Last week authorities arrested church daycare teacher Alyson Saunders for child sexual abuse. Following her arrest, Fellowship Presbyterian Church claimed through media releases they have been transparent with families of the church. However, emails, text messages, and social media communication between church officials and parents indicate the church attempted to cover-up and minimize the abuse allegations to protect the reputation of their school.
The Department of Homeland Security and the State Bureau of Investigation North Carolina (SCBINC) arrested Saunders on April 5, 2019. Her arrest stemmed from a month-long investigation. She confessed to taking photos of toddlers and sending them to a child pornography ring in the United Kingdom.
Initially, the case focused on photos found by London police of five toddlers. A pedophile in London was found with the pictures. A forensic sweep of his electronics found that he had been in communication with Alyson Saunders. When London authorities made the connection, they contacted the Department of Homeland Security.
DHS made the first contact with Saunders in early March. She admitted to taking photos of children she cared for at daycare. Many of the images were taken when she changed their diapers. Her victims were only 2 and three years old. During the interview, she agreed to a full review of her electronic devices and social media.
By April 2019, DHS and SBINC determined her involvement in the pedophile ring went beyond photos. Investigators found videos and images of Saunders sexually abusing multiple children. Authorities charged her with eight felonies related to child sexual abuse and six offenses associated with child pornography.
Shortly after the news broke about Alyson Saunders’ arrest, a parent of a child reached out to Without A Crystal Ball. The parent “Sarah” told me that she had dozens of emails and messages from the church that concerned her.
As we sorted through the dozens of documents, a picture of a cover-up, lack of transparency, minimizing of the abuse, and the interference of a family member of Alyson to stifle questions and silence discussion with the broader community about the crimes was revealed.
According to Sarah, the entire ordeal started on March 8, 2019. Up until this point in time, Sarah’s child had been attending Fellowship Presbyterian’s day school during the 2018-2019 school year. She loved the teachers, and Sarah believed the staff and administrators adored her daughter.
Everything changed with a single email from the school on March 8. In an abrupt message, school director Melissa Mitchell notified parents about an “all parent meeting” at 5 pm.
After receiving the message, Sarah grew concerned about her daughter’s safety. She reached out to her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Debbie Clark, to make sure her daughter was safe. In a text exchange, Debbie assured her that the children were completely safe. Additionally, she told Sarah that she ‘legally’ could not provide her any details about the meeting.
Later that evening, Sarah and her husband attended the meeting. She described the meeting as extremely formal. Before the school said anything to parents, they introduced their lawyer Bob King who is a member of the church.
After the introduction, the staff explained that a daycare teacher Alyson Saunders was under investigation for sending photos of child sexual abuse to a pedophile ring in the United Kingdom.
According to the school, the allegations were brought to them by the Department of Homeland Security. DHS learned about the case after a man in London was arrested on charges of possession of child pornography. The London man had sexual abuse photos of five children from the day school.
According to the school, Alyson took the photos at the school. However, the staff insisted they have a “no phone” policy for teachers in the classrooms. Additionally, the school stated that there was no inappropriate touching of the children by Alyson.
Following the meeting, Sarah grew extremely concerned and believed that the church might be withholding information. She and her husband agreed to remove their daughter from the school after they learned about the abuse.
On Saturday, March 9th, School Director Melissa Mitchell emailed parents that the church planned to release information to the press. The church believed the media would find out and they wanted to get ahead of the story.
The attached press release outlined details about the case and said,
After receiving the email, Sarah felt as though the church was not being truthful. According to the church, the investigation started earlier in the week. She knew that the investigators were only in the beginning stages of understanding the full scope of Alyson’s crimes.
Despite the school saying they planned to release the memo to the press, nothing in the local media broke about Alyson’s involvement in a child pornography ring. Sarah watched for coverage on multiple outlets, but no one reported on the crime.
Realizing the church wasn’t planning to alert the wider public. Sarah decided to warn parents in a local Facebook Mom group. Without providing any details, she suggested former parents of the school reach out to the school to learn about a serious situation that happened.
After she posted to the group, she received a text message from Debbie Clark. Clark is the Assistant Director of the school and a relative of Alyson. However, Sarah did not know at the time that Clark was related to Alyson in any way.
In the text exchange, Debbie asked Sarah to remove the message on the board. Debbie insisted that the post would only cause undue stress to families. Additionally, Debbie told her that the post could tarnish the reputation of the school.
Debbie wrote, “Taking this information to a public platform is hurtful, interferes with an ongoing investigation, and is ruinous to the school and by extension the church.”
She continued by saying that the investigators told the church the crime occurred on a single day in January. Debbie said there was no reason to notify any former parents because investigators ASSURED the school that nothing happened before or after the day in January.
Sarah told Debbie that former parents needed to know about the situation. Because Alyson worked at the school for five years, Sarah feared there were more than five victims. Additionally, she requested the school alert all former parents that had children attend within the past five years.
Despite her pleas, Debbie declined to tell anyone about the allegations. She minimized the situation by telling Sarah that there were ONLY five victims and the charges ONLY related to pictures.
As Sarah continued to push back at Debbie’s flippant response, the assistant director dug her heels into her story. Debbie told Sarah that an extensive investigation had been going on for “quite a while.” Not happy with Debbie’s response, Sarah asked her if she would want to know about the allegation if she were a parent.
Debbie’s response was shocking, and she said, “Not necessarily. I believe in waiting for all the facts to be known, but again we are following the request from Homeland Security.”
She went on to say that the church believed DHS. Additionally, she stated that even if all the facts were not known that all the details would come to light eventually.
Feeling frustrated Sarah argued that the investigators would not know the full scope of the crimes because the investigation just started. Additionally, she said that by not informing former parents, other victims might never be revealed to authorities.
When Debbie failed to act on Sarah’s request, she reached out to Executive Director Melissa Mitchell a week later. In an email exchange, Sarah echoed her concerns to Melissa that former parents needed to be notified. She impressed the director that there is no way to know whether the crimes were limited to a single day and with five victims.
The director told her that the school did not believe Alyson harmed any former students. Melissa insisted that absolutely no touching occurred by Alyson. She said that there were ONLY photos of ONLY five victims.
Melissa’s most alarming message to Sarah was saying, “These are the facts.”
By Monday morning, the school continued its operation to minimize and downplay the allegations against Alyson. Debbie Clark wrote an email to parents to thank them for reaching out to her. In the email, she asked parents to keep the details of the investigation within the privacy of the school, our homes, and the church. She urged parents not to discuss the details publically.
At this time, Debbie did not disclose to parents that Alyson was her relative. She continued to minimize the allegations and downplay the seriousness of the crimes.
The same day the school sent parents notes from the meeting the previous Friday. In the letter, the school insisted that the scope of the investigation related to photos and that no physical abuse occurred.
Also, the school told parents that they have security measures that require two staff to be with children at all times. The church seemed floored the abuse could occur with their current security practices.
Reading the update, Sarah knew that the school wasn’t transparent about their security practices. She told me in an interview that the front door of the daycare remained unlocked during the day until a protocol change in December 2018.
Additionally, she said none of the classrooms had video cameras. Sarah shared that the ‘2-3’s’ classroom contained a lot of children. Due to the size, it would be impossible for two teachers to be with children at all times. In some classes, there were only two teachers.Over the next week, the school sent out multiple emails to parents. They let parents know that new parent volunteers would be assisting in Alyson’s former class. Melissa Mitchell assured parents that all teachers and volunteers would go through background checks.
Then on March 22, the school sent out another update to the parents about the investigation. The school had not received any new details from the authorities.
However, the administrators felt compelled to update the parents. In the memo, the school again said the allegations related ONLY to photos and that there were ONLY five victims. They assured parents that no physical abuse occurred.
The school said they reported the incidents to Child Protective Service, started a task force to review security measures and finally revealed that Debbie Clark was related to Alyson Saunders. In the update, the school said that Debbie was not communicating at all with investigators.
At the end of the update, the school asked for prayers for the day school but nothing about the victims. They also added that the school is a non-profit dedicated solely to helping families and children.
After reading the update from the school, Sarah felt frustrated. She told me that she reached out Agent Larry Cook to clarify a few of the statements. Sarah said that Agent Cook insisted that they never mentioned to the school that the investigation ONLY involved photos.
Additionally, she said the investigator told her that forensics on Alyson’s electronics had not been completed. The investigation at the time was still working to determine the entire scope of Alyson’s crimes.
Sarah asserts that Agent Cook said that he never told the school that the crimes only happened on a single day in January.
By the end of March, Sarah knew that the school was not being truthful with parents. Despite her daughter no longer attending the school, she continued to receive updates about the investigation.
Then on April 5, Melissa Mitchell sent an email to parents that the Department of Homeland Security had arrested Alyson. She said the school had no details about the arrest.
After the arrest, the story blew up in the local media. The Department of Homeland Security issued a press release about Alyson’s arrest. The press release detailed that the teacher sexually abused children, took photos, and sent pictures to an international source.
The press release also detailed that Alyson had been charged with 14 felonies. Of those felonies, eight of them related to the sexual abuse of a child. Only six of the charges related to possessing child sexual abuse photos. Two of the felonies related to crimes against nature which a local media outlet said involved a dog.
As the news dropped around North Carolina, the church’s attorney Bob King spoke to multiple outlets. Instead of offering apologies to parents or the community, King made an odd statement about the victims to WFMY.
King told the outlet that the four of the five victims still attended the day program. Also, he said that only five total families had left the school. King said that an administrator of the school is related to Alyson is shocked and sad just like everyone else. Despite the gravity of the news, he insisted the school was running as usual.
Naturally, the media storm about Alyson’s crimes created a lot of hysteria at the school. Because the school withheld information from former parents and minimized the allegations to current parents, many parents were shell-shocked by the details of Alyson’s crimes.
Sarah reached out to Melissa Mitchell to share her concerns about Bob King’s statements. She believed that King’s report that the victims remained enrolled at the school was a direct threat to their safety. Sarah told Melissa that pedophiles that had the pictures of the kids would now know exactly where to find them.
For hours, Sarah waited for a response from the school. However, Melissa Mitchell never replied. Instead an hour later, Debbie Clark removed Sarah from the school’s email list for updates on the case.
Since her message on April 6 to the school, Sarah has not heard anything from the school regarding her concerns. On Monday, Sarah received an email from the director Melissa Mitchell about the updated charges.
In the email, Melissa Mitchell expressed her frustration about the investigation. Instead of taking ownership that administrators misled parents about the case, she blamed investigators for not being truthful.
“As you know, we at the School and Church reported at the March 8 parents’ meeting and also in our first memo that, to the best of our knowledge, the allegations against Alyson Saunders related only to the taking of photographs fo the five students.
That information came entirely from what we were told by the investigators at the time. Prior to Alyson Saunders’ arrest on Friday, the investigators had been the sole source of information about what the allegations are, with the exception of details one parent provided to everyone at the March 8 parents’ meeting.
..the media reported charges that go beyond what the investigators told us. We are frustrated and confused by this because everyone has questions and we have been trying to get what information we have to everyone. We have been relying on investigators to give us information and now we are hearing things that are different than what we were told.”
Melissa Mitchell seemed shocked that the allegations now involved abuse. However, the church never truly knew that touching and sexual assault wasn’t involved. They only knew about the images first discovered by investigators in London. When the investigators spoke to the school, a forensic evaluation on Alyson’s electronics was still on-going.
Instead of telling parents that the forensics were continuing, they assured parents numerous times that no touching occurred. Even when they had no new information to provide, they wrote to parents on March 22 that it was their “belief” that no touching occurred and there weren’t other victims.
When the media broke the story, the school was caught in a lie. Instead of owning up to their lie, they blamed investigators.
Following the email, the school issued another memo on the events. With Sarah no longer receiving any updates, another parent reached out to me to provide me the notice. The note from the school continued to downplay their involvement in attempting to minimize the abuse. Additionally, the memo states that the school reviewed a copy of the arrest warrant.
In the update, the school admits the crimes occurred between the beginning of January until the end of February. Their assertion that the crime happened on a single day back in March was now a lie. Additionally, the school said that the media’s coverage of a dog being involved in the crimes was not entirely truthful. The memo said that a dog was involved, but no children were in the photos with the dog.
The school reiterated that ONLY five children were victimized at the school. However, they finally admitted the investigation is on-going and details could change. Also, investigators told the school that Federal charges might be added against Alyson.
Thus far this memo has not been released to the public. This memo is exclusive to Without A Crystal Ball:
With so much evidence suggesting the school lied and attempted to prevent the information from reaching the public, their new statements are trying to back peddle on their interference. Additionally, the school made no mention that Debbie Clark continued to maintain communication with the parents.
What I found most disconcerting in this entire investigation is that the school consistently referenced the photos by saying “ONLY photos.” Additionally, they always said “Only five victims.”
Child sexual abuse photos are not ONLY photos. These are images of abuse. Every single time a person looks at those photos, the child is abused over and over. Also, five victims aren’t anything to minimize. There are now five families struggling to pick up the pieces and find the truth.
The church insists they exist to protect the children. However, over the past month, the school has done nothing to protect the kids. Instead, they lied to parents about the investigation and attempted to minimize the damage to their school’s bottom line and reputation.
If the school truly wants to be transparent, they need to own up publically that they allowed Debbie Clark to influence parents to stay quiet. The school needs to admit they were never assured that the crimes ONLY related to photos. They need to stop playing the victim and realize the TRUE victims are the children.
For five years, the school’s lax security measures enabled a predator to exploit children. When authorities told them about the investigation, they refused to fire Alyson. Instead, they wanted to “wait for all the facts.”
Fellowship Presbyterian Church failed the students and parents. Our hope in releasing all of this information is so that all parents that still have children there know the full story.
The church allowed Alyson’s relative to influence parents not to communicate with the public. Also, the church minimized the abuse of the children and consistently told parents that investigators told them there was no touching.
However, the truth is that the church had no idea if there was touching or if crimes occurred on only one day. When a parent attempted to raise these issues with the church, they downplayed the seriousness of the crimes. Eventually, the school removed the concerned parent from email distributions even though her daughter was a student when the crimes occurred.
None of these behaviors are done by the church to help families or victims. No, these steps were taken to manage the damage of the scandal and attempt to prevent parents from leaving the school. When parents don’t have all the details, they can be easily influenced to remain at an unsafe institution.
Perhaps the truth will also help the community realize that the ‘beloved church’ isn’t so beloved after all.
If you are a parent and want to share your story, please reach out to me on Facebook.
Watch Kyle Curtis, and I Break down the Story on “The Smoking Nun”
*Katie Joy is a columnist and hosts Without A Crystal Ball on Patheos Non-Religious Channel. She writes articles on parenting, disability advocacy, debunking pseudoscience, atheism, and crimes against women and children.
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