Former Modesto pastor erased from website of Arizona megachurch he founded

Les Hughey, senior pastor at Highlands Church is pictured during a sermon at the church in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 17, 2017.
Les Hughey, senior pastor at Highlands Church is pictured during a sermon at the church in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 17, 2017. Highlands Church

An Arizona church has erased from its website its founding pastor, caught in a sex scandal that started four decades ago in Modesto.

In a Modesto Bee report, Les Hughey admitted having sex with young women when he was a married youth pastor at Modesto's First Baptist Church in the 1970s.

Hughey founded Highlands Church in Scottsdale, Ariz., 20 years ago. His board of elders placed him on leave when The Bee's story was published, and he made a public confession Sunday to his congregation, saying he had "consensual relations." His alleged victims say they were coerced.

Tracy Epler of Los Osos describes her encounters as a teen with then-youth pastor Les Hughey when he served at First Baptist Church in Modesto, Calif.

Other women came forward Monday, saying Hughey caught them unawares as he fondled them during massages when he was a youth pastor at Scottsdale Bible Church, one of his employers after leaving Modesto and before founding Highlands. Some victims said they are angry that the Modesto church covered up Hughey's misconduct, enabling him to prey on them.

Highlands' board of elders scheduled a "church family meeting" for Wednesday evening. "You are invited to attend as the Highlands leadership shares any additional information available at that time, as well as to spend time in prayer together as a church family," a notice reads.

The church has hired an independent firm "to fully investigate all allegations," and invited people to provide additional information. Scottsdale Bible Church and Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Ark. — among the places Hughey worked between Modesto and Highlands — posted similar letters to congregants, inviting people to share knowledge of abuse at his hands, and to receive counseling.

First Baptist, a prominent Modesto church, became CrossPoint Community Church in 2010. CrossPoint has issued no such invitation; lead pastor Matt Whiteford said he is talking with a company that may make recommendations.

Highlands' website continues to feature statements issued by its elder board with updated information on the Hughey scandal. But his photograph, position as senior pastor and email address have been removed from a section listing staff.

Les Hughey, a former youth pastor in the 1970s at First Baptist Church, is accused of having sex with girls as young as age 17 during his time in Modesto, California. A Scottsdale Police Department investigation has unveiled more allegations.

Also gone are a photograph of Hughey and his wife, and a page of history from the "Our Story" section of Highlands' website written from Hughey's perspective and signed by him. "We envisioned a church that would truly be a lighthouse to the community," the section used to read. "As we stay true to our purpose and priorities, firmly rooted in God's Word, we're excited to see how God will continue to grow us."

Highlands' income was nearly $6 million last year.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390