A Maryland jury found Nathaniel Morales guilty of five counts of child molestation today, bringing to a close a case that highlighted the responsibility church leaders have to report suspected abuse to the police.
The five-man, seven-woman jury found the former pastor guilty of molesting three teenage boys in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Morales, 56, faces up to 85 years in prison. His sentencing hearing is set for Aug. 14.
In emotional testimony that began Monday, the victims recounted how Morales used his position as a trusted member of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., to get them alone and force them into unwanted sexual relationships. According to WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Arlington, Va., Morales led Bible studies, directed worship teams, and attended sleepovers with teen boys he was supposed to be mentoring.
Child advocacy groups said the pastoral team at Covenant Life helped enable Morales’ abuse by not reporting allegations to the police in the mid 1990s. Morales disappeared shortly after his victims told their parents what was going on, but he later went on to work as a pastor in Las Vegas and married a woman with five sons from a previous relationship.
During the trial, former Covenant Life pastor Grant Layman admitted he should have reported what he knew.
“Did you have an obligation to report the alleged abuse,” public defender Alan Drew, who represented Morales, asked during cross-examination. “I believe so,” Layman replied. “And you didn’t,” Drew followed-up. “No,” Layman said.
According to police reports collected before the trial, Layman and another pastor, Ernest Boisvert, confronted Morales at some point but it’s not clear whether they attempted to warn church members or other congregations about the allegations. In a statement released last year, the church said it didn’t know about the abuse until “many years later.”
Until last year, Covenant Life was a member of Sovereign Grace Ministries, which has faced accusations of covering up child abuse in several of its member congregations.
In a statement issued after the verdict, state officials said abuse in the church is particularly heinous. “Sexually abusing boys who trust you because of your prominence in your faith community is unforgivable,” said Ramon Korionoff, spokesman for the state attorney’s office. “These grown men have shown a lot of courage to come forward in reporting these incidents of sexual abuse during their childhoods. It lets other victims of abuse in our community know that they can come forward and justice will be served.”