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Cover-up: not an option

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

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

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
Edward E. Plowman

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