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Cover-up: not an option

A cautionary tale of sex-abuse charges against pastors that drove two churches to the brink

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In many ways, independent Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Wash. (near Seattle), and Redeemer Lutheran Church, a tiny Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation in West Duluth, Minn., are worlds apart. Overlake is an evangelical megachurch with 26 full-time pastors, 6,000 congregants, and the largest church attendance in the state; Redeemer has only 40 members left. But they do have at least one thing in common these days: Both are trying to recover from wrenching, humiliating ordeals involving allegations of pastoral misconduct.

On a Sunday morning last month, two lone protesters held signs outside Overlake's $37 million complex. One was Jena Cripe, 20, a University of Washington student whose family recently left the church. Her sign portrayed a man's face with tears rolling down his cheeks, saying, "Don't touch me." The other one was Jenny Fleeger, another college student whose family formerly attended Overlake. On her sign was printed a scriptural message: "End Hypocrisy. The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out."

Inside, a packed audience paid tribute to the popular pastor who had arrived in Seattle in 1970 from small pastorates in Alabama and Oklahoma, built the church from 75 members into one of America's largest, and now was leaving under a dark cloud of controversy: Robert "Bob" Moorehead. It was his final Sunday as pastor. Plans for a farewell sermon were scrapped after area pastors, all of whom he counted as long-time friends, said it would be wrong for him to preach. Instead, there were testimonials to his years of service, followed by a reception.

The controversy involved accusations that Pastor Moorehead had inappropriately touched or fondled young men, usually before adult baptisms and weddings. Such allegations surfaced briefly on and off for several years. The minister would deny them in elders' meetings, and they would accept the denials.

In March 1997, an elder asked congregant Dennis Sullivan to write a statement about an alleged inappropriate-touching incident at Mr. Sullivan's baptism in 1975. The elder had remembered Mr. Sullivan complaining about it at the time. In a meeting with Mr. Moorehead and the elders to review the statement, Mr. Moorehead denied the incident took place. The elders seemed unconcerned, and that bothered him, Mr. Sullivan recalled later.

Mr. Sullivan learned that Mr. Moorehead and another man had been arrested by an undercover police officer for lewd conduct in a public restroom in Daytona Beach, Fla., on July 23, 1996. The Moorehead family owned a cottage a short distance away. The other man pleaded no contest. The charges against the minister were dropped the following December, after his Florida lawyer became a state prosecutor. Mr. Sullivan obtained a copy of the police report of the arrest and circulated it among the elders and others in the church.

At church services in April 1997, Mr. Moorehead denied anything wrong had happened in the restroom and said the charges were a case of mistaken identity. But the pot kept boiling. Copies of the police report were placed on the windshields of cars in the church parking lot and on the choir's chairs that fall. Mr. Sullivan and several others began talking with reporters. Some other men in the church came forward with allegations of inappropriate touching. Records in the Florida case were unsealed. They showed Mr. Moorehead had offered to enter a plea of no contest while maintaining his innocence.

Pastor Moorehead, known for his strong condemnation of homosexual practice and support for traditional moral values in his sermons, repeatedly denied ever touching anyone inappropriately. His family and most of his congregation gave him unwavering support. But media scrutiny was intensifying (he has since declined to be interviewed for any story that mentions the allegations); other pastors were asking questions and prodding the elders to investigate.

This past February, with the blessing of Pastor Moorehead, the elders announced the hiring of a former Bellevue police officer, John Hansen, a professing Christian, to conduct an investigation. They invited complainants to contact him directly. Mr. Hansen promised "some kind of conclusion" in a report of his findings. The elders said the report would be delivered to the church's lawyer first, but also indicated it would be submitted to an "accountability committee" of several area pastors. The pastors would advise the elders regarding any action to be taken as a result of the findings.

Acknowledging he no longer was above reproach in the community, Mr. Moorehead resigned from the Eastside Steering Committee, a group of pastors heading up an evangelical coalition of more than 60 churches in Bellevue and Seattle's eastern suburbs. In mid-April, he submitted his resignation to Overlake's elders. They struggled for three weeks before accepting it. On May 17, following Mr. Moorehead's sermon, the 13 elders flanked him on the platform. Elder Gary Scott announced that after years of "selfless service," the pastor had been "shredded" by unrelenting attacks of accusers, by "the enemy." And now, "Bob has determined it's time for him to turn over the pulpit to the next generation." The congregation drew a collective breath, and many shouted, "No!" There were sobs, and soon the sounds of weeping filled the sanctuary.

On May 27, the elders announced to a Wednesday night gathering that they had completed their investigation and had found "no basis" to take action against the pastor. The congregation stood and applauded. Mr. Scott took into account these factors: the credibility of each accuser, his willingness to speak with the investigator (some declined), his willingness to be identified, whether the accused spoke out at the time of the alleged incident, and whether there were corroborating witnesses to the allegation (the Bible requires at least two, Mr. Scott said). He said the elders dismissed allegations where there were no witnesses. Further, he said they had not sought the opinion of Mr. Hansen, the police officer, and his report would not be released to anyone.

Cries of "cover-up" and "whitewash" erupted throughout the Seattle area in ensuing days. Critics complained the victims had been vilified. Therapists said there rarely is a witness to sexual abuse. Prominent Eastside pastors publicly scolded Overlake's elders for "misinterpreting" the Bible. "Here were 17 cases with 17 witnesses, but the elders took each case separately," Pastor Joseph Fuiten of Cedar Park Assembly of God in Bothell told WORLD. "There seems to have been a pattern of misbehavior; did the elders not see that?" The pastors also called for release of the Hansen report.

On June 24, four elders delivered a "State of Our Union" report to the congregation. They acknowledged the elders "may have made some mistakes" in handling the sexual misconduct charges against their pastor, and they may not have shown sensitivity to the men who came forward. They indicated they had been wounded by criticism from Overlake staff members, other pastors, and the community. But, they explained, they were "common men ... fallible men, men capable of making errors." And, they added, following months of turmoil, it is time for the church to "put the past in the past."

The past, however, can come back decades later and be a church's worst nightmare, driving it to the brink of extinction, as the members of Redeemer Lutheran Church in West Duluth can attest.

Some 40 remaining members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation had to accept responsibility and hundreds of thousands of dollars of liability for the secret sins of a former pastor 30 years ago-someone the newer members had never met. Just hours before confiscation of its property and a scheduled vote by the congregation to disband, unexpected help arrived from anonymous benefactors and the regional unit of the LCMS, and a settlement was reached. On June 7, members rededicated the church and themselves to the Lord, then gathered in the fellowship hall for a potluck luncheon to celebrate their new lease on life.

The dark past started coming alive in 1990 when David Samarzia, an accountant and former Redeemer member who had been undergoing therapy for alcoholism and social phobia, told a counselor of sexual contacts he'd had as a boy with Pastor Daniel Reeb in the 1960s. The minister, who has never married, had served both Redeemer and a small church in neighboring Wrenshall from 1961 to 1979. Mr. Samarzia, now 44 and a divorced father of two, said the abuse started when he was 11 and worsened in 1967 when he was 13, lasting until he was 16. The pastor was in his 30s at the time. Records showed the youth's grades nose-dived; he dropped out of team sports; he had emotional problems; and he tried to commit suicide in the family garage.

In 1991, after leaders at the Wrenshall church dismissed his warnings about taking a youth group to visit Mr. Reeb at his newest church in the Bahamas, Mr. Samarzia decided to take the matter to court. He sued Pastor Reeb for sexual battery, clergy malpractice, and breach of fiduciary duty. He sued Redeemer for negligence, claiming leaders and members knew about Pastor Reeb's abusive conduct but did nothing about it. He also sued the LCMS and its Minnesota North District.

After Mr. Samarzia's 1991 suit hit the news, three former Redeemer men called him and said they also had been abused by Pastor Reeb when they were boys. The families of three suicide victims called: The three had been boys at the church when Mr. Reeb was pastor. Church Mutual of Merrill, Wis., Redeemer's insurance company, settled out of court for $20,000 to $30,000 with the three others who came forward. Church and insurance company spokesmen said an apparent mix-up resulted in no settlement offer being made to Mr. Samarzia, an explanation he told WORLD he doesn't buy. "They kept fighting me," he said.

The trial, held in 1994, reportedly cost Church Mutual $400,000. A jury found that Redeemer's members knew, or should have known, that Pastor Reeb was abusing children. (In retrospect, trustee Graeme Wick said later, "we did turn a blind eye" toward the rumors, but no one knew children were being abused-or Pastor Reeb would have gone swiftly to jail.)

The jury agreed Mr. Samarzia did not realize until 1990 that he had been abused, keeping the case within the statute of limitations. It awarded him $643,800 from Redeemer and Mr. Reeb. The minister, deposed in the Bahamas, confessed his sins in depositions and to LCMS leaders, and was defrocked prior to the trial. (The statute of limitations spared him from criminal charges.) The LCMS and its regional unit were absolved of any blame.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the judgment. By the time the appeals were exhausted, the original award had grown to more than $800,000 with interest. Mr. Samarzia forgave the interest. Mr. Reeb, who had moved to Denver, had no money; it was up to Redeemer to pay. Church Mutual paid $215,000, the limit for Redeemer's liability policy. Most of it went to Mr. Samarzia's attorneys. Redeemer's members, whose numbers had thinned from about 150 to 40 during the litigation, said there was no way they could come up with the remaining $400,000. Attorneys for the LCMS advised the denomination to keep hands off lest a devastating precedent be set.

In January, Mr. Samarzia began the process of confiscating the church's assets. In February, he seized $12,138 from Redeemer's checking account. He served notice the church's property would be next. Eleventh-hour negotiations failed in May, though he did offer to settle for $200,000 and a public apology from the seven-member church council on behalf of all the church's members. They would have to acknowledge they had known of the abuse and did nothing about it. Church officers still considered the money beyond their reach, and some council members balked at the apology demand. They insisted they had not known what their minister was doing, and they didn't want to "lie" by saying they did. Several pointed out the abuse had occurred before they started attending Redeemer, or they were children at the time.

Mr. Samarzia went ahead with a sheriff's auction to sell the contents of the church. Some church members picketed, waving signs that implored people not to bid. Some signs criticized the LCMS. No bids were made for the religious contents. Following a few modest bids for small shop and maintenance items, Mr. Samarzia bid $25,000 for all the contents. He agreed to let the contents remain in place while Redeemer's members continued negotiations.

By the time of the auction, the church's plight had generated national publicity. An anonymous corporate donor pledged $100,000. Other pledges came in by telephone and mail. The LCMS regional office stepped in with an offer to lend Redeemer the $84,000 it still needed so the settlement could proceed promptly. Attorneys drew up a carefully worded apology to Mr. Samarzia and his family, along with an acceptance of responsibility, and the council signed.

Redeemer's leaders say they are eager to start rebuilding. A pastor who visits once a month to conduct communion services serves the church. A lay leader is in charge and preaches the other Sundays. A handful of potential new members were among a dozen visitors on rededication Sunday, signaling Redeemer may have a future after all.

The issue is far from settled at Overlake, though. Pastor Ken Hutcherson of 1,500-congregant Antioch Bible Church in Bellevue, Wash., a member of the Eastside Steering Committee, wants Overlake's elders to make an "honest report" or resign. "They need to get God's name off the city's list of laughingstocks."

As for preventive measures, professionals offer such steps as these: Churches should have a written policy on sexual abuse and harassment for staff members. Victims should be encouraged to report inappropriate conduct promptly; they should be treated respectfully and offered help if needed; their complaints should be investigated thoroughly. Abusers should be disciplined as set forth in the policy and according to biblical principles. And those who witness misconduct should speak up.

Edward E. Plowman

Ed (1931–2018) was a WORLD reporter. Read Marvin Olasky's tribute.


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