5 lawsuits allege child sex abuse at Riverdale Assembly of God church, school

For about 30 years, the church and school have exposed boys and girls as young as 8 to sexual abuse, according to the lawsuits.

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Friday, July 15, 2022
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The lawsuits are piling up against a Riverdale church and school where pastors and educators are accused of abusing children over decades.

FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. (KFSN) -- The lawsuits are piling up against a Riverdale church and school where pastors and educators are accused of abusing children over the course of decades.

Five lawsuits now target Riverdale Assembly of God and its leadership for alleged abuse dating back to the 1990s.

For more than 50 years, the Riverdale Assembly of God has served people in rural Fresno County through its church and the attached school.

For about 30 of those years, the church and school have exposed boys and girls as young as 8 to sexual abuse, according to a series of lawsuits.

"We believe there was a pervasive and persistent pattern of grooming and sexual abuse that took place in the church and the school," said plaintiff's attorney Steven Dias of Dias Hall.

Steven Dias has filed four lawsuits on behalf of five former church members.

They blame a few employees, most notably Charles Spencer, Jr., a son of the church's founders.

The lawsuits claim Spencer groomed children and worked his way up to inappropriate messages, then sexual contact.

One woman says when she was a teen, she felt she had to allow Spencer's actions because of his position with the church and school.

"When they are abusing the children, the children feel almost powerless and basically perform the acts they want performed on them," Dias said.

We repeatedly tried to contact Spencer and the leadership at Riverdale Assembly of God, but they never responded.

When Action News went to the church in person, they referred us to their attorneys, who also didn't return multiple messages.

The National Assemblies of God organization told us they're evaluating the lawsuits, but can't comment about pending litigation.

But lawyers for the church and the national organization have filed some responses in court.

They denied causing any damages to the plaintiffs.

They also questioned the constitutionality of California's temporary extension to the statute of limitations in cases of childhood sexual abuse, a change Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in 2019.

"For a three-year period from January 2020 to December 31, 2022, there is no statute of limitations," said legal analyst Tony Capozzi. "This allows anyone to file a lawsuit -- no matter how old you are -- alleging some kind of child abuse."

Lawyers for the National Assemblies of God said the organization exercised reasonable care to prevent any inappropriate behavior.

And they said the plaintiffs waived any claims as a result of their own behavior.

Dias and his lawsuits claim the church has commonly resorted to victim blaming, even forcing some of them to apologize to their attackers.

"In most cases, the victims were shamed by the elder members of the church and made to admit to those church members and elders that the victims triggered the sexual contact with the adult church leader and teachers," Dias said.

A spokesman for the Fresno County sheriff's office tells us deputies are investigating recent reports of sexual misconduct at Riverdale Assembly of God and its school.

A similar report to the sheriff's office in 2015 hit a wall because of the statute of limitations.