Ruthy Heiler said her teacher raped her at a school run by the Independent Fundamental Baptist sect.
A new documentary describes sexual abuse and cover-ups within the various parishes.
Heiler has founded a nonprofit to support other survivors, the Blind Eye Movement.
When her school held a spirit day where the kids could ditch their uniforms for their choice of clothes, Ruthy Heiler was taken aside by the principal's wife, she told Business Insider.
"Your sweater is too tight," the woman said to the then 15-year-old girl. "It's of the devil."
She was forced to change into an outfit from the lost and found, she said, and the sweater was taken away to be burned. She said that the school in Gaylord, Michigan, was run by Grace Baptist Church, part of the controversial Independent Fundamental Baptist movement.
The movement has come under scrutiny in recent years because the leaders of some member churches across the US have been convicted of child sex abuse. It has led to allegations of violence, manipulation, and cover-ups.
Heiler, 33, said she was targeted after testifying against Aaron Willand, her former Bible teacher and volleyball coach, who was convicted of raping her when she was a teenager.
"As far as the church was concerned, I was the guilty party," she told BI.
Heiler's story is featured in "Let Us Prey: A Ministry of Scandals," a new documentary series by Investigation Discovery, streaming on Max. It includes interviews with other former members of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement who claim to have been sexually abused as children in assorted parishes.
Many have been supported by Heiler's nonprofit, the Blind Eye Movement, which advocates for survivors of child sexual abuse within a religious setting.
Heiler said she was called 'impure' after testifying against her abuser
Heiler said that she was molested — and later raped — by Willand between the ages of 12 and 14. She said she looked up to him because he taught bible studies and had taken her single mom "under his wing."
"He and his wife were always inviting us to things like barbecues," she told BI. But, she added, Willand began to molest her when she was babysitting his kids.
Heiler said that she was confused because there was no sex education at her school. As far as she knew at the time, she said, men and women were anatomically the same. She added that when she got her first period, she thought she was dying.
"I didn't tell anyone what was happening because, at that stage, I didn't even know it was wrong," she told BI of the abuse. "I didn't think it was something I should speak up about."
Heiler said that she was branded "impure" after Willand was sentenced to five years for offenses including four counts of sex with a minor in 2006.
"I wasn't considered 'top tier' because of my abuse and no longer being a virgin," she told BI.
Heiler told BI that she suffered many prejudices, including being told it was "inappropriate" to lick a lollipop and having to stand up in church and apologize for talking to a boy without a chaperone.
She also said that her future first husband — also a member of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement — was warned off.
"The pastor told him that if he wanted anything to do with God, he wouldn't marry me," she added.
Heiler was devastated when she heard that her abuser had been released from jail more than 2 years early
As a teenager, Heiler had a reprieve from the abuse when Willand and his family were transferred by the church from Michigan to Washington.
But two years later, her mom, Cheryl Gamble, decided, at Willand's request, that she could stay at his family home and help with childcare over the summer. Speaking in "Let Us Prey," Gamble — who said she was unaware of the abuse at the time — said, "I invited the wolf with my little lambs."
Heiler told BI that she tried to cope by disassociating herself from the horrors of being raped.
"I remember looking at a painting on the wall," she said. "I'd just imagine myself in the picture and not being there."
She later found the courage to tell her mom about the abuse a few weeks after she returned home. Gamble reported Willand to Jon Jenkins, the pastor of Grace Baptist Church. "He did nothing," Heiler, who added that he was legally obliged to report allegations of abuse, said. [Editor's note: Business Insider reached out to Jenkins several times but didn't hear back.]
In a statement to the producers of "Let Us Prey," Jenkins said he spoke with the police at the time. However, law-enforcement authorities in Michigan told filmmakers that there was no record of a conversation.
Heiler, with encouragement from her mom, was determined to give a statement to the police, however painful it was.
Willand was locked up in 2006 after pleading guilty to the charges filed against him in Washington. He was sentenced to five years in prison. He was not charged with the earlier abuse in Michigan. He served two years and 10 months of his sentence before being released on the grounds of good behavior.
Still, Heiler was devastated when she learned that Willand had been freed from the penal institution early.
"I felt like the justice system failed me — and other potential victims," she said to BI.
Then in 2018, Sarah Smith, an investigative reporter for Texas' Fort Worth Star-Telegram, published articles about sex-abuse allegations within the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement. She uncovered 412 allegations of abuse across almost 200 of its churches and institutions in the US. The journalist interviewed a string of accusers, including Heiler.
Larissa Newman, another of Willand's victims in Michigan, came forward after reading the media coverage.
The outrage motivated Heiler to press charges against Willand — who still worked with kids after he got out of prison — for his crimes against both her and Newman in Michigan in the early 2000s. He admitted their abuse and was sentenced in 2022 to between 10 and 40 years in prison, depending on his eligibility for parole.
The nonprofit Blind Eye Movement is helping other accusers from the church
"I'm relieved that other women and girls are safe from him now," Heiler, who has two children, ages 5 and 8, told BI.
Heiler added that she wouldn't allow Willand's actions to "destroy" her. She founded the Blind Eye Movement. It offers peer support and advocates for full investigation by legal authorities whenever allegations are made within a religious environment.
Heiler said the group is a lifeline.
"The other survivors know 100% what you've been through," she said, adding: "When you haven't been believed for so long, and these pastors spread lies about you, it's a different level of healing to find a community of women like you."
She added that, like her fellow survivors, she was "not scared of the IFB anymore" or being blamed for the "despicable" behavior of the perpetrators.
"A lot of time passed when I was silent," she said. "But now I can tell my story in my own words."
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