“It was a mission trip in 1998, but Katherine Snyder, who was 18, said she still remembers standing frozen as her youth minister — a man she admired like a father — confessed his romantic feelings for her.
“I was so confused because I revered him,” Snyder, now 38 and living in Atlanta, told the Orlando Sentinel. “I saw Jeff as the one who could tell me about God.”
She said the conversation took place on a stone porch in a hotel in Acapulco, Mexico, overlooking the ocean. She was an intern to Jeff Jakes, who was 32 at the time, at the Presbyterian Orangewood Church in Maitland. A recent graduate of Orangewood Christian School, she was heading to college in Kentucky that fall.
Almost 20 years later, Jakes — now the head pastor of Orangewood Church in Maitland — is on leave from preaching as the church looks into Snyder’s claims that Jakes harassed and emotionally abused her for months. The church is also investigating separate claims of abuse made by other students, though church leaders haven’t said against whom. Orangewood said it has been in contact with the Maitland Police Department, the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
Jakes, who is married and has four children, did not respond to a request for comment for this article. But after the Orangewood church service last week, he addressed the congregation.
“I am deeply saddened and grieved at the impact that my sinful actions have upon someone who was trusted to my care and the student ministries,” he said. “I was grieved 20 years ago and I’m grieved today. I’m brokenhearted for the pain I’ve caused my wife, the mar on Christ’s church. I’m truly sorry for any pain that this story may connect to a story of pain and brokenness in your life.”
Dozens of members lined up to hug Jakes and his wife, who sat in the audience as he read his statement.
The church announced its investigation to his ’ flock at the same service, two days after Snyder shared a public Facebook post detailing her experience with Jakes.
“This independent investigation will be thorough and will result in an executive summary that will outline the findings of fact and recommendations,” Williams said. “We are committed to the truth wherever it will lead and are confident that this investigation will be of great assistance in pursuit of that commitment.”
After her Facebook post, Snyder said she was flooded with private messages from others who said they endured abuse — emotional, spiritual and physical — by staff at Orangewood church and school years ago, though none have yet spoken publicly.
Church elder Gary Wilson told church members last Sunday that the church would contract “independent professionals” to help investigate allegations from other former students, of which he said church elders were not aware until Snyder sounded the alarm.
“Information was shared with us that a few former church and school employees, some serving with Orangewood and some serving as Orangewood volunteers, engaged in alleged abuse of students under our care. Much of this information is new to us … and is being actively examined,” he said.
Snyder said she had tried to simply forget her experience at Orangewood. But last month, after more and more stories of sexual harassment and assault came out through the #MeToo movement, she changed her mind and decided to post on social media.
“That entire summer he sought opportunities to be alone with me and to talk about his feelings, about how I looked, and innuendos of his daydreams of us,” she wrote on Facebook on Jan. 26, a day after meeting in person with church leaders at her home in Atlanta.
During that meeting, Snyder said she asked one of the pastors if Jakes’ past behavior was taken into consideration at the church when he became head pastor in 2003.
“He said, ‘No, not at all, because he has repented,’” she recalled. “It’s not OK for someone who has done those things to lead a church.”
During his announcement to the congregation last week, Wilson acknowledged that Snyder’s claims were not new to some in the church’s leadership.
“Jeff had previously openly shared this difficult time in his and [Snyder’s] life as a way of encouraging them to guard their ministries, families and protect everyone as well as the peace and purity of the church,” he said.
Wilson referred to the behavior as an “inappropriate emotional relationship,” a phrase that Snyder took issue with.
Jakes, Snyder claims, sometimes touched her in ways that made her feel uncomfortable: He kissed her cheek, caressed her hair and held her hand when others weren’t looking.
“He even boasted to others that I had grown spiritually because of him, as if that excused it,” she said. The persistent messages and emails, Snyder said, continued months into her first year in college at Asbury University. Riddled with guilt, she eventually told her parents that winter.
“It is abuse when one person has all of the power,” she said. “You can’t say that I was in a relationship because I repeatedly told him that I wasn’t interested in a relationship in that way. … I also made it clear to him that I felt a ton of guilt over this and it was very distressing for me.”
Snyder ended communication with Jakes and left her college in Kentucky after a year and a half.
She later graduated from Florida State University, where she met her husband. She has three sons and now works with an advocacy agency in Atlanta that supports abused children in the court system.
“I’ve never been back to a Presbyterian church,” Snyder said. “And I seriously doubt that I ever will.”
Orangewood began in a storefront on Colonial Drive near downtown Orlando in 1976, under the leadership of the founding Rev. Chuck Green, according to its website. It later moved into a facility off Wymore Road in 1982, before relocating again to its current home on Maitland Boulevard in 1988.
The church launched Orangewood Christian School in the 1980 and Maitland Community Preschool in 2008.
Wilson also said the church would be implementing a system to better communicate and investigate allegations of misconduct in the future.
Twenty years ago, Orangewood was part of her identity, Snyder said: “In my inner voice, I called myself a ‘home-wrecker.’ I lost all of those relationships because of these secrets. … I was kind of the one who was punished and he was not.
“For people to believe that pastors somehow hold the key to heaven and hell … it’s an unhealthy amount of power,” she said. “It’s been a long time and this was my time to come forward, this is what was right for me.””