Warning: This story contains references to sexual assault.
A former victim’s advocate who was hired to support the The Meeting House congregation says she feels the Ontario megachurch’s current leaders don’t have the “same commitment” to survivors as it once did, two years after its primary teaching pastor was charged with sexual assault.
Melodie Bissell started working with the church as an independent contractor in March 2022, after allegations about Bruxy Cavey came forward. Cavey was charged by Hamilton police in June 2022.
Bissell, who is no longer working with the church, said she’s worried recent changes to the internal complaint process means those who want or need to come forward are less likely to do so.
Her comments were made after CBC Hamilton reported Cavey was facing two more sexual assault charges in late December 2023.
None of the charges have been tested in court. Cavey’s lawyer has said he maintains his innocence and will vigorously defend the charges in court.
The Meeting House is based in Oakville, Ont., with locations and streamed sermons throughout the province.
Church changed 1st point of contact
Bissell said that in 2022, there was initially a “very strong commitment to working alongside the victims.”
At least 38 complaints about sexual misconduct against a group of four former pastors, including Cavey, came to Bissell while she was working with the church, between March 2022 and March 2023.
But she told CBC Hamilton she resigned after seeing how new leadership in the church had “different priorities.”
For instance, they decided Bissell shouldn’t be the first point of contact for survivors, she said. Instead, that person would end up being someone connected to the church’s denomination — Be In Christ Church of Canada — and would refer complaints to Bissell as they saw fit.
“I raised the concern that I felt it wasn’t independent and they were vetting the referrals,” Bissell told CBC Hamilton.
No complaints received since April 2023: church
The Meeting House declined an interview with CBC Hamilton, and interim senior director Matt Miles said in an email the church has “no additional information about the recent charges or criminal proceedings related to Bruxy Cavey, are not involved in the matter and are not in a position to provide any comment.”
Miles pointed to the church’s website for information about people needing support.
The church’s website no longer features a victim advocacy page, as Bissell said it once had, but it does have a page for people to report sexual misconduct.
It states the church is committed to ensuring congregations are safe and healthy communities without harassment or abuse.
“We are committed to the prevention of sexual misconduct through regular training and appropriate measures of accountability for all staff, leaders and volunteers,” the site reads, adding its policy on sexual misconduct and harassment has a prevention and response framework.
“Complaints of sexual misconduct will be treated with integrity fairness, and concern for the well-being of the complainants and those accused.”
The page directs people to submit complaints and get in touch with Linda Lambert, described as the “independent complaint intake partner.”
Lambert is listed as a pastoral counsellor at the Be In Christ Church in Wainfleet, Ont. When CBC reached Lambert, she declined to comment.
Be In Christ executive director Charles Mashinter previously told CBC Hamilton it takes “matters of clergy sexual misconduct very seriously” and has “no tolerance for pastoral sexual misconduct.”
Miles said the church hasn’t received any referrals or submissions since switching from having a victim’s advocate to the complaint intake partner in April 2023.
In 2022, the church said it “substantiated” three allegations against Cavey and reported at least one allegation, involving a minor, to police.
At the time, Hamilton police said its investigation into Cavey concluded and Halton police wouldn’t comment on it if there was an investigation into the allegations. Cavey’s lawyer told CBC Hamilton the new charges laid in December were unrelated to his first charge.
Bissell said while there were fewer complaints compared to when she started, she was receiving complaints up until the end of her time in the victim’s advocate role.
Canada needs national reporting agency: advocate
Irene Deschênes, president of Outrage Canada, which describes itself as a “a national non-religious” advocacy group seeking to hold churches accountable for sexual abuse by the clergy, said all churches should offer counselling to survivors.
Deschênes, who survived sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest in her childhood, noted her group is pushing for a national, independent reporting agency to track and investigate allegations related to churches while also supporting survivors.
“We’re not saying people should go to the very institution that harmed them because, potentially, they’ll be re-victimized,” she told CBC Hamilton.
Deschênes, speaking in general terms, said if a church handpicks a victim’s advocate, people are right to question if the advocate is acting in a survivor’s best interest.
“I think a lot of people in that [victim’s advocate] position are and want to be [acting in their best interest] in the beginning … but my experience is in working with different religious institutions, inevitably, that’s not what happens.”
Bissell said she hopes patrons of The Meeting House will have their voices heard and said all churches should have strong whistleblower policies in place.
“We need to expose sexual harassment, clergy misconduct and abuse.”
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.