A survivor of childhood sexual abuse is suing a California church and her former youth pastor in one of the first of many lawsuits expected to be filed under a new law greatly extending the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims.
Tracy Epler of Los Osos, California, filed a lawsuit Oct. 17 seeking damages for sexual abuse she claims she endured while attending the high school youth group at First Baptist Church in Modesto in the mid-1970s.
The congregation, now called CrossPoint Community Church, recently settled a lawsuit with another woman claiming that a different youth pastor molested her for in the 1980s.
Two weeks ago Epler could not have filed the lawsuit, because she waited too long to disclose abuse that she says started when she was 17. That changed with the stroke of a pen Oct. 13, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 218, giving victims of childhood sexual abuse either until age 40 or five years from discovery of the abuse to file civil lawsuits.
The previous limit had been 26, or within three years after a survivor discovers that psychological injury or illness experienced in adulthood was caused by abuse suffered in childhood. The bill also includes a three-year “lookback” window allowing victims of any age to bring claims that would otherwise be barred by statutes of limitation.
“This historic state law will make California safer for thousands of families,” said her attorney, Joseph C. George, “but only if victims, witnesses and whistleblowers in schools, camps, churches and day care centers do as Tracy’s doing — find the strength to pick up the phone and call a source of help, be it a therapist, the police, or an attorney.”
Epler, 60, claims in her lawsuit filed in California Superior Court in Stanislaus County that church leaders removed a staff member who was overseeing about 200 junior high age young people after learning of her abuse in 1977, but instructed her not to tell her parents or any else about the abuse.
Rather than taking disciplinary action such as reporting the allegations to the police, Epler says the congregation “praised and glorified” her abuser and promoted his transfer to become the minister of youth education at Peaceful Valley Church of God in Sonora, California, in 1978.
While not identified by name in her lawsuit, Epler has said previously in media interviews that her abuser was Les Hughey. Hughey resigned last year as founding pastor of Highlands Community Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, after four women accused him of sexually abusing them four decades ago.
In April 2018 Hughey sent a statement to the Sacramento Bee admitting that while working as a church intern in California more than 40 years ago, “I sinned and harmed the most important relationships in my life” and was “rightly removed from that church.”
Hughey claimed he “engaged in consensual relations with fellow college-aged staff,” but Jane Berryhill, one of the four women claiming abuse, said in a 2018 Charlotte Observer interview that he would begin grooming girls at a younger age.
“He wouldn’t have sex with them, really, until they were late 17 or early 18 so he could say that it was a consensual thing, because they were of age,” Berryhill said.
“It was almost like a cult,” she said. “He had everybody under his spell, that he went after, because he worked on them. He groomed them for two or three years.”
In May the Scottsdale Police Department forwarded a 100-page report to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office detailing a dozen allegations of sexual misconduct against Hughey during the 1980s and 1990s, while he was working as a youth pastor at Scottsdale Bible Church.
Epler’s lawsuit claims that the church worker “physically perpetrated acts of childhood sexual abuse” upon her when she was a minor. It alleges that leaders “made a concerted effort to hide evidence relating to childhood sexual assault” by engaging in a “cover up” as defined by California law.
First Baptist Church of Modesto begin in 1902 as an American Baptist church but left American Baptist Churches USA for doctrinal reasons in 1980. After years of functioning as an unaffiliated evangelical congregation, it changed its name to CrossPoint Community Church in 2009.
In years past the church reported 3,000 members, but now the number is around 1,000. The church has long been the go-to place in Modesto for large funerals. In 2003 First Baptist Church held a memorial service for Laci Peterson, murdered with her unborn son, Conner, by her husband, Scott Peterson, now on death row at San Quentin.
Last year CrossPoint Church opened its doors for the funeral of Corporal Ronil Singh, a police officer shot and killed while conducting a vehicle stop by an undocumented immigrant with gang connections. President Trump used the incident to justify his argument for building a wall between the United States and Mexico.
Scandal hit the church in the mid-1980s, when church organist Bob Chapman and Sunday school teacher George Austin were convicted separately of molesting several boys they worked with at First Baptist.
This July CrossPoint Community Church settled a lawsuit by agreeing to pay $267,500 to a woman who claimed the church covered up her sexual abuse in the 1980s. Jennifer Graves Roach, an ordained Anglican minister and therapist now living in the state of Washington, claimed she was molested for 2 1/2 years, beginning when she was 14, by a 27-year-old married youth pastor at First Baptist.
The minister, Brad Tebbutt, cooperated with her lawsuit against the church in exchange for being dropped as a defendant. Tebbutt, reportedly involved in youth ministry for more than 30 years, worked most recently with adults at the International House of Prayer, a charismatic evangelical movement and missions organization based in Kansas City, Missouri.
George described Epler as “a brave woman who is protecting others by taking legal action.”
“Abuse of innocent kids and vulnerable adults can happen anywhere,” the attorney said. “But it’s often more egregious at these personality-driven mega-churches where there’s an unhealthy degree of reverence for the founders or pastors and either weak or non-existent boards or supervisors.”