EXCLUSIVE: The Pedophile in the Pulpit: How a Respected Pastor Abused Hundreds of Children for 40 Years, and No One Knew
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SOMERSET, Pa. – John and Clara Hinton arrived in Somerset, Pennsylvania in 1972. Just two years into their marriage and with a young daughter, the young couple was eager to start their ministry at the Somerset Church of Christ, a small congregation in the rural community.
John had completed a Bible degree at Oklahoma Christian University and served as a youth pastor when he stepped into the pulpit.
"We were kids when we moved to Somerset, Pennsylvania. We were 22 years old," said Clara. For her, years of dreams were coming together. "I had prayed from a young child up for a Christian husband. That's all I ever wanted was a Christian husband and I wanted to be a Christian wife and mother."
'I wish my husband was like yours': The Respected Dad
The two would go on to have eleven children and Clara considered John to be a model husband and father. She described him as soft-spoken and thoughtful, fixing her breakfast every morning.
"He was my spiritual leader. We would spend many hours talking about God and our faith and our service within the church," she said.
He was also engaged with their children, never missing a game or a concert. "He played with them. He hung out with them. He was that person," said Clara. "In fact, women in the church would often tell me 'I wish my husband was like yours.'"
Their fifth son Jimmy adored his father. "He just always treated us well and always taught us how to respect other people, how to respect older people. And I just have really good memories," said Jimmy.
His dad, said Jimmy, was also "go big or go home." That meant surprising the family with an above-ground swimming pool one year and buying three-wheelers for his sons another time.
"He was always outside playing with us. He never just ignored us and pushed us off," said Jimmy.
As he grew older, Jimmy began to also appreciate his father's ministry and dreamed of following him in the pulpit. "I remember sitting in the pews here and hearing him preach and hearing the passion behind it," said Jimmy. "He just knew his Bible really well. And I just remember thinking 'I want to be standing up there one day. I want to be – I want to be making a difference in the world one day.'"
The Double Life
Both dreams would come true. But not in the way that Jimmy had hoped. Even as he and his mother perceived an ideal family life, John Hinton kept his double life hidden.
Both Clara and Jimmy told CBN News that they never suspected that John was abusing kids.
"None of us ever suspected that he was abusing anybody in any capacity – let alone the worst kind of abuse you could imagine," said Jimmy.
But Clara did notice his oddball behavior. "He would just do off-the-wall things. For instance, he would be preaching and do really weird things. He threw a lit firecracker in the auditorium one morning," she remembered. During another service he reached down and picked up a Halloween mask and screamed, scaring the congregation.
One day one of his daughters found him locked in his office looking at pornography.
Clara later confronted him. "When I asked him what in the world that was about he said 'oh I was just researching for sermons.' He said 'I'm going to do a series of sermons on porn.' And he said 'how can you teach on porn if you don't know what it's about?' He said 'I was preparing sermon topics.' And I believed him."
The master pedophile seemed to always have an answer for anyone who questioned any strange behavior.
But one of his victims was growing up and at age 20, she realized that not only had John Hinton abused her, he was still preying on other kids.
Revealing the Abuser
The victim who would turn the tables on John Hinton was actually his youngest daughter Alex. She started having flashbacks, remembering her abuse. "I saw this picture of my dad touching me in an inappropriate way but it was one of those things that I would try to play it off like 'oh he wouldn't actually do that to me. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe I'm not remembering something correctly.' You know, I just kept trying to brush it off," she explained.
But when he asked her to help him babysit four little girls, something felt wrong. The two times she assisted him she remembers getting an angry and nervous feeling and becoming hyper-vigilant, concerned about the girls' safety. At the time, John Hinton was living on his own, his marriage with Clara having recently fallen apart.
One conversation, in particular, jumped out at her. "One of the kids had said that she loved spending the night at his house and she had asked him that day 'are we going to spend the night at your house tonight Mr. John and can we sleep in your bed?'"
At that moment Alex knew. "I just thought there's no reason that this older man should have little kids spending the night at his house and sleeping in his bed."
She remembers that he brushed off the conversation and changed the subject, telling the girl they would talk about it later.
Alex then began to research online, wanting to find out if there was anything that would confirm her suspicions. As she looked up the signs of a child sex offender the pieces began to fall into place. She realized that the attention he gave to younger children – buying them snacks and keeping secrets – was all a part of the process that experts often call "grooming." So was his habit of coming alongside families where parents need a break.
Alex would also find out that she fit many descriptions of child abuse victims. "I thought I was this super babyish kid who was super dependent on my mom until I was like 10 years old – afraid to go to bed and having severe separation anxiety from her and all this stuff,--like no. It all started to make sense," she explained.
"A Million Light Bulbs Went Off"
In the weeks that followed, Alex wrestled with a monumental decision: whether or not to go forward with her explosive discovery. She knew that if she shared her secret, everything would change. After making her choice, she went first to her mom who immediately believed her. To Clara, decades of odd behavior suddenly made sense.
"At that moment it was like a million light bulbs went off," said Clara, finally understanding that some of her husband's quirks had become cover-ups for criminal behavior.
It became clear that Alex must tell Jimmy, who had taken the pulpit at Church of Christ two years earlier after his father left for another church in the area. Although terrified, Alex believes she could trust her brother, remembering that for years he had repaired her car and invited her over for meals.
"I just knew he wouldn't blow it off and do nothing," said Alex.
"It was like it just takes the breath away from you," Jimmy said of the life-changing moment, "I looked up and she was crying and I started to cry. And I said 'I honestly don't know what this looks like.'"
Years of "Weird Memories" Suddenly Make Sense
Like his mom, Jimmy suddenly recalled years of weird memories and instantly believed his sister. "She had no reason to make that up. There was absolutely nothing to gain by making it up," he said.
Perhaps most powerfully, Jimmy recalls telling his sister that he believed her. "I really think it was the Holy Spirit putting it on my lips in that moment because I really think she needed to hear that," he said.
That very weekend, Jimmy had to officiate a church wedding with his father present. He found it excruciating to keep the new secret. But the next step came much easier.
How do you Report Your Husband/Father?
Both Jimmy and Clara realized that they must report John Hinton to the authorities, although they knew the consequences could be devastating.
"I had to know the truth," said Jimmy. "Reporting it and having it investigated by professionals was the only way we were going to find out the truth."
Although Clara and John had separated, she wasn't sure what life would look like with him behind bars. "It's like – 'how will I live? How will I take care of the children? How can financially – how will we keep our home? Where will we go?'" she remembers thinking.
Authorities found more than enough to convict John Hinton. Somerset Police charged him with 200 counts including rape of a child, indecent assault of a child, designing obscene materials and possession of child pornography. In June of 2012, Somerset County Judge John Cascio sentenced the 62-year-old to a minimum of 30 years in state prison.
After the Arrest
After his dad's arrest, Jimmy Hinton was shocked to see how many people responded with compassion. In retrospect, he says, it makes sense given the powerful role that he had occupied in their lives. Hinton had led many in his congregation to Christ, as well as baptizing them and marrying them.
Jimmy remembers the conversations. "When he got arrested they would ask me 'how's your dad doing?'" he said. "At first I would answer it. And I would be polite but then after a while, I just thought – 'not one person has asked how my dad's victims are doing.' And so I started to answer people. I'd say 'well he's doing fine. It's his victims who aren't doing well.'"
Clara had hoped for personal support and felt crushed when it didn't come. "You think people are going to run up to you and hug you and embrace you and say 'let me pray with you. How can I help you?' And that didn't happen. So, it's been a lonely road," she said.
Alex has traveled a road that's not uncommon for abuse victims of spiritual leaders. She stopped attending church and has no desire to go back. "I don't like the idea of God as a fatherly thing," she said. "If that's who He is He wasn't there for me. If my dad was supposed to be someone who was spreading His word – that's not the case at all," she said.
Jimmy says he struggles to realize that his dad played them all, keeping his heinous acts a secret. "It's a really humbling thing to say 'I didn't have a clue,'" said Jimmy, "and so my question was 'how did we miss it?"
Today, Jimmy and Clara are committed to helping others not miss such abuse.
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