UPTOWN — A documentary scheduled for release Friday — and a lawsuit filed recently in Cook County Circuit Court — accuse Uptown Christian commune Jesus People USA of hiding "rampant" sexual abuse of children at the commune decades ago.
"No Place To Call Home" is a documentary by former Jesus People member Jaime Prater that alleges he and dozens of former members were abused as children while living in the commune between 1974 and 1998.
The movie was initially scheduled for a July release. Prater said he prolonged the process to gather more interviews with alleged victims of abuse.
"This baby of mine has been gestating for five years, and so I'm nervous and anxious and excited," said Prater, 37, who now lives in Indiana. The film project, which began in 2009, received donations through Kickstarter and will be released online, he said.
The release of "No Place to Call Home" comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed against the commune in January by a Georgia woman, Heather Kool, who alleges she was sexually assaulted over several years by adults and minors while she was a child and living with the Jesus People in Uptown.
“Now is the time for all of us to stand up and have the strength to talk about what happened,” Kool said in a phone interview.
A pastor with the Jesus People who is a member of its council of leaders, Neil Taylor, said in a brief interview last week in his office at the commune's main residence that his group was aware of Prater and his upcoming movie and the allegations of sexual abuse and “is treating them seriously.”
But he declined to comment in detail.
“Due to the nature of lawsuits and pending lawsuits, we really cannot say anything. Our lawyers have advised us to say nothing,” Taylor said.
Police investigated allegations of past sexual abuse at the commune last year but didn't find evidence of abuse or pursue criminal charges, Chicago Police Department spokesman Adam Collins said. The statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions also has expired in many cases reported to police, he said.
Prater conceded "It's very rare in cases like this that there is proof."
But he said he's convinced former commune members' allegations of sexual abuse are legitimate because "the detailed accounts in my film, I just think there are just too many. They're too specific, and there's too many people saying the same thing."
'It Was Something I Didn't Want to Talk About'
Jesus People, founded in 1972, is a remnant of the Jesus Movement, a crew of evangelized hippies who embraced urban missionary work, communal living and Christ.
Some 400 members reside in dormitory-style housing at the group's main residence at Friendly Towers, 920 W. Wilson Ave., and hold a common bank account. Jesus People also runs local businesses, including Wilson Abbey, and social service agencies such as Cornerstone Community Outreach.
Kool's lawsuit was filed just before the statute of limitations ran out for a civil suit, which is essentially 20 years after a minor becomes an adult at age 18.
In her lawsuit, Kool, now 38, accuses commune members and leaders of failing to notify authorities once she revealed as a teen that she was molested, and of fostering an environment with “authoritarian practices” that left more children vulnerable to abuse.
Kool, a pastry chef who lives in Athens, Ga., said her troubled mother left Dallas in 1980 and moved the family to Chicago after hearing good things about Jesus People’s Uptown commune.
“She was ... divorcing her husband at the time, and somebody told her about this place that was really great. She could raise her kids there, and live with a Christian organization — it would be the perfect place for her to trust people,” Kool said in a phone interview.
The lawsuit claims Kool was "sexually assaulted by several residents of the JPUSA Commune over a period of several years."
The lawsuit does not give specific details of the abuse, but Kool said a 14-year-old girl from a “troubled, troubled family” sexually abused her when she was between ages 4 and 5. She also alleged a man at the commune abused her when she was 10.
“I was scared to death, and it was something I didn’t want to talk about,” Kool said.
When she did talk about it, commune members and leaders labeled her a threat to abuse other children because of what she suffered, shunned her for the revelation, and did not notify authorities, charges Kool, who left the group at age 26. She said the authoritarian culture at the commune discouraged kids and parents from speaking up about abuse or leaving the commune.
Her two-count lawsuit seeks a jury trial and more than $100,000 in damages. It accuses Jesus People leaders of failing to properly supervise adults and other minors "to ensure the safety of the minor children living at the commune" and allowing "ongoing sexual assault of minors in the commune living areas after they had actual knowledge of prior sexual assaults.”
No court date has been set yet in the case, and Jesus People's attorneys have yet to respond to the suit, which also names as a defendant the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination of more than 700 churches in the U.S. that includes the Jesus People.
"We are not at this time able to discuss the specific allegations involving the Jesus People case," church spokesman Edward Gilbreath said. "I can say that at the Evangelical Church, our policy is such that we don't control or manage the affairs of our local congregations. They are self-governing, so we have no say in the hiring, firing or supervision of the leaders at local congregations."
He also said church leaders hadn't seen Prater's film and couldn't comment on it.
'Shine a light'
"No Place to Call Home," is scheduled to be released Friday on Vimeo On Demand.
Prater, who left the commune in 1999, said he started the film project as "a look back, and a kiss back," toward his time at the commune, which he also has a lot of fond memories of and called home despite allegedly being molested at age 10 by "a man who lived in my bedroom who was not related to me."
Prater said that commune leaders convinced his parents he was lying and isolated him from other commune children for much of his childhood, treating him "like a criminal" for speaking out.
"No Place to Call Home," aims to "shine a light" on the allegations and the issues that prevented proper investigations and prosecutions, Prater said. He added that he would like to see Jesus People adopt a less authoritarian leadership structure.
The filmmaker said he doesn’t know if Kool and other alleged victims will find justice in a court of law — but believes justice can still be found “in the court of public opinion," and that his film could be a catalyst for a "transformation" at Jesus People.