Editor’s Note: This story contains graphic details of sexual assault and may not be suitable for everyone. Linda Shank, a former member of Riverside Church in Three Rivers and a sexual abuse survivor, gave Watershed Voice permission to tell her story, this way. While reading you may notice that the man she identifies as her abuser is not mentioned by name. That is an intentional choice made by Watershed, not Linda. While the man’s name is mentioned in numerous public records, including police reports and court documents, he was never formally charged, and therefore we have chosen to omit his identity at this time. As of publication time, Riverside Church Senior Pastor Paul Booko has not responded to an email sent on Thursday, June 2 at 11:32 a.m. seeking comment.
Linda Shank was 15-years-old when she was sexually abused by a man 30 years her senior, a man often referred to as her “spiritual father.” She was 16 when she told the staff of Riverside Church that one of their volunteers had sexually groomed and abused her for the better part of a year under the guise of love and mentorship.
She was the same age when she filed a report with the Three Rivers Police and sought a personal protection order in 2012. In 2015, at the age of 18, she spoke with the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department in hopes of obtaining a second PPO against the same man. She told authorities the man she previously reported as her abuser three years prior was now stalking, harassing, and making unwanted advances toward her.
Now in 2022 and in concert with spiritual abuse claims made by other survivors against Riverside Church, Linda is sharing the details of that harrowing experience publicly for the first time.
Linda started attending Riverside Church in the fifth grade and went regularly well into college. Joni Shank, Linda’s mother, said while she herself only attended sporadically, her daughter was a mainstay at Riverside and was heavily involved in church activities.
In 2011, Linda’s best friend had a crush on a boy who also attended Riverside and whose father was a youth leader at the church. One day the topic of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came up in conversation, a film Linda admitted she had never seen. So a plan was made for Linda, her best friend, the boy, his father, and a female youth leader to watch the movie at the boy’s house.
“That was the first time we went over to their house, and we ended up going there almost every week after that, just hanging out at their house,” Linda said. “During the summer, the youth leader woman would come with us every time but as soon as the school year started — she had children — she stopped coming, and that’s kind of when it started.”
What was once a group of five, was now four, and Linda often found herself alone with the boy’s father, as her best friend and her crush began to hangout separately in another room. Handholding marked the first of a litany of inappropriate actions initiated by the then 45-year-old man.
“At church he would hold my hand under his coat during services or just try to give me a hug when no one was around,” Linda said. “Then in the car, like to and from, he would take me home from church or you know, pick me up. So things would happen in the car too. And then at his house was where most of it happened.”
As summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter, Linda said the man’s behavior escalated and he would manufacture situations to make sure they were alone together. “He would say, ‘Let’s go into the kitchen and make cookies,’ and things would happen in there. Or ‘let’s go into [redacted]’s room and pick out a movie.’ There would also be times where he would pick me up and say he was taking me to Dairy Queen or something but we’d just go back to his house and it would just be me [there].”
Linda said when they were alone together, he would lay on his couch with Linda laying on top of him, while other times he would hug Linda for long periods of time, kiss her neck, reach his hand up her shirt to rub her stomach, and would run his fingers along the inside of the waistband of her pants over her underwear.
Some time around March 2012, Linda went on a mission to the Dominican Republic, and was gone for the better part of two weeks. The day she returned home, the man said he wanted to see her. “So he showed up at our house like around noon, and was there until like 8 or 9 p.m., which was weird because he was like 45 and I was 16.”
Several hours into his visit, a member of Linda’s family also came over. With Joni preoccupied with company downstairs, Linda went upstairs to grab her phone. The man followed.
“He sort of hugged me, and then started rubbing his pelvis against me. So I sat down on my bed because I was like, ‘what is going on?’ Then he sat on the floor in front of my bed and sort of pulled me down, and started kissing me and groping me. At some point either someone was coming up the stairs or he thought someone was coming up the stairs and stopped. But I was still sitting there, not on his lap but sort of, when my mom actually came up and we were in there just watching a movie but it was obviously inappropriate because I was sort of sitting in his lap.”
Joni said she came up the stairs and “obviously caught them in the middle of something” because his legs were over Linda’s legs. “And that’s when I’m like, ‘No,'” Joni said. “I was already mad because he had been there all day, I thought that was so weird. I’m like, in my head, ‘There’s more to this, he’s not just being like a spiritual father.’ And so I remember getting so mad my stomach burned. So I went in my car to use my cellphone, and called Linda, and told her, ‘You better tell him to leave right now, like now.’ So I drove around the block because if I would have seen him again, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Joni went around the block to give the man time to leave, and then returned home to process what she had seen. “I was like, ‘This ain’t right, something is wrong, like really wrong.’ But I could not pressure [Linda] to tell me, being her mom and her being a teenager, it’s uncomfortable to talk about to begin with, and then you have to tell those things to your parent. So I didn’t want to pressure her but I called my friend, who also went to Riverside, and I told him what we had experienced that day.”
The Shanks attended service the following day at Riverside, and Linda’s youth leader, who normally sat next to her every Sunday, was sitting elsewhere. “So I think at that point, he sort of knew that my mom knows something’s up, so he just tried to stay away,” Linda said. “And so, [my mom’s] friend gave me a ride home. He was asking me questions in the car, and we ended up just sitting in my driveway for a while, and I was telling him these things. He started piecing some stuff together, and took me to [Youth Pastor Keith Terwilliger’s] house after that. So that’s when I told [Riverside staff] what was going on too.”
At the first meeting in the Terwilliger house, Linda spoke with Keith’s wife Julie, divulging some details about what had happened but not everything. Within a week, they had a second meeting that included the Terwilligers and a female youth leader. Keith asked for more details to determine exactly what had occurred, as the accused was refuting much of what Linda had said in the first meeting.
“So [Pastor Keith] sort of asked me some questions to try to gauge how inappropriate it was,” Linda said. “I told him, and he was like, ‘OK, that’s exactly what we needed to know.’ So, he had already spoken with Paul (Booko). And Paul told Keith, at that time, they didn’t want to get the police involved. They said that to me, and that’s not something you forget.”
Linda said she never heard from Booko directly, with that particular message being relayed through Keith Terwilliger. In fact, Linda said Booko never met with her or her mother about the situation, “not once.”
“See, I was never told they weren’t getting the police involved — I had never heard that — because all of the information I got was through [Linda],” Joni said. “Another thing that was going on at that time, was my son had cancer. So I had to go every day from Three Rivers to University of Michigan Hospital, he’d get radiation and come back, three hours back, so I wouldn’t get home until the evening most days while all this was going on. And then every three weeks he had to stay for three days for chemo. So yeah, I had to either like talk to her mostly over the phone on the drive back or when I got home, to try and touch base.”
According to a report filed in August 2012 by then Three Rivers Police Det. Sgt. Michael Mohney, who has since retired, Keith Terwilliger reached out to Linda’s abuser after the meetings, and told him that he could no longer have any contact with Linda. She changed her cellphone number but he persisted to contact Linda through Twitter, sending messages of a sexual nature and telling Linda he loved her. Linda promptly deleted her account, and went back to the church for help. Terwilliger had since left for another job, so Pastor Jerry Solis and church member Paul Wilkins were tasked with speaking with the man.
In May 2012, with the help of her mother and Sarah Wilkins, a family friend and volunteer at Riverside at the time, Linda tried to file for a personal protection order. The judge presiding over Linda’s request determined that while the allegations were serious enough to warrant a PPO, too much time had lapsed since the last time he had contacted her, and therefore a PPO couldn’t be granted.
Sarah, who no longer lives in the area, said that prior to speaking with police about the situation, she and her husband Paul Wilkins were told that church leadership was “taking care of it.” She said police weren’t contacted until she herself helped Linda file the appropriate paperwork. Watershed Voice can confirm that no names or signatures of paid Riverside Church staff appear on those documents.
“We, too, were told that leadership — and from what I understood that meant Pastor Paul Booko and Pastor Denny Kirouac — were taking care of it, as in reporting it,” Sarah said. “I know Riverside has spun the story to reflect that I was acting on behalf of staff when Linda was taken to get a PPO, but I certainly was not.”
The church’s initial statement on the matter seems to claim its senior staff wasn’t even aware of the incident until it was brought to them earlier this year:
“Recently, an allegation of improper conduct between a volunteer and a young person was brought to the attention of senior staff,” a portion of the statement reads. “The alleged incident happened some 10 years ago. We are now in the process of investigating the circumstances surrounding the incident and evaluating how we as a Church should respond.”
In a follow-up statement on the matter, which was initially published on the church’s website but appears to have been taken down in the time since, Booko outlines the actions the church allegedly took to address the matter in 2012:
“The adult youth leader accused of the abuse was immediately removed from serving with the young lady by the Youth Pastor. The Youth Pastor also reported it to a Pastor on staff. The abuse was reported to the Three Rivers Police and there was a PPO filed at the St. Joseph County Court.
“We took the steps that we thought necessary and appropriate at the time that would help both persons involved by getting them professional counseling. As the Senior Pastor of Riverside Church, I take full responsibilities of any processes that did not get done properly.”
Watershed Voice reached out to Booko for comment on these seemingly contradictory statements, as well as other aspects of this story but as of the time of publication, he has not responded.
In June 2012, the accused somehow acquired Linda’s new number and started to send sexual messages once again. Linda subsequently filed a police report, and requested a PPO for the second time. Her request was granted, and the order was served to the accused by Paul Wilkins.
A month after Linda reported what happened, Riverside agreed to pay for six counseling sessions for Linda and her former youth leader with Desert Streams of Kalamazoo. After those sessions, Linda was told Riverside would no longer pay for counseling, and if she wished to continue she would need to foot the bill herself. Linda said she has since attempted to obtain documentation from her sessions at Desert Streams but was told that all documentation before 2016 has been lost, and can’t be recovered.
“Between 2012 and 2015, he never left me alone,” Linda said. “He would text or call me, even if he didn’t have my number, he would get it somehow. He made a fake Twitter account to try to contact me, he would drive past our house or past me if I was walking somewhere, somehow he would know where I was. And this would happen off and on, for years.”
In 2015, after three years of continuous harassment and stalking, her former youth leader told her he wanted to see her “one time” and he would leave her alone. Linda, now 18-years-old and in college, was hesitant but agreed to meet with him. “He literally said quote, unquote, ‘I’m not gonna stick my tongue down your throat or anything, I just want to talk to you.’ So I ended up meeting him.”
It was three days before Christmas, so he suggested they drive around to look at Christmas lights and talk. “As soon as I got in the car I was like, ‘This is a really bad idea.’ I didn’t know what to do. I was like, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ He drove around for a while but instead of taking me home, he pulled into the driveway of his house, and that’s when I was like, ‘I’m in big trouble.'”
Now in the driveway of his mother’s house on Hutchinson Road, he tried to persuade Linda to go inside but she refused. After telling him no several times, Linda said she became “awkwardly quiet” and lowered her head into her hands. Suddenly he was on top of her.
“He would take my hand at some points, and try to put it on his head because I was seriously just laying there, stiff. He was groping me and kissing me and stuff. Not on my lips but like on my neck. He even pulled a pillow out of the backseat, so it was premeditated, he knew he was going to try and do something.”
Linda later told police that the man lifted up her shirt, lowered her bra, and proceeded to kiss her chest and stomach, all the while groping her below the waist over her clothes, and eventually reaching his hand into her underwear.
“So that went on for what had to be a couple of hours because I didn’t even get home until three in the morning. As soon as I got out of the car when he dropped me off at my grandma’s house, I called Sarah Wilkins and just told her everything that just happened. And she took me straight to the Three Rivers Police Department.”
The TRPD told Linda she would need to speak with the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department, as the incident happened outside of Three Rivers city limits. She told the deputy who interviewed her that she wished to apply for another PPO, only this time she wanted to press charges. Linda was granted another PPO but formal charges were never brought in the case. The nature of the assault meant a lack of physical evidence, and authorities told her as a result it would “his word against yours.”
The next summer after completing her sophomore year of college, Linda left her hometown of Three Rivers and moved to North Carolina with the Wilkins family. After a year and a half with the Wilkins, Linda moved with their daughter and her childhood best friend to South Carolina, where she lives today.
While the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of someone she thought she loved and trusted was traumatic and will stay with her, Linda says it does not define who she is. She’s built a life for herself, formed a community, and found a partner who makes her feel safe.
“Where I’m at now in life has been amazing, specifically even just in the past year. I’ve made a group of beautiful friends in South Carolina, who I now call family, that have been helping me through the aftershocks of everything and do an amazing job of being the safest place I’ve ever known, and loving me as I am,” she said.
“I have a boyfriend now — finally after 10 years of telling men no just out of fear — who loves me and treats me like I’m treasure, who I feel the safest with, and who has been showing me what it’s like to be loved without ulterior motives.”
Linda said she’s sharing her story for other victims of sexual abuse, so they know “it’s okay to tell your story when you’re ready to tell it.”
“There absolutely are people who will believe you, and I want you to know that what you go through is not what defines you. You are important and loveable. Sexual abuse victims are more than their abuse, and more than their abuser ever made them feel they were. Our voices matter. We are brave. We are strong. We are beautiful conquerors, and we can live the life we’ve always dreamed of, no matter what may have been done to us.”
Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor and publisher of Watershed Voice.