United Methodist Church of Woodbury sued over alleged sexual abuse by son of former minister
Irene Chestnut spent years in the 1980s painstakingly creating beautiful stained-glass windows for her beloved United Methodist Church of Woodbury. Each of her three young sons helped.
But while Chestnut was busy attending religious services and social gatherings afterward on Sundays, unknown to her, a horror story was allegedly unfolding: the son of the church’s minister was sexually abusing and raping all three of her boys, the family says.
The alleged abuse took place in a nursery at the church, in a shed nearby, in a graveyard, and in the minister’s house, according to a lawsuit filed by one of the sons.
More than four decades later, the family is still grappling with the fallout from the alleged abuse, and seeking justice against the United Methodist Church for the alleged conduct of Russell Hullstrung, who was arrested in 1994 for sexually abusing a deaf and blind man in Nassau County. Now 55, he works in a hospital system in Connecticut.
The Chestnuts say they want to expose what they call a decadeslong cover-up by church officials so that there are no more victims.
“I thought going to church would definitely be a safe place to be,” Irene Chestnut, 78, said in an interview. “The windows were my pride and joy, but it brings me much sadness to even think about the windows.”
Hullstrung’s alleged conduct, she said, “should have been stopped a long time ago.”
An undated family photo of Irene Chestnut with her children, Kristian, Gregory and Scott, and her husband, Harold. Credit: Chestnut Family Photo
The lawsuit, filed by Kristian Chestnut, Irene Chestnut’s youngest son, names the United Methodist Church and its various divisions as defendants.
The New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, an umbrella organization for the region, said in a statement that it would not comment on the specifics of the case while the legal process plays out, but that it is committed to preventing sexual abuse of children.
“Abuse claims are always met with shock, sadness and deep reflection on what can and must be done to ensure all who engage with the church are safe and protected,” the group said. “As a Conference, NYAC has long prioritized the need to, as Jesus taught, care for the least among us.”
Hullstrung, who works in the Yale New Haven health care system, did not respond to multiple email and phone messages seeking comment. His attorney, Stephen McLaughlin of White Plains, declined to comment. An attorney for the United Methodist Church of Woodbury also declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
A family’s lawsuit against the United Methodist Church of Woodbury alleges that the son of the former minister sexually abused three boys who are now grown. Credit: Danielle Silverman
Other United Methodist Church entities named in the lawsuit did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In court papers, the church in numerous instances stated it did not have “knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of the allegations,” such as whether Hullstrung sexually molested Kristian Chestnut. It denied other assertions, such as that Hullstrung was under its “supervision and control.”
The lawsuit and the church’s response do not address the alleged abuse of the two other sons, who previously reached a financial settlement with the church.
Irene Chestnut said her two oldest sons told her in 1994 that they had been sexually molested as children at the church more than a decade earlier. She was shocked, and soon would confront Hullstrung’s father, Robert, the church’s pastor.
Part of what prompted them was Russell Hullstrung’s arrest on Sept. 25, 1994, on charges of sexually abusing a 22-year-old man at the Helen Keller Center in Sands Point. Hullstrung pleaded guilty to sexual abuse in the third degree, and was sentenced to one year of probation and time served, according to the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office.
Alleged victim kept secret to himself for years
It was several years later that Kristian Chestnut revealed to his mother that he, too, allegedly had been molested by Hullstrung. Kristian said he kept the secret to himself for years because he wanted his parents to be able to believe at least one of their three sons had not been sexually abused.
“I didn’t want to tell her because I didn’t want to break her heart,” he said. “My mother and father always took a lot of joy knowing that one of the kids was not affected. And I didn’t want to take that from them.”
In 2021, after passage of the New York State Child Victims Act, Kristian Chestnut filed a lawsuit against the United Methodist Church hierarchy. That lawsuit is pending as it winds through the legal system.
During a two-year “look back” window, the Child Victims Act allowed survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits against their alleged perpetrators regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred. It has led to hundreds of cases being filed against other people and institutions on Long Island, including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and various teachers and schools.
In 2017, before the Child Victims Act was passed, Kristian’s two brothers, Scott and Gregory Chestnut, signed a settlement for $60,000 each with the church.
Scott Chestnut, 46, said the alleged abuse has destroyed his life. He sank into alcoholism, went from job to job, and never was able to start a family.
“That church grounds is not sacred, it’s hell,” said Scott Chestnut, who lives near Kristian in Delray Beach, Florida. “Until this man has justice brought upon him, I will suffer.”
Kristian, 44, has suffered “severe and permanent psychological, emotional, and physical injuries, shame, humiliation, and the inability to lead a normal life” because of the abuse, according to the lawsuit. In an interview, he said he suffers from frequent nightmares, PTSD, and anxiety attacks.
But after struggling for years, he got back on track and earned a law degree from Albany Law School. He went on to serve as an assistant district attorney in Ulster County and as a special prosecutor for the 15th Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County, Florida.
The Child Victims Act lawsuit he filed alleges that Hullstrung sexually abused him from about age 4 to 7, from 1984 to 1987.
The alleged abuse “took place on multiple occasions on church premises, including in the nursery, in a shed, on a grave, and in the minister’s house,” the lawsuit states.
Hullstrung “initially began fondling plaintiff under the desk in the nursery on church premises where plaintiff was being cared for by church employees” or volunteers while Kristian’s parents were busy elsewhere in the church, according to the lawsuit.
Hullstrung “would then frequently remove plaintiff from the nursery and take plaintiff to various locations on church premises where he would sexually abuse and assault plaintiff,” the lawsuit says.
His alleged constant shuttling of Kristian around the grounds took place “in plain view” of staff members, but they did nothing, the lawsuit states.
When Kristian eventually told Hullstrung “that he did not want to be further sexually abused and assaulted, Hullstrung threatened to kill plaintiff’s family if he did not comply,” the lawsuit states.
Church ‘should have known’ Hullstrung was ‘a threat’
The defendants “knew or should have known that Hullstrung was unfit, dangerous, and a threat to the health, safety and welfare of the children entrusted to” his care, it states.
In an interview, Kristian Chestnut said, “It’s very difficult when you are a child to understand what’s going on, that level of evil. I just thought we were playing games. That’s kind of how he groomed me.”
“He told me we were doing God’s work,” he added.
But “one day I ended up in the shed with him and that’s when things got far worse. He took things to far more advanced levels than just massaging me and molesting me,” he said, alleging that he was repeatedly raped.
“I had nightmares about that my whole life,” he said.
In an interview, Scott Chestnut told a similar story of alleged abuse. He said he grew up dreading church day. He recalled thinking, “Please, don’t let it be another Sunday,” he said.
Hullstrung, who was born in 1967, was a teenager and young adult during the period of the alleged abuse.
Gregory Chestnut, 52, of Westbury, alleged in an interview that Hullstrung sexually molested him “multiple times,” starting when he was about 8.
The alleged abuse “happened to me on church ground while church was going on,” he said.
“I cannot be silent any longer because I need to be strong enough to protect future victims,” he added. “If I can prevent one person from being harmed by him, then I’m doing the right thing.”
The lawsuit names several United Methodist Church entities at the local and state levels because, the plaintiff contends, they all bear some responsibility for failing to stop Hullstrung and to train staff to intervene.
The New York Annual Conference stated that it has implemented policies to try to prevent sexual abuse of children in the church.
“Thankfully, society as a whole has a heightened awareness of the need to safeguard children in all spaces that’s well beyond what anyone would have envisioned 30 or 40 years ago,” the conference said in its statement. “Today through programs like Safe Sanctuaries and ongoing trainings for clergy and laity, there is a consistent focus on protecting the most vulnerable — that includes children, youth and adults in our communities.”
It added: “Our hearts immediately extend to the survivors, bringing healing and support to their pain, and the importance of recognizing the need to be vigilant and proactive.”
The three Chestnut brothers were born in Queens, and by 1979 moved with their parents from Woodhaven to Syosset. Their father, Harold, was an engineer at the Indian Point nuclear power plant near Peekskill upstate.
Within weeks of arriving in Syosset, Irene Chestnut, a devout Methodist who had emigrated from Holland, joined the church in nearby Woodbury. Not long afterward, Robert Hullstrung arrived as its new pastor, bringing his family with him.
His son Russell was a charismatic “golden boy” in the church, ever-present, charming and helpful, according to the Chestnut family. A youth group leader, his duties included supervising the nursery, where the faithful would leave their children during religious services and informal meetings and socializing that followed.
“I grew up thinking he was like the messiah who was going to take over for his father,” Kristian Chestnut said. “I thought Russell was like God.”
His mother said that on the surface, Hullstrung “was kind to children. He was kind to old people. He was always around. He was everywhere.”
A decade later, the day she first learned of the alleged abuse stunned her. She and Scott were watching an episode of “Oprah” about child sex abuse, and he exploded.
“Suddenly he got all upset and turned the TV off and started yelling, ‘I can’t take this anymore. This happened to me, too,’” she said.
The shock soon doubled when she spoke to her other son, Gregory. “This is what Scott told me and I don’t think he is making this up,” she told him. “He said, ‘No Mom, he didn’t make it up. It happened to me too.’”
The family by then was living in Hopewell Junction near the Hudson River and the power plant where Harold worked. Irene got in her car and drove to Woodbury to confront Hullstrung’s father at his family’s house.
The pastor didn’t say a lot, but the next day he “called me and said he was so upset by what had happened that he wanted to have a heart attack,” Irene Chestnut said in an affidavit filed in the case. Robert Hullstrung left the church in 1996 and died in 2017.
The alleged abuse left Irene Chestnut devastated, and her husband, too.
Harold Chestnut, who died in 2009, would say to her, “you told me already. If you tell me more, I am going to kill somebody. I don’t want to kill anybody. Don’t talk about it anymore,” she recalled.
More than four decades later, after leaving the issue buried for years, the family is fully confronting it.
“It will follow me until the day I die,” Irene Chestnut said, “how my family was destroyed.”
Bart Jones has covered religion, immigration and major breaking news at Newsday since 2000. A former foreign correspondent for The Associated Press in Venezuela, he is the author of “HUGO! The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution.”