CHICAGO — In a small house overlooking a lake in Wauconda, Ill., a minister directed his female followers to go into a back room and take off their clothes.
In one-on-one sessions, he got naked, touched their bodies and told them to touch his.
He called them prayer sessions.
What allegedly happened in that room over a series of months would spur a criminal probe in one county, spark civil litigation in two others, and reopen the age-old debate on what’s a cult.
|"Let's Do Some Light Therapy. |
Now, get naked."
The case offers a window not only into the evolution of a fringe church, but also the struggles of authorities to know when such a group warrants their attention.
Livingston’s supporters have maintained he’s an earnest, albeit unconventional minister who has done no wrong. But a Kane County judge this summer ordered that three children be kept away from Livingston and his church. That was after police in Wauconda, where Livingston’s church is now based, launched a criminal investigation.
Since then, a Cook County judge has ordered Livingston, his wife and his top assistant to stay away from the one-time follower whose allegations of child endangerment sparked the latest legal rounds.
The cases cap allegations that have long dogged the one-time contractor — a man whose preaching career sprang from leading a renegade prayer group at one of the area’s largest churches.
Six years ago, in the bowels of the sprawling South Barrington-based Willow Creek Community Church, a small group of members regularly met for a unique kind of prayer ministry.
At the helm was Livingston, a quiet, philosophical 52-year-old at the start of a second career.
His first career as a concrete contractor ended in bankruptcy.
Over two decades, he or his companies were sued more than 30 times. Most cases stemmed from unpaid bills — he owed $60,000 in unpaid child support, $150,000 in back taxes and nearly $200,000 to other creditors. At one point he was arrested for home repair fraud but the felony charge was dropped.
His former attorney, Terry Heuel, said his legal woes were typical of a company struggling to stay afloat, with no fraud proved.
As his concrete career crumbled, he prepared for a new vocation in ministry. He took an internship at an upstart church in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood called the Prayer Furnace and then returned to his native church, Willow Creek, to lead fellow members in a small prayer/counseling group.
He told his group that God implanted messages to them in their dreams and he could decode them, according to church records.
That upset Willow Creek leaders, who said he never had permission to lead the group, let alone do dream interpretation — a controversial practice against Willow Creek’s beliefs.
“It’s just so far out, so inconsistent and unconventional with what (the church) understands prayer to be,” said Willow Creek spokeswoman Susan DeLay, “and unconventional is probably a kind word.”
Livingston took some Willow Creek followers and formed his own church, SEW Ministries, and rented space at Community Church of Rolling Meadows.
There Livingston met another minister renting space — Ron Juran of Kingdom Life House of Prayer. Livingston testified that he was formally ordained by Juran.
Juran told the Chicago Tribune he “absolutely” did not ordain Livingston — at most saying a generic prayer for SEW’s success. Juran said he and Livingston then had a falling out.
So did Livingston and Community Church and the Prayer Furnace, where Livingston moved SEW. Livingston reneged on a promise to pay rent, claiming the Bible didn’t require it, said the Prayer Furnace’s pastor, John Bailey.
Testifying at a Kane County hearing last year, Bailey called Livingston “very deceiving” and added that Livingston’s dream-interpretation sessions were “nothing more than a mind control that Phil uses with his people.”
Church attendance fluctuated between one and three dozen, according to former followers.
Some gave money — enough to keep the ministry afloat.
Other followers gave Livingston a free place to stay.
And still others gave time — some spending hours each day teaching Livingston’s views to newer members. Among those volunteers was Linda Ericksen, whose husband became Livingston’s assistant pastor.
She told the Tribune she ardently believed Livingston’s teachings that he spoke directly with God. She believed in the church’s latest mission: to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ by, according to its website, “getting to know Jesus inside of us and being in perfect harmony with Him as His body.”
Then Livingston introduced a new way to achieve that harmony — a technique that would become the focus of a criminal investigation.
Livingston called it “light therapy.”
To traditional doctors, light therapy is a way to treat some forms of depression and disease by shining light on the afflicted.
For Livingston, it meant praying for followers by touching them.
Testimony and affidavits filed in court indicate he developed the practice about two years ago.
Sessions were offered outside church, at the homes in Elgin and Wauconda where Livingston was living. It was only offered to a select group of church members deemed ready, about five or six.
At first, the participant laid on a couch. Clothes stayed on. Private areas were not touched. Livingston’s wife helped, according to the Kane County testimony.
Then Livingston increasingly went in alone with each participant. Both got naked. Livingston touched her private parts, even inserted his fingers into them. The women touched his penis while they prayed, according to testimony.
Livingston testified the therapy was separate from his church, used merely as a “spiritual guidance” to benefit some followers. He said light therapy had shown “miraculous” results, that he reduced anxiety in a victim of molestation and turned homosexuals and sexual addicts into “virtuous people.” His new wife not only was “healed” of spiritual and emotional issues, but rid herself of chronic yeast infections, he testified.
Livingston said the ritual wasn’t sexual. He said he was never aroused, something Ericksen disputed.
Ericksen also disputed the ritual’s healing power. She told the Tribune it was coupled with constant demands she tell Livingston everything she was thinking. When she told Livingston she was uncomfortable with the ritual, he told her she was really feeling the sin in her needing to be expelled from her body by more intense therapy.
“It would make me really angry inside that I had to pray for him that way,” Ericksen told the Tribune.
In 2010, Livingston moved to a one-story home beside Wauconda’s Bangs Lake. That spring, he persuaded her and her husband that she was so troubled she should stay at the house for more than a month, walk around naked and have the therapy two or three times a day, two or three hours at a time, Ericksen testified in Kane County.
She said that by fall 2010, she became so uncomfortable at suggestions to expand the ritual that she blurted out to Livingston that his naked body reminded her of “a walrus.”
“He told me that God was very angry and I couldn’t have light therapy any more,” Ericksen testified.
By then — unbeknownst to her, she said — she had become pregnant with her and her husband’s first child. She said Livingston “exiled” her to her apartment and directed her husband to live elsewhere. By April, she said, three months after she learned of her pregnancy, Livingston relayed to her through her husband that she had to leave the group.
She said she eventually reconnected with her parents, concluded Livingston’s teachings were improper, and worried her estranged husband would take the baby and raise her in Livingston’s church. So she asked a Cook County judge to forbid Livingston, Livingston’s wife and her estranged husband from having contact with her and the baby, citing the ritual.
She also made a bombshell allegation in an affidavit filed in Kane County: As part of the ritual, Livingston had induced a follower’s then 13- and 10-year-old daughters to stroll naked with him in his home, and about once a week he took the older girl into a room used for the ritual.
Livingston and the girls’ mother insist the girls were always clothed and not involved in the ritual. Their attorneys claim Ericksen lied to better her chance of winning custody of her baby.
But a Kane County judge saw it differently — as part of a separate custody case involving the girls and their little brother.
Back in 2008, even before the light therapy began, the girls’ father complained to police, child-welfare workers and the court that he should get custody of the kids in part because his wife was in a “cult.” (The father is not being identified to protect the identities of his daughters.)
The father had convinced a psychologist hired by the court, Dr. Mark Goldstein.
“At the very least, the ministry is out of the mainstream, and at its worst, it may very well be a cult and potentially dangerous,” Goldstein wrote in his May 2009 report.
But Associate Judge Marmarie Kostelny deemed the father a worse alternative because he had a history of lies and manipulation. As for Livingston’s group, there were no specific allegations of abuse.
Livingston’s neighbors, however, sensed trouble.
Neighbors told the Tribune that Livingston had become known as the neighborhood nudist. He often came out to get the paper dressed in what appeared to be only a bed sheet. A neighbor happened to glance through Livingston’s window and saw him drop the sheet to bare all.
Then Livingston tried to recruit new members at a neighborhood beach party in 2010. A dozen older kids walked around to partygoers, offering them pulled pork, stumping Livingston’s church, and suggesting they let Livingston interpret their dreams, recalled attendee Megan Hunter.
“All these teenagers following this one big fat guy — we’re thinking something is weird,” she recalled.
Authorities didn’t take notice until Ericksen filed her affidavit a year later. It led to a special trial in Kane County in which Livingston defended light therapy and said kids weren’t involved.
Circuit Judge Robert Pilmer, however, ruled Livingston was not believable and the evidence suggested “knowing and reckless conduct which creates an immediate risk of physical harm” to the children.
Pilmer ordered that the kids live with their father and be kept away from Livingston and his church.
DePaul professor Roberta Garner, who has studied cults, said such groups typically have a leader who demands ultimate authority, citing a direct line to God. They’re typically small — large groups are hard to control — and often believe conspiracy theories that reinforce the leader’s legitimacy. It’s also not unusual for cult leaders to incorporate sexual practices.
It’s hard to tell how many such groups exist around Chicago, with researchers hesitant to even guess. It can also be difficult to gauge whether they are dangerous.
With the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, authorities are left to determine whether groups’ leaders commit actual crimes, not just have unusual beliefs, she said.
Livingston and his supporters insist they’re not a cult.
For now, Livingston’s church is in flux.
It’s pushing to grow — soliciting new members online to attend two-hour group sessions on Thursday and Friday nights and its 2 ½-hour Saturday night service.
For more than a year, members have been renovating its sanctuary in a non-descript, gray building beside the Wauconda Township Cemetery. A Tribune reporter visited last month to find Livingston’s assistant pastor and others actively working on it.
But Livingston has kept a low profile.
At the Kane County trial, he said he wanted to open up a special light therapy “healing center” but hadn’t yet. And he indicated he was still the pastor of the church, just not preaching. He’d taken a sabbatical from January until July — during which time he and his fourth wife had a second baby. After that, he took a three-week vacation to Wisconsin, about the time Ericksen’s affidavit came out. Livingston said he wasn’t trying to flee authorities.
He testified he was “ready to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me.” He has not responded to interview requests the Tribune left through his church and cell phone.
During the trial, a lawyer asked Livingston if he’ll have a suicide pact “when this all comes crashing down.”
Livingston scoffed at the question. He said there was no suicide pact, no “Plan B.”
“It’s impossible for it to come crashing down on me.”