The founder of a popular megachurch in Arizona admits having sex with girls in his charge when he was a married youth pastor at a prominent Modesto church four decades ago.
"I sinned and harmed the most important relationships in my life," Les Hughey said in a statement issued after being contacted by The Modesto Bee. "Unfortunately, it's impossible to undo what happened, so I instead accept and live with the consequences."
His victims came forward soon after The Bee's February report on Brad Tebbutt, who like Hughey was a youth pastor at Modesto's First Baptist Church.
Tebbutt sexually abused a girl from age 14 to 17 in the 1980s, said the victim and a former First Baptist pastor who said Tebbutt confessed to him. Earlier this month, Tebbutt was placed on leave while an independent firm led by Billy Graham's grandson investigates Tebbutt's past for his current employer, the International House of Prayer of Kansas City.
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For two years in the 1970s, from age 17 to 19, Tracy Epler said she was coerced into having sex with Hughey, the pastor in charge of her youth group. When she finally informed First Baptist leadership, she said, she was told to bury the secret — the same direction given to Jennifer Graves Roach after Tebbutt sexually abused her a decade later.
"There is a chance to heal," Epler said in a recent interview. "This #MeToo movement is important, no matter how long ago it happened. We're hoping something is done, or at least that this can bring healing to other girls."
Matt Whiteford is the lead pastor at CrossPoint Community Church, which formerly was First Baptist. He said Friday that pastors who prey on congregants should be dismissed from the ministry.
Hughey, 64, is senior pastor at Highlands Church, a nondenominational congregation in affluent Scottsdale, Ariz. The church's income last year was just under $6 million, according to the Virginia-based Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
Hughey issued a written confession at the direction of his board of elders after they received an inquiry from The Bee. It's not clear whether the board had been aware of Hughey's past; a former employer said leadership at that church, also in Scottsdale, was "shocked and sad" at the news, as background checks had turned up nothing before Hughey was hired there seven or eight years after leaving Modesto.
Hughey's statement to The Bee characterizes his infidelity as "consensual relations with fellow college-aged staff."
(click here to read Hughey's statement)
They clearly were victims, two of the girls, now in their 50s, told The Bee.
"I was a good little girl and he was a powerful youth pastor," said Tracy Epler, whose maiden name was Looney. "I knew I had to comply. And I knew it was wrong and I felt terrible but I didn't know what to do about it."
Epler, 59, now lives in San Luis Obispo County. Back then, she was a 17-year-old virgin, "very timid, quiet, very submissive," she said, when Hughey, 23 and married two years, first had sexual relations with her. She felt alone, frightened and confused, and was terrified that anyone would find out, especially her parents, she said. "I was in an emotional prison that I didn't know how to get out of," she said.
"I always cried after (sex)," Epler said. "I cried afterwards in the bathroom because I'm cleaning myself and I don't know what it is. (Crying) was my only release of being scared and sad and not knowing what was happening or why, and knowing it was terribly wrong. There was a huge sense of shame and guilt."
Four women described Hughey as a handsome, charismatic young man in his mid-20s who made girls go weak in the knees and wowed huge worship crowds as he sang and played guitar. Ceres High School students felt particularly lucky that Hughey was in charge of activities at their campus, said Epler and Jane Berryhill, who ran programs with Hughey as Ceres High co-coordinator for First Baptist.
Hughey was raised in Modesto, according to news items in The Bee archive dating to 1960, when he was 7. He appeared in numerous play productions at Modesto High School and graduated in 1971, and married at First Baptist in 1974. Several articles proclaimed his music prowess at church events in those years; he told an Arizona magazine in 2016 that he had played in rock 'n' roll bands from age 12.
The four women, interviewed separately, all said Hughey and his wife would host youth staff meetings in their Modesto home to plan activities. As attendees left, his wife would go to bed and Hughey would encourage shoulder rubs with a remaining girl, all said.
"It was very subtle. It would become full back rubs, then closer to private parts," said Berryhill, 62.
She would not let him fondle her, she said.
"The sexual involvement was a means to an end," said another woman, now 59. "It was something I felt like I had to do to have (alone) time with him. I remember feeling used and guilty."
She asked to remain anonymous because "I made peace with this long ago," but granted a lengthy interview to corroborate the pattern cited by other victims.
A fourth woman said she engaged in full-body massages and was "ashamed and embarrassed" even though Hughey didn't have sex with her. "The bulk of the responsibility falls on Les," said the woman, asking not to be named. "He used his position and power to manipulate the vulnerable. I was a naive kid and he was a narcissistic ass."
Epler said sex with Hughey went on about monthly for two years, until she was 19 and studying at Modesto Junior College. She often wished it would end, she said.
"I didn't want to come over, but he would always say, 'I won't hurt you, I promise; let's just talk,' and I fell for that every time. It was about obedience and submissiveness. You had to. It was being obedient to God."
It came to an end when a First Baptist staff member intercepted a note Hughey had scribbled to Epler, she and the staffer offered in separate interviews. By that time, Hughey had left the Ceres High post to become "staff director of 200 junior high-age young people at Modesto's First Baptist Church," according to a September 1978 notice in The Bee.
The staff member and Epler then independently confided in church leaders, both said. The leader in charge of all youth pastors, Bill Stewart, instructed Epler not to tell her parents or anyone else, she said.
"Then I was dismissed," she said. "He said, 'Thank you very much for coming and telling me,' and that was the last and only time it was ever talked about. He didn't send a female staff person to check on me. So instead of protecting me, he protected Les. I'm still shocked by that today."
Years later, a counselor helped Epler unpack the memories. "He said, 'Tracy, they left you (figuratively) bleeding in the middle of the street'," she said. "I remember being shocked. 'What?' I had no idea. I really thought it was all my fault."
Stewart died a few months ago. Bill Yaeger, First Baptist's senior pastor when both Hughey and Tebbutt worked there, died in 2005.
Stewart had surprised Berryhill, she said, with a midnight phone call in 1978 asking if she and Hughey had had sexual intercourse. Another man in the youth group, who declined to be identified, recently told The Bee that Stewart also approached him to ask about Hughey's earlier alleged indiscretions with a girl who had married the man.
First Baptist leadership then sent Hughey packing. But congregants weren't told the real reason, the women said.
"It was kind of like a one-man Academy Awards show," Epler recalled. "Les was on stage with all the senior staff and he was being honored and glorified (because) he was an amazing man, a very talented musician, other churches wanted him and he'd taken on a youth pastor job out of town. It was a celebrated send-off. He left a hero."
In a 1978 roundup of news from various churches, The Bee said Hughey had "become minister of youth education at the Peaceful Valley Church of God in Sonora," joining another man who also had interned at First Baptist. The Sonora church changed names over time and no longer exists.
Hughey later worked for a church in Little Rock, Ark., before being hired at Scottsdale Bible Church in the mid-1980s, said Kory Schuknecht, a member of that church's executive leadership team. Hughey worked there about a decade, he said.
"Nothing like (sexual sin) ever came up in our reviews and reference checks at the time," said Schuknecht, who double-checked with the church's then-senior pastor. "And when Les was a pastor for us, we never had any accusations of sexual impropriety at all."
The two Scottsdale churches are 10 miles apart. Hughey built a credible religious empire and enjoys a good reputation, Schuknecht said.
"We're very saddened to hear this," he said. "And we're sorry for any victims. Our heart goes out to them. There has been way too much of this going on."
The #MeToo movement has downed numerous celebrities in sports, entertainment, politics and business. Well-known evangelicals have not escaped the wave, with sex scandals tainting Bill Hybels, who stepped down from Chicago-area megachurch Willow Creek earlier this month; Paul Pressler, who helped lead a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s and early 1980s; and Frank Page, president and chief executive of the SBC executive committee.
Perhaps closer to Hughey in circumstances was Andy Savage, who recently resigned as a megachurch pastor in Memphis 20 years after he was accused of sexually assaulting a high school girl in Texas. And closer to home, for Bee readers, is Tebbutt.
Only recently has a rash of old sex scandals at First Baptist come to light. In addition to Hughey in the 1970s and Tebbutt a decade later, two men were sent to prison for molesting several boys they had worked with at the Modesto church in the 1980s.
First Baptist changed to CrossPoint Community Church in 2010. It now has safeguards in place to protect against sexual abuse by employees and volunteers, its lead pastor, Whiteford, said when The Bee in February revealed Tebbutt's abuse as well as the two men's separate convictions.
Whiteford on Friday noted that Hughey had been long gone from First Baptist by the time Whiteford arrived eight years ago.
"I believe that it is immoral, inexcusable and very sad that anyone who holds a title such as pastor would do the sort of things you have described (about Hughey) and that they should be disqualified from pastoral ministry," Whiteford said, noting "deep hurts and a long road to healing" for victims. "I and CrossPoint Community Church believe and affirm that victims should be able to speak up, be heard and be helped."
Christa Brown, sexually abused as a teen by a Baptist pastor, is a recognized expert on evangelical clergy abuse. Church members, she said, are taught "from early childhood" the biblical admonition in Hebrews 13:17 to "obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves, for they watch for your souls."
"People indoctrinated in this way face an impossible bind when a pastor turns predatory," Brown said. "Their own faith renders them into easy prey."
Hughey's actions amount to "sexual and spiritual abuse toward trusting, faith-filled young congregants," Brown said. Having reviewed his statement at The Bee's request, she noted that Hughey "offers not one word of compassion or care for his victims. His statement is focused on himself and on how he and his family 'put our lives back in order.' Obviously, he is still dangerously oblivious."
Hughey cited "God's help, my wife's forgiveness and discipline and counseling from church authority" in repentance. His victims told The Bee he has never apologized to them.
Brown also reviewed wording emailed to The Bee by Doug Milligan, board of elders chairman at Hughey's church in Arizona. Milligan declined to answer The Bee's questions, and elders instructed Hughey not to grant an interview, saying the board "felt it best to not disrupt the church ministry any more than necessary."
"This pattern of protecting the ministry is one we've seen over and over in evangelical churches, and the time for change is long overdue," Brown said. "The people in Highlands' pews should be grateful to The Modesto Bee for bringing to light the truth about the current pastor. However ugly that truth may be, it's far better to know the truth and deal with it than to allow such a dangerous truth to stay shrouded in secrecy."
Those in Highlands' pews celebrated the church's 20th anniversary four weeks ago with Hughey leading praise songs. A video featured many photos of Hughey as a young man, and recounted the Arizona congregation's growth from initial meetings in a school and warehouse to its current campus on 21 donated acres. The church has humanitarian missions in several countries and viewers tune in from 150 countries for Sunday sermons, a narrator said.
"I wrestled with God" before establishing Highlands," Hughey told the congregation. "I sensed his leading and calling."
Highlands' many ministries stage events such as last week's Highlands Men "Celebration of Character" and a two-week Bible Institute presentation titled "Responding to Cultural Sexuality," concluding today.
Epler said, "I'm amazed Les is in ministry after all these years ... still proclaiming to be a man of God. It's very nauseating."
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390