91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

More sexual assault survivors connected to Michigan-based religious groups surface

 Couple sits side by side at a wooden table.
Courtesy photo
Sonya and Christian Cherniawski reported their daughter's abuser to police. They've since filed a civil lawsuit in Ingham County against the religious group they used to be a part of.

Hannah Smith was a young teenager growing up in Ypsilanti when she said she was sexually assaulted by a man she grew up calling her uncle. Ed Conlin was revered in the ecumenical communities in Michigan and around the world in which he was a part.

He’s one of about 60 men committed to The Servants of the Word — “living single for the Lord,” as they put it. They live communally, sharing money and possessions. Their home base is near Chelsea, Michigan but the group has houses all over the world, including in Detroit.

Over many years, Smith and her family regularly attended gatherings at the Detroit house for community meals and prayers. She said in one instance she was about 13 years old when Conlin asked her to help him with something in the home’s basement and then raped her, as members, including her parents, ate upstairs. Conlin was in his mid-50s at the time. Smith said he told her the assault was “a special thing,” meant for “just” the two of them.

“The only thing worse than being raped at 13 is being raped and finding out it could have been prevented,” Smith, now in her mid-20s, said during a press conference outlining a handful of civil lawsuits against The Servants of the Word and its umbrella organization, The Sword of the Spirit.

The group had knowledge of Conlin abusing other children before Smith was even born.

In the late 1990s, Aisling Kennedy reported Conlin to leaders of the youth group in Northern Ireland where they met: a youth group that Conlin and another brother, Jamie Treadwell, created.

Another survivor, Michelle Madine, claims Conlin abused her in the Belfast youth group too.

“Conlin gained the trust of Madine and Kennedy, engaging in acts of touching, kissing, groping, fondling of private areas, grinding until ejaculation, and digital vaginal penetration,” a press release about the civil lawsuits detailed.

In a letter to members in February 2020, then presiding elder David Quintana wrote that Conlin was allowed to move to Detroit in 2005, following about three years of “discipline and recovery that included psychological and spiritual counseling, along with menial practical service.”

Quintana wrote that Conlin was remorseful and the group decided that he would no longer be assigned to work with young people. The letter outlines how the group “took insufficient concern” for Conlin’s victims in Ireland, “failed in communicating robustly and clearly enough the details” of the abuse and to oversee his work in Detroit.

“For our failure as leaders to properly communicate with you or oversee the life and service of our brother, we sincerely ask you to forgive us,” Quintana wrote.

An update on the group’s website says Quintana resigned earlier this month. Conlin was terminated from the brotherhood last month.

Within these religious communities, all the celibate men in the brotherhood were well regarded, even treated like local celebrities. Hannah Smith, now in her mid-20s and a nurse at Michigan Medicine, said growing up in Ann Arbor’s Word of Life community fostered an insular environment where the brothers were trusted and protected.

“I can speak firsthand and say, although the idea was to have a safe, family-centered, supportive community, the reality is that this group is much more like a cult,” Smith said.

“The result of having these men as leaders becomes very toxic and harmful,” she added. “Family and group systems with emotionally unavailable fathers and husbands, and women and children who are supposed to submit to men without question at any time.”

Smith said she left the community in high school. Her family has still been active in the community, she said.

Smith and other survivors, and parents of survivors on the call, lamented that the group did not report Conlin to police, instead moving him back to the United States and allowing him to have access to children as part of his work.

The Servants of the Word did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story. In previous statements, the group wrote that they “deeply regret the distress” caused by another man in the brotherhood, Jamie Treadwell. He left the group shortly before aMichigan Radio investigation was published in January 2020.

In 2016, two Michigan families reported Treadwell to police for sexually assaulting their children. But no charges were filed against Treadwell until May 2020, after yet another teenager disclosed he abused her at a school in Grand Rapids where she was a student.

Sonya and Christian Cherniawski, who reported Treadwell to police for abusing their then 5-year-old daughter, have also left their Lansing-based community affiliated with Sword of The Spirit. They have a pending civil lawsuit in Ingham County.

The Cherniawskis previously shared their story as an anonymous Lansing family in Michigan Radio’s investigation. The family said they decided to come forward with their names to try to push for an independent investigation.

“We implore the leaders of The Sword of The Spirit and The Servants of the Word to address their culpability honestly and ensure justice is served for all victims of their negligence,” Christian Cherniawski said.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
Related Content