Ex-Jesus People USA Members Allege 'Rampant' Past Sex Abuse in Film
UPTOWN — A documentary due out later this month seeks to shine a spotlight on alleged abuse years ago at a Christian commune in Uptown.
Police recently investigated the allegations made by former members of Jesus People USA, although officials did not pursue criminal charges.
The group, founded in 1972, remains as one of the last vestiges of the Jesus Movement, a ragtag group of evangelized hippies who embraced Christ, urban missionary work and communal life in the '70s.
About 400 people live in the Jesus People community, whose main residential building sits at 920 W. Wilson Ave. in Uptown. Members share goods, hold a common bank account, run several local businesses and social service agencies, and reside in dormitory-style housing.
Jaime Prater, now 37 and living in Indiana, moved with his family to the commune when he was a toddler.
Prater said he was 10 when "a man who lived in my bedroom who was not related to me," molested him one night. But Prater said that when he told church leaders what happened they treated him "like a criminal." He was accused of lying and isolated from other children, confined to either a solitary room or his parents' room, Prater said.
His father, Jon Prater, told DNAinfo Chicago that members of the commune convinced him that his son was not telling the truth, and the allegation was not reported to authorities at the time.
The recent police investigation was spurred in the spring when a friend of Prater, a licensed therapist mandated to report child abuse, contacted police. A detective then interviewed Prater, he said. No charges were filed.
Commune leaders, including pastors Tom Cameron and Neil Taylor, declined to comment on the allegations when contacted.
A message sent to DNAinfo.com Chicago from Jesus People's Facebook account said: "Thank you for contacting us in regards to your upcoming story. At this time we have no comment or statement to make about these allegations."
But Prater, who studied film at Columbia College Chicago, said he plans to release a documentary this month, "No Place To Call Home: Growing Up In An American Cult," alleging "rampant" sexual abuse of children in the commune between 1974 and 1998.
He said that out of 188 former Jesus People members he contacted, almost a third alleged to him they were abused either by adults or teenagers at the commune. Ten were interviewed by Prater on camera and named in the film, he said, including a Minnesota woman, Sveah Johnson, who claims she was assaulted in a bathroom when she was 5.
Prater said that former members have urged him to name in the film those who allegedly committed the abuse, but he does not plan to do so now.
The film is four years in the making. It has been such a stressful, time-consuming ordeal that Prater recently quit his job as an assistant manager at the Paper Source stationery store in Evanston and relocated from his Albany Park apartment to his parents' home in Indiana, he said.
The movie was supposed to center on Prater, but he said that making it opened his eyes to the extent of the alleged abuse at the commune. Prater, who left the commune in 1999, said he hopes his film will "shine a light" on the allegations and the issues that prevented proper investigations and prosecutions.
“What makes it worth it to me has nothing to do with the police. I’m doing this because I believe in my heart that this needs to make its way to the public,” Prater said. "I believe the court of public opinion is going to do more than any judge or police can do.”
Chicago Police Department spokesman Adam Collins said this week that while there's no allegation of recent or current cases of sexual abuse in the group, "a number of people are reporting they believe there is abuse based on past history."
Police have not found evidence to support criminal prosecution, Collins said.
But even "if there was evidence to support the allegations that were made, the cases that have been reported cannot be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations," Collins added.
Collins stressed that police "will investigate any further allegations" about abuse at the commune.
As of earlier this week, the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services had not been contacted by group members or police about the allegations, but spokesman Dave Clarkin said, "There’s no statute of limitations on DCFS investigations."
Clarkin said that anyone "indicated as an abuser is listed in our state central registry for up to 50 years depending on the allegations," and can be prohibited from having contact with children.
“When we receive a report of allegations of sexual abuse involving a victim who is now over the age of 18, but the alleged perpetrator still has access to children in a caregiver role, depending on the circumstances, we might investigate," Clarkin said.
Clarkin said that “80 percent of abuse goes unreported in Illinois,” and that “the average child tells seven adults before it’s reported” to authorities.
“It’s up to the 9 million adults in Illinois to work together to make sure children are protected,” he said. “But if we don’t receive reports of abuse, there isn’t much we can do."
Prater said he hopes his film will encourage victims to tell their stories.
"If there's anybody else who is going through that at Jesus People, they have the ability to speak up," he said.