TOWANDA, Pa. (WETM) — A former youth pastor from Bradford County has been accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl over 20 years ago during a church-approved “betrothal,” according to the Pennsylvania Attorney General.
Robert Fenton, 52, is being charged with sexually abusing and assaulting a 14-year-old girl from 1996 to 1998 in Bradford County, when he was 26 years old. According to the announcement from the AG’s office, Fenton allegedly claimed that “God wanted the victim to be his spouse” because of a vision he had. The AG further explained that Fenton allegedly got approval from leaders at Abide in the Vine Church to “betroth” the girl to him “with an understanding that no sexual activity would occur.”
The alleged victim, now over 40 years old, first told police about the abuse in 2019, according to the criminal complaint released with the announcement. After the “betrothal,” the victim said Fenton allegedly convinced her parents to take her out of public school so he could visit her at home. Fenton allegedly touched the girl’s genitals and made her touch him.
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In 1998, the victim said she and Fenton got engaged, at which point he allegedly made her perform oral sex on him, the affidavit said.
After the wedding was called off because Fenton reportedly got pancreatitis, the relationship ended around August-September 1998. Fenton then allegedly told the girl that she ruined his ministry before moving to Australia. The AG’s Office said that Fenton is a paster at a church in Queensland, Australia.
Once the AG’s office took over the investigation in July 2021, officers interviewed friends of the victim, congregation members, and her parents. Her parents reportedly explained that they were aware of and agreed to Fenton’s betrothal. They also said that the church elders at one point set up a 6-month “no contact” period, during which Fenton and the girl could only write letters. However, the parents claimed that Fenton would “push the boundaries”.
The pastor of the church was reportedly unsupportive of the relationship when Fenton first explained his vision. However, the pastor’s son told the AG’s office that the girl’s family and Fenton pressured the pastor and likened the relationship to Mary and Joseph, with Mary being much younger. The pastor’s son said that his father didn’t know the relationship was sexual.
Another one of the elders who was also an attorney allegedly said that if the relationship happened, he would call the police. The criminal complaint did not say whether or not that ultimately happened.
Fenton has been charged with Indecent Assault of a Person under 16, Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercouse with a Person Under 16, Aggravated Indecent Assault, Corruption of Minors, and Statutory Sexual Assault. The AG said his office will work with the U.S. State Department and Department of Justice to try to extradite Fenton from Australia.
“The defendant used his power and authority in his religious community to lie, manipulate and regularly abuse a young girl in his community. I promised we would hold anyone who was abusing children accountable – and Robert Fenton is no exception,” said Attorney General Shapiro. “Survivors experience a lifetime of anguish and trauma trying to overcome the impact of abuse. I want survivors to know – we believe you, and we will not let predators get away with the sexual assault of children.”