s a lot of kids and a lot of money by the end of a summer. No one thought this might be a scam from the outset?

  5. Are you sure these are nothing more than posts by Christian whining snowflakes? If their stories have merit, report them to law enforcement, especially that terrible trauma where there was only one shower. What horror.

    As for sexual abuse, perhaps I missed it, but I noted only one teen touching another teen, and that outside her top undergarment. I’ll bet the boy may have a different version of events. Again, I may have missed it, but I didn’t catch your reporting on the boy’s version, if indeed a boy was involved at all.

    How about returning to Loritts and J. D. Greear, your last story of gravity? Don’t cut and run from the big stuff. Certainly Greear and his fans have not gotten to you. How is Denhollander doing in solving that one?

    1. Hello Wondering, I find it interesting that you could use the phrase “cut and run” when describing Julie’s work. It would seem that she has done just the opposite for a long while now. Do I agree with every single word or thought that she writes? Well, I am sure I could find something that I don’t line up with her on. But one thing I am sure of is that she hasn’t cut and run from much at all.

    2. Wondering

      I complement you on a well crafted response to negate this issue. Shaming, downplaying, calling in to question multiple occurances of similar events. What have I left out?

      Please tell me the threshold where whining turns into brave people standing up against what is wrong?

      Also the comment about teen touching teen : What difference does age? Please review how the women at Fox News reacted to unwanted Sexual advances. If you start with the premise that continued sexual advances after stop:no:quit this:.. is sexual assault and age has nothing to do with it. How would you feel about it if life put you in a situation where it happened to you? (No excuses about fighting back – the person was bigger, or had a weapon, or made a threat about taking away your ability to work). Again – read about what happened at Fox News.

      Also have you ever seen an instance where someone who instigated a sexual assault admitted it? I haven’’t. It was always ‘her’ fault for leading me on.

      Also the world is a big place: Ask some of the people around Oklahoma what is the bigger story. I bet they will put there money on this issue.

      CJ

  6. Great point. How about the phrase “fail to interview and refer to the Memphis DA the women and children who were feloniously predated by Trotter with the complicity of Loritts, and the uncaring silence of Greear”?

    1. Wondering,

      I have no idea what you are talking about. I didn’t fail to interview anybody. If you know of some victims of Trotter’s who wish to talk to me, please let me know.

      Also, reporters don’t refer people to district attorneys. We report the news. And it’s up to victims and mandated reporters to go to police who then go to DAs.

      1. Ms. Roys,

        After gaining information and reporting, why not encourage and assist a victim to interact with a victim advocate? And yes, DA offices have victim advocates. Or interact with a police victim advocate if you prefer. This gets the victim into the system where she can be helped and perhaps receive a measure of justice.

        Certainly you are not suggesting that, after obtaining your story, you are required, due to some higher calling as a reporter, to walk away on the other side of the road while leaving the victim in the dirt. There exists no prohibition on a reporter from taking a small step to helpi a victim after she speaks with you.

        Victims of sexual aggressions are usually ashamed and confused. As a reporter, you have already established some rapport with a victim simply by speaking with her. Why not point her in the right direction rather than demurring and saying “it’s up to her” to get help?

        Thank you for considering this suggestion.

        1. Wondering,

          I cannot play the role you think I should play and do my job as a reporter. I can’t keep up with reporting all the corruption and abuse that’s going on as is, let alone become the liason between victims and DA’s offices. Maybe that’s your calling. If so, go for it. But I will say that the victims I’ve spoken with are smart and savvy people, who frankly, don’t need me telling them what to do. And they’ve pursued a lot of options and found a lot of closed doors.

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