When she was in her early 20s, Alanna joined the Meeting House church in Oakville. It was supposed to be different from the ultra-conservative congregation she grew up in.
The Meeting House was known for being casual, branded as “a church for people who weren’t into church.” Women were considered equals. Questions were welcome.
It had blossomed into the third largest church in Canada, its popularity fuelled by its charismatic and subversive pastor, Bruxy Cavey.
Cavey wasn’t the kind of church leader Alanna was used to. He kept his hair long and sported a beard. He wore T-shirts, cargo shorts and flip-flops.
The magnetism of Cavey’s sermons made him larger than life. He was in such demand from Ontario’s Anabaptist evangelical Christians that his Sunday morning speeches were projected in movie theatres and satellite churches across the province.
He was a cool pastor, Alanna remembers thinking, his teachings relatable and refreshing.
He was also, she says, a man who wanted her to keep things secret.
Alanna alleges he singled her out after she sought his help with counselling, his behaviour intensifying from flirtation and lingering hugs to groping. And it escalated.
With hindsight of the imbalance of power between them, Alanna says he sexually assaulted her.
At the time, he told Alanna not to tell anyone how close they had become, she alleges, instructing her to communicate with him only through encrypted BlackBerry messages. He gave her code words to use in their messages. When he sent “orange,” it meant to delete their history and not contact him, she said.
She says Cavey told her “what they were doing wasn’t right but that God was permitting it,” and if their relationship became public, it would destroy them and the church, and many people would never hear about Jesus.
For four years after it ended, she stayed silent.
“I was in a brainwashed state,” Alanna said in an interview.
In June, Cavey was arrested by Hamilton police and charged with sexual assault of Alanna.
Under the Criminal Code of Canada, there is no consent if sexual interactions were induced by someone abusing a position of trust or authority. The criminal charge against Cavey has not been proven in court.
Alanna is not her real name. Her identity is protected under a court-ordered publication ban.
Since Alanna came forward, the Meeting House, once among the most prominent megachurches in Canada, has been besieged by scandal.
Its leaders have acknowledged that three other former pastors have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, and many of its congregants are asking how an alleged culture of impropriety was allowed to persist.
Cavey, who resigned from the Meeting House in 2021, did not respond to questions about Alanna’s allegations. In an emailed statement, his lawyer, Brendan Neil, said that as the matter is before the courts, Cavey was not able to comment.
In a March 8 blog post, Cavey said he could not comment publicly on the allegations as the church continued its internal investigation, but said: “At the core of these allegations there is truth.”
In the post, titled “my confession,” Cavey describes his actions as an “extramarital affair” that took place some years ago, referring to it as “my greatest failure, my darkest sin” and saying he takes full responsibility for his actions.
“I was also irresponsible in my role as a spiritual leader and Christian clergy, which involves dynamics of power and influence and an expectation of exemplary conduct that makes me doubly accountable. I accept this responsibility, with deep regret for my actions.”
In an interview with the Star, Alanna said what she experienced with Cavey was not an affair. It was clergy abuse.
“He could get away with things that other people just wouldn’t,” Alanna said.
Church leaders say four people have come forward with “allegations of abuse” against Cavey.
The allegations have spurred a public unspooling of Cavey’s reputation as the subversive evangelical, a preacher who promoted a kinder, gentler Jesus for those who viewed religion, as he once described it, as a tiring “treadmill of legislated performance powered by guilt and fear.”
“The church was built on his charisma,” said Peter J. Schuurman, an adjunct professor in religion at Redeemer University and executive director of Global Scholars Canada, who wrote his PhD dissertation on the meteoric rise of Cavey and the Meeting House.
He said while Cavey did not hold the highest role in the church hierarchy, he held the power of personality that drew people by the thousands.
“That centralized power in Bruxy Cavey.”
Cavey’s untucked appearance as a placid pastor conflicts with the control Alanna says he wielded in his alleged abuse.
“Blessed are the meek, not the angry alpha types,” Cavey said in a 2012 sermon, a video of which has been viewed online 18,000 times.
“Frankly, when Christians have power, we don’t do better with it than any non-Christians. In fact, sometimes we do a far worse job of it because we assume God is on our side and we quote any Bible passage we can to justify our wrath.”
Alanna said she first met Cavey in 2010 at a Bible study he ran from his home for young adults.
Some nights, after studying scripture, Cavey, then in his mid-40s, would serve martinis to young people in their 20s who would pile into a backyard hot tub, Alanna said. It wasn’t uncommon for Bible study students to spend the night, crashing on Cavey’s couch.
She says she started to see Cavey for counselling regarding her own relationship. Her partner was cheating on her, she told Cavey.
The pastor told her to tell no one how close he and she were becoming, she alleges.
When she was 23, she says, he told her she was “wise above her years” and an old soul. He told her he was invested in understanding her. It made her feel important.
He also asked graphic questions about her sex life that gave her pause, she says, but at the time felt relevant.
“I was trying to excuse away all these red flags,” she said.
Soon, she says, he told her he was attracted to her.
He would pray with her to thank God for her, she says. He told her she was the person who understood him most, that she was his soulmate, she says.
One time, she alleges, Cavey took her hand, held it against his penis and said, “This is what you do to me.”
In the summer of 2013, he invited her to the CNE with his family. They sat next to each other on a ride. When it went through a tunnel, he groped her in the darkness, she alleges. She said his daughters were in the cart behind them.
Alanna comes from a strict conservative background. She grew up hearing that women tempt men, and it was their fault when it got to a point that made them uncomfortable.
“I never wanted to be in the situation … I was like, ‘OK, I guess I did this to him,’” she said in an interview.
“I couldn’t understand how dangerous he was at that point.”
Cavey’s rise to fame started in controversy.
In 1991, around age 26, he became the pastor at Heritage Fellowship Baptist Church in Ancaster. The church’s leadership was looking for a new pastor after the last one departed in disgrace, having left his wife for another woman.
Cavey stepped in, and soon the congregation of just over 100 people grew to 1,000, as news of the “intelligent and humorous hippie” spread, Schuurman, the religious scholar, wrote in his dissertation on Cavey.
Then, in the mid-1990s, Cavey’s marriage collapsed. “The divorce went against his own biblical ethics, and he felt disgraced and so left the ministry altogether in early 1996,” Schuurman wrote, based on interviews with Cavey.
“He was devastated and felt he could no longer remain as pastor at the Baptist church — nor any church, for that matter.”
This episode in Cavey’s life became “an important part of congregational lore” at the Meeting House, Schuurman wrote.
In the spring of the same year, Cavey was approached by the Brethren in Christ denomination to see if he would take on a pastor position at the Meeting House in Oakville.
By the early 2000s, the Meeting House had grown to include several satellite churches, as well as a large warehouse that was converted into an auditorium with 1,200 seats.
Cavey offered evangelical Christians a way to feel culturally acceptable, because of how different he was from pastors they were used to, said Schuurman.
“He was cool, he was hip, and he wasn’t the angry, nasty, rigid, judgmental conservative,” Schuurman said in an interview.
“He was funny. He was making fun of conservative Christianity while being conservative himself.”
During a question-and-answer period that regularly follows the Sunday service, Cavey’s girlfriend proposed to him.
“The reversal of traditional gender roles in this plucky proposal reinforces the growing lore around Cavey’s character as a self-confessed ‘beta male,’” wrote Schuurman.
Cavey’s ability to command a crowd with relatable stories and an approachable demeanour made him a celebrity among Ontario’s Anabaptist Christians.
Jenna Ward, a former Meeting House congregant, recalled her mother bubbling with excitement after bumping into Cavey in public.
“It was like she saw Tom Cruise or something.”
Under Cavey, the church for people who aren’t into church, as the Meeting House promotes itself, became the third-largest congregation in Canada, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, with a weekly attendance of more than 5,000 people.
Schuurman said the rise of the Meeting House felt different because of how it was packaged and presented.
“It enabled people to imagine that they could thrive here and they could grow here and their children would embrace the faith in a fresh and meaningful and relevant new way. And it gave them hope,” he said.
“Now, they’re crushed.”
Alanna says Cavey told her what they were doing wasn’t right, but it was a grey zone.
She says he would compare what they were doing to his views on gay marriage: it wasn’t right in the eyes of God, but when people found each other in commitment, God would find redemption in it even if it was not His will.
He told her she represented Jesus’ sacrifice and forgiveness, she alleges. That God had brought her to him as a gift.
They began having sex, sometimes in his white Honda Civic.
“I don’t see it as sex. I see it as abuse,” Alanna said.
She said he knew how much she loved God and would make everything in their relationship come back to God.
“At any point I could have told someone and walked away, looking back. But at the time, you can’t. You’re going to wreck his life. I know what’s at stake,” she said.
By 2018, she felt in crisis. She started to google what she was going through and did a quiz that told her she was a sex addict. She thought this was odd; she didn’t feel like a sex addict but felt as though she didn’t have control of her own body. Still, she went to a sex addiction support group.
“And all the sex addicts are like, ‘No.’”
They told her what was happening to her was “terribly wrong,” she said.
Still, she felt support there, so for a couple months she kept going. She was then referred to a counsellor. After 10 years, she left the Meeting House and Cavey behind.
About six months later, while she was at work, she got a notification from her security camera app. Cavey had gone to her house and dropped off a bag of his own published books on religion, she says. He’d even signed them for her.
“It sent me into a pure panic attack at work.”
She said she threw the books into the bay. “Like a bit of a baptism, maybe,” she said.
It is the Anabaptist belief that a baptism is valid only when someone can freely consent to it. It’s not done to infants, as in other Christian denominations. Followers choose when they’re ready.
Three years went by. She stayed out of church circles. But she kept thinking about what she calls “the abuse,” and thought there might be other people with experiences similar to hers.
In late 2021, she said she felt God was telling her to come forward. She says she told two people close to her, then told Danielle Strickland, another popular pastor at the Meeting House.
Strickland helped her report the alleged abuse to church leadership.
“She was really only asking for one thing from the very beginning: for it to be named and for it to be prevented … she didn’t ask for any money,” Strickland said in a livestreamed video posted on social media shortly after the church’s investigation into Cavey was first made public.
“She just wanted it to stop and she wanted a way to help other people from it happening to them.”
Cavey was put on leave and the church hired an outside investigator. However, it soon became apparent the church was minimizing what Alanna experienced, Alanna and Strickland said.
When the investigation results came out, they called it an extramarital relationship that violated the church’s guidelines. But that didn’t accurately capture what Alanna and Strickland say took place: clergy sexual abuse.
They pushed for the church to call it what it was. Soon, the church updated the investigation’s findings, saying the sexual relationship “constituted an abuse of Bruxy’s power and authority as a member of the clergy, and amounted to sexual harassment.”
The language still wasn’t strong enough, Alanna felt. Strickland resigned as pastor “in solidarity with the victim of abuse.”
Cavey was allowed to resign.
He and his family have received support from the church, what a Meeting House spokesperson called a “benevolent gift recognizing the impact of these events on the Cavey family as a whole.”
“The details of the support given to Mr. Cavey are confidential,” the spokesperson said.
Cavey’s fall from grace sparked an institutional introspection that has found widespread allegations of abuse at the hands of church leaders.
In March, the church appointed a victim’s advocate, whose mandate was to independently and confidentially receive any allegations of sexual misconduct.
The advocate has received 38 “inquiries” representing “allegations, disclosures and concerns relating primarily to clergy sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse,” Jennifer Hryniw, a member of the Meeting House’s overseers board, said at a June church service.
These inquiries do not represent 38 distinct misconduct allegations, as some relate to the same allegation.
Hryniw apologized for how the church in the past has handled allegations, which were made against at least four pastors, including Cavey.
“We’ve also heard stories of brave individuals who have tried to address the culture of immorality in the past and they felt shut down and alienated by the church,” she said.
“I can tell you one trend we’ve identified is a skew to prioritizing the care and well-being of offenders over victims … There are multiple stories of victims who felt shamed and rejected by the church while the offender was supported through so-called restoration.”
The only path forward for the Meeting House, Strickland said, is full transparency — as discomfiting as it may be for the church.
“The whole truth needs to be told or else … not only will there not be healing, but I think there will be further harm,” she said.
Morgan Bocknek is a Star journalist, currently assigned to the Investigations Team. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @mobocks