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SMITH | A Christian minister teaches churches to guard against pedophiles -- like his father

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A Christian minister teaches churches to guard against pedophiles — like his father John Hinton, an evangelical Christian minister, was convicted of sexually molesting girls over years. His son, Jimmy, who inherited the pulpit, teaches churches to root ou A Christian minister teaches churches to guard against pedophiles — like his father John Hinton, an evangelical Christian minister, was convicted of sexually molesting girls over years. His son, Jimmy, who inherited the pulpit, teaches churches to root ou
Minister Jimmy Hinton, holding 17-month-old son Cameron, says goodbye to congregation members following Sunday services at the Somerset Church of Christ. Minister Jimmy Hinton, holding 17-month-old son Cameron, says goodbye to congregation members following Sunday services at the Somerset Church of Christ.

By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In his growing work of consulting with churches on matters of sexual abuse, Jimmy Hinton says he hears a common refrain.

If a devoted member of a congregation is accused, members will give all kinds of reasons “it just can't be him,” he says.

The accused is so kind and nice. He's a family man. He never cusses.

“At the end of that,” Mr. Hinton says, he tells them: “You just described in great detail my father.”

The father, John Wayne Hinton, whom he watched with admiration as he preached the gospel from the pulpit of Somerset Church of Christ, a small evangelical congregation in Pennsylvania where the elder Hinton was minister for 27 years until 2001.

The father who inspired Jimmy Hinton to go into ministry himself, assuming his father's old pulpit in 2009.

Then in July 2011, a woman confided to Jimmy Hinton that his father had molested her when she was a girl.

By the end of the conversation, Jimmy Hinton was convinced she was telling the truth.

“I'm not saying I wanted to believe that about my dad,” he said. “Doing the right thing isn't doing what we want to believe. It's about doing the right thing.”

The right thing amounted to alerting police about the allegation. After a widening investigation, John Hinton was arrested on 200 counts — one charge of rape and dozens each involving indecent assault on children and the possession and creation of child pornography — including numerous nude, explicit photos he had taken of girls as young as 4.

John Hinton, now 65, ultimately pleaded guilty to three counts of aggravated indecent assault in 2012 in the Court of Common Pleas in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. He is serving a sentence of 30 to 60 years at State Correctional Institution Rockview in Bellefonte, Centre County.

Jimmy Hinton will be telling his story — and how churches can prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse — at Crossroads Church of Christ, 236 Thomas Road in McMurray at 2:30 p.m. next Sunday. More information is at crossroadscoc.org/safekids. He'll also be speaking at North Hills Church of Christ, 797 Thompson Run Road, at 6:30 p.m. April 19.

The talk is part of a wider work Mr. Hinton has begun since his father's arrest. He founded a nonprofit consulting group, Church Protect, and speaks to congregations around the country on the issue.

So far, his audiences have been in the Churches of Christ — the network of self-governing, evangelical congregations that his church is a part of.

“But I don't limit myself. I'll speak to anybody,” said Mr. Hinton, 35, who with his wife, Natalie, have two children. His story was first told last year in the Christian Chronicle, a newspaper of the Churches of Christ.

“I've never seen anybody who took action like Jimmy did,” said Somerset Borough Police Detective Ruth Beckner, who investigated the elder Hinton's crimes. “He just wants to make everybody aware.”

Detective Beckner received a visit from Jimmy Hinton and his mother on Aug. 1, 2011, in which they reported the initial allegation against John Hinton. Jimmy Hinton said his father soon confirmed the allegation to him indirectly by saying he was under police investigation — but didn't know yet who had reported him — and was likely bound for prison.

“More victims started coming forward, and I started fielding phone calls, many of them disclosing what my dad had done to them in very graphic details,” Jimmy Hinton recalled. “They were looking for validation that somebody was listening and somebody believed them. The amount of emotion was incredible. The only thing I did know was that my family would never be the same.”

Jimmy Hinton said he didn't know how members of the congregation, many of whom became Christians under his father's ministry, would react. But he has found only warm support, then and since.

Elton Blenden, an elder at Somerset Church of Christ, said he visited Jimmy and Natalie Hinton after getting the news.

“I went in hugged them and said, ‘This is going to be a trying time. I just wanted to step forward and say I support you,' ” Mr. Blenden recalled.

Mr. Blenden said while he visited John Hinton in jail, he wasn't shocked by the betrayal.

“If you even look at the Scripture, it tells you to beware of wolves in sheep's clothing,” he said.

Elder Bob Martin said the church, which typically draws a few dozen on a Sunday, grew stronger through “the simple fact that we rallied together.”

The curse of hindsight

Jimmy Hinton said he's still haunted by a basic question: Before the first victim came forward, “How did we not see this?”

He came to learn that pedophiles can be highly sophisticated in gaining the trust of children — and their parents.

He looked back on things that, in hindsight, “didn't seem right.”

“I could start to see how he had manipulated people into gaining access to children,” he said.

Jimmy Hinton said he's not sure why he himself was not abused. To protect victims' confidentiality, he hasn't said where his father encountered his victims. Much of the investigation indicated that John Hinton preyed on young female victims. The Somerset church — which was not the only congregation where John Hinton was involved — has never faced a lawsuit.

"The children were put in your trust and put in your care through your befriending the families at church,” the sentencing judge, John M. Cascio of the Court of Common Pleas of Somerset County, told John Hinton, according to the Daily American. “You violated that trust in the most severe way."

It wasn't the first violation of trust. John Hinton was convicted in U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania in 2002 for mail fraud, one of several convicted over an investment scam that cost elderly persons millions.

He was sentenced to a day in prison and ordered to pay restitution, although attorneys on both sides acknowledged he lacked the means to fully repay victims..

Jimmy Hinton said his family supported his father at the time, but in hindsight, he sees the case as part of a pattern of manipulation.

Jimmy Hinton is still in contact with his father, who, he said, sent him a letter thanking him for turning him in and stopping his assaults on children. Jimmy's mother, Clara, also helps her son in his training efforts.

Awareness of sexual predators in churches erupted into public view 30 years ago with cases of abuse and cover-up involving Roman Catholic priests in multiple countries.

Similar patterns were later revealed in numerous Protestant, Jewish and other religious groups.

But Jimmy Hinton said many churches still naively think it can't happen to them, or that they could control an offender in their midst.

He said every church is vulnerable. When they proclaim, “Everybody welcome,” predators will take advantage of that.

Congregations, he said, should check out a person's criminal record for themselves, not trusting the perpetrator's version of events. Even churches that know of a person's past and believe they can monitor him would be shocked at how a predator can groom and even abuse victims in plain sight, he said.

Mr. Hinton said some convicted pedophiles, no longer incarcerated, have tried to get involved in his church, appealing to its sense of forgiveness and reacting angrily when told the only fellowship he would offer is a separate gathering time for adult men only.

A survivor of abuse is often re-traumatized in the presence of a perpetrator, and not just their own, he said. “If you truly are remorseful, you're not going to put me in that position” of having to bar them from being at church when children are around, he said.

The ordeal has not alienated the younger Hinton from his religious vocation.

“In a strange way, it's really helped to increase my faith,” he said. “When you look at Scripture, it's from cover to cover — God hates oppression and God calls his people to stand up and oppose it. It's not that God is passively sitting by, watching innocent children being abused and doesn't care. God is angry. God is weeping with us. God is calling people to stand up and oppose it.”

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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