Former San Jose church leader arrested for alleged child abuse
The River Church Community is pictured in this file photo.

A prominent Silicon Valley leader and former pastor has been arrested and charged with six felony counts of child sex abuse, after being under investigation this year for allegations that surfaced about his time as a youth ministry leader at a popular South Bay church.

Brett Bymaster faces time behind bars for alleged lewd acts with a child who was as young as eight during his time at The River Church, according to charges by county prosecutors. He was arrested and booked at the Elmwood Correctional Facility on Thursday. His bond was set at $400,000, but at a Friday arraignment hearing, Judge Hector Ramon revoked his eligibility for bail at least until the next scheduled hearing on April 19, according to prosecutors. San José Spotlight first reported Bymaster’s alleged abuse in January.

Ramon ordered Bymaster not to contact the victim documented in the charges. He was also ordered not to contact another unnamed individual, according to the case’s prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Christopher Paynter.

Paynter said it’s too early to tell how much jail time Bymaster faces if found guilty of all charges. The trial date is a moving target.

“It’s an ongoing investigation,” Paynter told San José Spotlight.

Bymaster’s attorneys Renee Hessling and Dana Fite did not respond to requests for comment.

The arrest comes after a second investigation by The River Church in three years regarding Bymaster’s action, when five parishioner families say a 2021 probe led by church leaders failed to uncover the extent of his abuse and excluded one of the most serious claims — sexual abuse.

At the time, Bymaster denied the allegations in a statement to San José Spotlight.

“In recent months, we have discovered that there were profound flaws in the original pastoral inquiry process and in the denominational report (which was never released publicly but only summarized by senior leaders),” church families wrote in an open letter in January. “We now believe that the inquiry process and the senior leadership withheld crucial information about the nature and scope of the abuse.”

Bymaster, a recognizable figure in advocacy and political circles, was still listed as a founder and executive director of the Healing Grove Health Center, a clinic that serves low-income families, on its website as of Friday afternoon.

Bymaster served as a youth pastor and director at The River, nestled on Lincoln Avenue, for five years beginning in 2014. He quit after getting a critical job review in August 2019 based on complaints about his leadership from church families.

Yet two years later, youth from the congregation raised more significant concerns about Bymaster.

The church launched an internal inquiry in 2021 led by its own leader the Rev. Theresa Marks, according to an email sent in January from three top church leaders, including lead pastor Brad Wong.

Marks found that Bymaster was a “toxic leader who was spiritually abusive,” and encouraged church leaders to summarize her findings in a letter. The probe from Marks, which included interviews with 25 individuals, also questioned the church’s management of Bymaster.

“We take full responsibility for not doing the job of keeping our youth and youth volunteers safe in our youth ministry. We did not provide adequate oversight of the youth program or our former youth pastor,” church leaders wrote in an August 2021 letter.

But parents of the alleged victims say the letter swept damning details under the rug and questioned whether some of the incidents should’ve been categorized as sexual misconduct, harassment or abuse.

In January, District 3 San Jose Councilmember Omar Torres said the allegations prompted him to notify the city about Bymaster’s renting of the Washington United Youth Center for kid programs.

Torres also promised to make sure that people accused of sexual abuse cannot utilize city-run youth spaces in general.

Torres declined to comment on Friday through a spokesperson.

A graduate of Purdue University, Bymaster studied computer engineering and worked for 15 years designing chips for medical equipment in Silicon Valley startups. He earned several patents for his inventions.

Once out of the tech sector, Bymaster got involved with social advocacy for vulnerable families.

In 2021, around the time he was being investigated by Marks, he rallied city leaders to fix a decaying park in a vulnerable neighborhood, spoke up for businesses facing displacement and advocated for closing Reid-Hillview Airport amid concerns about lead poisoning. He spoke at a city meeting that year about a proposal to give San Jose’s mayor more governing power under a strong mayor structure.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Bymaster wrote an op-ed to this publication highlighting racial injustice and poverty exacerbated by the disease. He shared his experience participating in a Black Lives Matter march with his African granddaughter.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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