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I-Team: 2 Women Claim Church Member Sexually Abused Them As Teenagers

MANSFIELD (CBSDFW.COM) - Allegations of sexual abuse two women say were kept hidden for more than a decade are now being investigated by the Mansfield Police Department.

Amanda Hodson and Marybeth Arnold filed a police report in March, alleging they were molested as teenagers by an older church member of the Heritage Baptist Church in Mansfield, which they attended with their families.

2 women claim sexual abuse
Amanda Hodson (L) and Marybeth Arnold (R). (credit: CBS 11 News)

"I'm terrified to be here, but it's important," said Amanda, standing in front of the church, during her first visit in years.

Hodson and Arnold stopped at the church to get a picture of themselves holding signs reading "#MeToo" and "#TimesUp" -- hashtags used in the recent social media movement against sexual harassment and assault.

Then, armed with diaries and pictures, they drove together to the Mansfield Police Department, where for the first time in 15 years they felt confident someone would listen.

That's because the man they say abused them, Benjamin Cole, is now behind bars -- a convicted sex offender who pled guilty in Smith County this March to online solicitation a minor and child pornography charges.

"I was like, 'Oh my Gosh. Everybody's going to believe me. Finally'," said Amanda, recalling her reaction to spotting the news online.

She and Marybeth say they had long lost touch, but Amanda sent her email.

"She said, 'I know it happened to you. It happened to me too," said Marybeth.

It was the first time, Marybeth said, she realized she wasn't the only victim.

When the alleged abuse began Cole was 19. Marybeth was 13.

Their families would socialize together, and Marybeth said Cole would often be present at the same church activities as she and her friends.

"At church, he would ask me to meet him away from people in hidden places, and he would grope me. And, I thought I loved him, and I was scared, and I didn't know what to do," she remembers.

Marybeth says a friend's mother discovered a message Cole had sent her and turned it over to the church. She says church leaders responded by counseling her.

"They told me I was a pretty girl and that boys would like me and I needed to be more careful," she said.

The one instruction she clearly remembers church leaders giving her was to stay silent.

"To not talk about it. I remember them saying, 'Don't talk about it. We're taking care of it,'" she said.

But, Amanda says the church did nothing to prevent Cole from targeting her soon after.

She was 14 when she said Cole, then 20, started stalking her, sitting outside the fast food restaurant where she worked and following her home.

"He would make me come stand at the window to prove to him that I was inside my house," she said.

Amanda said he would find her at her sister's home and force her to engage in sex acts.

"He would make me touch him, and you feel so gross," she said, describing the abuse.

When she tried to refuse, she says, he'd threaten to kill her family -- once flashing a pocketknife and another time a gun.

"And, I remember that was the night I was like, I'm going to die," she said.

When she finally told her parents, she says, they turned to the church, too.

"I remember being told that this wouldn't have happened if I hadn't disobeyed my parents," she said. "They also told me to start changing what I was wearing."

Both women say they were left feeling at fault.

"Intense, intense shame. Like so much guilt. So much shame. I wanted to hurt myself," said Marybeth.

"I wanted to die every single day. Every time that I had to see him, I wanted to die," said Amanda.

Today, they believe there are more victims because of the failure to report their abuse to police.

"People knew, and adults knew, and the church knew, and it was covered up," said Marybeth.

Repeated phone calls to the church, emails to church leaders, and a message submitted on the church's website received no response.

When a CBS11 crew encountered church elder, Larry Vincent, at home, though, he said the church did report cases involving Cole to law enforcement, also specifically referencing one that was presented to a Tarrant County grand jury.

Court records confirm Cole was charged in 2003 for sexual assault of a child.

The report from the grand jury -- the sole public record of the proceedings -- revealed only that it returned a no-bill, declining to indict him, with no indication of why.

Marybeth's parents say as church members they were never aware of the case or a condition of Cole's bond at the time barring him from "unsupervised contact with any child under 17 years of age."

"We could have been warned of the danger that existed," said Eddie Arnold, who formerly served as the church's treasurer.

The Arnolds remember Marybeth getting in trouble with church leaders, although not fully being informed on why.

"They were kind of grilling her. What happened? What was your part? What did you do?" recalls Joan Arnold, a former Sunday school teacher.

"She had an e-mail we didn't know about, and it was treated like that was the major issue of the events," said Eddie.

They say they were also told to keep quiet, something they now regret several years after breaking ties with the church.

"We were still under the authority of the elders and they said, don't talk, so we didn't talk. We never thought, 'Wait a minute. This is our daughter. They can't tell us what to do with her'," said Joan. "It might have prevented a lot of other people getting hurt and victimized along the way."

Marybeth and Amanda are now ready for the world to know their story and the truth about the church, they say, kept it all silent.

"They are culpable for what happened to me, what happened to Amanda, what happened to who knows how many other people. They are culpable and they need to be held accountable," said Marybeth.

Failure to report the sexual assault of a child is a crime in Texas, and a source within the Mansfield Police Department confirmed to CBS11 it looked into whether someone could be charged with that in this case.

However, there is a two-year statute of limitations on filing the charge, which has long since run out.

Marybeth and Amanda are now consulting with an attorney about the possibility of filing a civil lawsuit against the church.

The Fort Worth Star Telegram published the following statement it attributed to the church in response to the allegations:

Because many people have been deeply wounded by these false allegations we believe the following statements will clarify the issues for you. In 2003, an allegation of sexual misconduct was made against Mr. Ben Cole by a young lady in our church. With our involvement and our encouragement, a complaint was made to the Mansfield Police Department. Mr. Cole was arrested and later no-billed by the Tarrant County DA and Grand Jury. In subsequent years we never received another allegation from anyone in the church alleging sexual misconduct on the part of Mr. Ben Cole. Any allegations to the contrary are entirely false.

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