Duval County

Women connected to Jacksonville church sex abuse case speak out about culture of church

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — More than a dozen victims are speaking out on the Paul Dyal case. Earlier this month, the pastor of the Jacksonville Assembly Body of Christ was arrested on charges of child sex abuse.

Action News Jax spoke with two women who grew up in the church.

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It has been years since Cynthia Crawford and Jennifer Belanger have looked out at the pond in an area once known as “The Land,” a compound for church members with the Jacksonville Assembly Body of Christ.

“This is where we would be baptized,” Jennifer Belanger recalled. “There were definitely good memories as well.”

Cynthia Crawford, also has early memories there.

“I grew up here on The Land,” she said. “Learned to swim in the pond up the road. Everyone out here were members of the church. It created a sense of sanctuary, but more of an isolation.”

Crawford and Belanger’s fond early memories are now colored by a dark past.

“About four years ago one of the girls that I went to elementary school with at the church reached out to me to discuss what happened to her, and that was the first that I had heard of what happened,” Crawford told Action News Jax.

Now an attorney, Crawford says one by one, more victims reached out to her with similar stories of sexual and physical abuse in the church.

When asked how many victims there are, Crawford said, “I don’t know. I do know that over 15 have contacted me personally telling me of their stories.”

Crawford took the victims’ stories to the state attorney, prompting an investigation in 2020.

That led to the early March arrests of Paul Dyal, a pastor at the Jacksonville Assembly Body of Christ, and two other former church members, Jerome Teschendorf and Vernon Williamson, who were arrested in Oklahoma.

All three men face charges of capital sexual battery. Police allege the sexual abuse of children in the church went on for more than three decades.

“I hate to think about how many others have been victimized in the process, in the timeline,” Crawford added.

She worries things are far from over. She has had people call her from Oklahoma, Texas, and other states saying they too had been molested at sister churches.

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“This is big, and if there are any victims, anyone, any witnesses who knows something — even in another state, please come forward and speak about it,” Crawford said.

Belanger fears more victims out there are too afraid to speak up.

“Understand that it’s safe to come out now. It’s safe. You have people that have your back. You have our own network now of people that’s trying to make sure that this gets justice,” she said.

Action News Jax reached out to Dyal’s attorney for comment. Her receptionist said she’d get back to us.

We also left a voicemail for the church.

Florida Department of Children and Families tells Action News Jax it’s working on our request about whether the agency is investigating the church, and if other children are involved.

Crawford tells us all three men are behind bars on no bond. Dyal’s next hearing is scheduled for March 31, and Williamson’s hearing is set for April 4.