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Cover-up: not an option

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

Issue: "Madness in the Methodist," July 25, 1998

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.

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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.

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