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Cover-up: not an option

"Cover-up: not an option" Continued...

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

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.

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