Sarah Kester, 50, a member of the Followers of Christ Church, told police after her arrest last week that her religious beliefs prevented her from reporting her husband – Lester Kester Jr, 48 – to the police for sexually abusing their daughters.
According to this report Lester Kester told detectives on July 11 that he had been consumed by a “bad guy” or a “demon” and admitted to various forms of sexual contact with all four of his daughters until they were approximately 10 to 12 years old.
Sarah Kester and her husband are affiliated with the deadly Followers of Christ Church, which has a prominent following in Canyon County and in Oregon. The cult is notorious for favouring faith healing over proper medical care for children and adults.
Lester Kester was charged with four felony counts of lewd conduct with a minor under 16. Sarah Kester was charged with one felony count of injury to a child on the suspicion that she did not report the abuse.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue confirmed the Kesters’ affiliation with the church. Donahue has denounced Idaho’s faith-healing exemption, which protects parents from charges when they decline medical care for their children on religious grounds.
Donahue said the “anonymity and seclusion” of the Followers of Christ in Canyon County undermines law enforcement’s ability to ensure public safety, especially of minors.
That is certainly a concern for law enforcement, for my detectives and myself personally.
Instead of contacting law enforcement, Sarah Kester told deputies she tried to protect her children by praying for “the demon” to leave Lester and keeping her husband busy with other tasks.
A former church member and vocal advocate against faith healing exemptions, Linda Martin, above, told the Idaho Press that Lester Kester is her second cousin. Martin said the church’s preference to handle matters internally can lead to sexual and physical abuse being pushed under the rug. That’s what happened in her own childhood.
Martin featured in this Guardian report about the cult in 2016. She said:
This doesn’t happen in every family. I don’t want to say all the people in that church were bad. They were very kind to me, they were very good to me. But it’s just their belief system allows a lot of abuse to happen, and they need to re-evaluate it and there needs to be change.
Canyon County sheriff’s detectives conducted follow-up interviews with the daughter who reported the abuse and another of the Kesters’ daughters.
During the interview, both daughters reported being sexually abused by their father on multiple occasions when they were younger and said the abuse continued until each of them was 12, according to the sheriff’s office.
They also told detectives that another one of their sisters said she, too, had been sexually abused by their father when she was younger.
The sisters told detectives that they confronted their mother about the abuse about three years ago, but nothing happened and no one contacted law enforcement.
Upon further investigation, detectives also believe Lester Kester Jr. abused a fourth daughter as recently as 2016. Detectives from the sheriff’s office, after multiple interviews with victims, said Kester sexually abused his four daughters on numerous occasions for about 16 years, starting in 2000.
Martin described the isolated atmosphere many in the Followers of Christ Church live in as:
A perfect storm for children to be abused. The followers kind of believe like Las Vegas. What happens in the families and what happens in the church stays in the church. You do not speak to outsiders about anything in the church or in your home as far as that goes.
Martin said the church’s adherence to faith-based healing in lieu of traditional care also makes the discovery of abuse by people outside the family unlikely.
All of this goes hand in hand. If you have a law that protects one kind of abuse, it is actually going to allow other types of abuse to follow.
Martin said this issue is the main reason she became an outspoken opponent of Idaho’s religious exemption for faith healing groups.
Martin told the Idaho Press that in addition to experiencing physical abuse, she experienced sexual abuse from relatives several times during her childhood and was told not to speak about it. She said she told a relative of the abuse, too, but says law enforcement were not contacted.
Lester Kester was arraigned on July 12, and his bond is set at $500,000. Sarah Kester’s bond is set at $25,000. Lester Kester has been assigned a public defender.