Former Silicon Valley pastor faces investigation for abuse
The River Church Community is pictured in this file photo.

A prominent Silicon Valley leader and former pastor is under investigation after numerous families accused him of abusing their kids when he led a youth ministry at a popular South Bay church.

Brett Bymaster is facing a second investigation in three years after five families at The River Church Community say a probe in 2021 led by church leaders failed to uncover the extent of his abuse and excluded one of the most serious claims — the possibility of sexual abuse.

Now more families and youth are coming forward to share their stories, San José Spotlight has learned.

“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),” the families, who have asked for anonymity, wrote in an open letter. “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, is also a founder and executive director of the Healing Grove Health Center, a clinic that serves low-income families.

Bymaster told San José Spotlight on Friday the investigation has no merit and he hasn’t been involved with the ministry for years.

An employee at The Healing Grove Health Center declined comment. As of Friday afternoon, the center’s website listed Bymaster as its executive director.

Bymaster served as a youth pastor and director at The River, nestled on Lincoln Ave., 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.

But 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 Rev. Theresa Marks, according to an email sent this week 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.

The letter was sent to the ministry’s partners and congregation in August 2021.

“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 the 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.

“These are important questions and we take them seriously. We maintain that the inquiry was undertaken in good faith and that we followed Rev. Marks’ guidance with diligence,” wrote Wong, along with the church’s pastor of spiritual formation Michelle Manley and board member Chris Maitz. “However, we are learning that some students did not feel safe to share freely in the 2021 inquiry. There are more students who wish to share their stories at this time. All of their voices are important and should be heard.”

Wong said the church has now hired a third-party investigator, Amy Stier, who has experience investigating faith-based organizations. The investigation will review Bymaster’s leadership of the youth ministry, the supervision he received and the church’s response when concerned were raised.

Stier’s report will be published on the church’s website for at least a year, he added.

“I am shocked and saddened by the news of this investigation by The River Church,” Bymaster told San José Spotlight. “A thorough investigation was conducted in 2021 that resulted in no evidence of sexual misconduct or further action against me. I have not been involved with or connected to The River since 2020 and I am confident that this recently announced investigation, almost three years later, will yield the same results. I am praying for everyone involved.”

City youth center concerns

District 3 San Jose Councilmember Omar Torres said the allegations against Bymaster are concerning.

“Especially as he is someone who has been trusted in our community,” Torres told San José Spotlight. “He violated the trust of our community, especially since most of his organizing is in under resourced neighborhoods like Washington and Spartan Keyes, amongst other high immigrant neighborhoods with a lot of needs and a lot of concerns.”

Torres said he’s in the process of notifying the city about Bymaster’s renting of the Washington United Youth Center for kid programs.

“Brett does rent out the youth center for youth activities and on the private side, for his religious organization. I will be in communications with our Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services department to make sure that we do take these allegations seriously and that hopefully Brett and his organization, for right now — as the investigation is ongoing — are not allowed into our youth center,” Torres said.

Torres said he will work to make sure that people accused of sexual abuse cannot utilize city-run youth spaces in general.

“Which is unfortunate, because (Bymaster) has Friday night youth programming, and you know, Friday nights, if our youth are not involved, they will eventually go out into the streets and be up to no good,” Torres said.

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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