A Caldwell mother arrested last week told deputies her religious beliefs prompted her to pray for her husband rather than tell police about his alleged sexual abuse of their daughters.
Sarah Kester and her husband, Lester Kester Jr., are affiliated with the Followers of Christ Church. The church, which has a prominent following in Canyon County and in Oregon, faces criticism for refusing medical care for children and adults in favor of faith healing.
After her July 11 arrest, Sarah Kester told deputies from the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office that she didn’t tell police about her husband’s alleged abuse because it was against her belief system to involve agencies such as law enforcement, child protection services, or counseling services into personal or family matters, according to a sheriff’s office press release.
Lester Kester Jr., 48, was charged with four felony counts of lewd conduct with a minor under 16. Sarah Kester, 50, was charged with one felony count of injury to a child on the suspicion that she did not report the abuse.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue confirmed the Kesters’ affiliation with the church, saying that Sarah Kester told one of his deputies that their family belonged to the local Followers of Christ Church. Donahue has denounced Idaho’s faith-healing exemption, which protects parents from charges when they decline medical care for their children on religious grounds.
Donahue said the “anonymity and seclusion” of the Followers of Christ sect in Canyon County undermines law enforcement’s ability to ensure public safety, especially of minors.
“That is certainly a concern for law enforcement, for my detectives and myself personally,” Donahue told the Idaho Press.
The Idaho Press reached out to three local Followers of Christ members several times this week, including a pastor, but only one responded, declining to speak on the record.
Instead of contacting law enforcement, Sarah Kester told deputies she tried to protect her children by praying for “the demon” to leave Lester and keeping her husband busy with other tasks, according to a press release from the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office.
According to the release, Lester Kester Jr. told detectives on July 11 that he had been consumed by a “bad guy” or a “demon” and admitted to various forms of sexual contact with all four of his daughters until they were approximately 10 to 12 years old.
A former church member and vocal advocate against faith healing exemptions, Linda Martin, told the Idaho Press that Lester Kester Jr. is her second cousin.
Martin said the church’s preference to handle matters internally can lead to sexual and physical abuse being pushed under the rug. That’s what happened in her own childhood, she said.
“This doesn’t happen in every family,” Martin said. “I don’t want to say all the people in that church were bad. They were very kind to me, they were very good to me. But it’s just their belief system allows a lot of abuse to happen, and they need to re-evaluate it and there needs to be change.”
On June 21, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Children and Family Services contacted the sheriff’s office and informed detectives that the Kesters’ daughter had reported being molested by her father when she was a child, according to a press release from the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office.
Health and Welfare denied a public records request for reports on the case, citing an Idaho exemption related to the protection of children. The Idaho Press also requested Canyon County’s probable cause affidavit for the Kesters’ arrest, which was not provided Wednesday.
Canyon County sheriff’s detectives conducted follow-up interviews with the daughter who reported the abuse and another of the Kesters’ daughters on the same day Health and Welfare contacted them, the sheriff’s office said.
During the interview, both daughters reported being sexually abused by their father on multiple occasions when they were younger and said the abuse continued until each of them was 12, according to the sheriff’s office.
They also told detectives that another one of their sisters said she, too, had been sexually abused by their father when she was younger, the sheriff’s office said. The sisters told detectives that they confronted their mother about the abuse about three years ago, but nothing happened and no one contacted law enforcement, according to the sheriff’s office.
Upon further investigation, detectives also believe Lester Kester Jr. abused a fourth daughter as recently as 2016, according to the sheriff’s office. Detectives from the sheriff’s office, after multiple interviews with victims, said Kester sexually abused his four daughters on numerous occasions for about 16 years, starting in 2000, according to the sheriff’s office.
The Idaho Press was unable to reach the Kesters’ attorneys.
A ‘perfect storm’ for abuse
Martin described the isolated atmosphere many in the Followers of Christ Church live in as a “perfect storm for children to be abused.”
“The followers kind of believe like Las Vegas. What happens in the families and what happens in the church stays in the church,” Martin said in a phone interview Saturday. “You do not speak to outsiders about anything in the church or in your home as far as that goes.”
Martin said the church’s adherence to faith-based healing in lieu of traditional care also makes the discovery of abuse by people outside the family unlikely. According to the national anti-sexual violence organization RAINN, Idaho’s mandatory reporting laws require medical professionals to report cases of sexual or physical abuse to authorities.
“All of this goes hand in hand,” she said. “If you have a law that protects one kind of abuse, it is actually going to allow other types of abuse to follow.”
Martin said this issue is the main reason she became an outspoken opponent of Idaho’s religious exemption for faith healing groups.
Martin told the Idaho Press that in addition to experiencing physical abuse, she experienced sexual abuse from relatives several times during her childhood and was told not to speak about it. She said she told a relative of the abuse, too, but says law enforcement were not contacted.
Martin adds that at a young age, such abuse can become normalized.
“To be honest, when it starts at a young age, you think this is normal, and this is what goes on in houses because this is normal,” Martin said.
Lester Kester Jr. was arraigned July 12, and his bond is set at $500,000. Sarah Kester’s bond is set at $25,000. Lester Kester Jr. has been assigned a public defender. Both are scheduled to appear in court July 26. The two were still in Canyon County’s jail as of Wednesday night, according to the Canyon County jail roster.
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