Sex scandal forces resignation of former Modesto youth pastor

Woman describes what a former Modesto youth pastor did to her

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.
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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.

The founding senior pastor of an Arizona megachurch, caught up in a sex scandal with roots in Modesto, has resigned, congregants were told Wednesday evening at a special meeting of Highlands Church in Scottsdale.

Les Hughey, 64, was not at the meeting, attendees said.

MinistrySafe, a firm hired by Highlands, continues to investigate Hughey, who was raised in Modesto and worked at First Baptist Church as a married youth pastor here until 1978. That's when young women who had had sexual encounters with him confided in church leadership, they told The Modesto Bee in Saturday's report.

Top pastors in Modesto sent Hughey packing but covered it up, several victims said, enabling him to reoffend at another church in Arizona, three more women said Monday.

Modesto's First Baptist, which changed in 2010 to CrossPoint Community Church, will employ an independent company with expertise in clergy abuse to launch an investigation as well, lead pastor Matt Whiteford said Wednesday.

With as many as seven women telling The Bee about back rubs and massages that sometimes turned into groping and intercourse, elders at Highlands scheduled Wednesday's meeting and announced Hughey's resignation. The church's income was nearly $6 million last year.

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.

"Now no more women will be hurt by Les Hughey in the church," said Tracy Epler, first to tell her story of being sexually coerced in Modesto by Hughey from age 17 to 19. She said she was amazed that Hughey was dismissed a mere four days later.

"Those that have come forward, and those who have not, will now be able to heal in a more complete way," said Epler, who now lives in Los Osos.

Hundreds crowded into Highlands' worship center on Wednesday, said Tim Keenan, a former longtime member who attended the meeting. Reactions to news of Hughey's resignation ranged from satisfaction and relief to sadness, Keenan said.

"Obviously, he was the founder of the church; he was a big part of everyone's lives," said Keenan, whose teenage daughter continues attending Highlands' high school program. "But when you cross that line — that's a line you just can't cross," he said.

Highlands' elders have not yet made a decision about severance for Hughey, congregants said. He no longer is on the church's payroll, leaders announced.

Stepping in as interim senior pastor is Bob Wade, who had been serving as Highlands' "pastor of the 40s and 50s," and who reportedly worked alongside Hughey at other churches before Highlands was created in 1998. Hughey led a 20-year celebration only four weeks ago.

“Pastor Hughey’s resignation does not end the responsibility of Highlands Church,” Wade said in a new statement on the church's website. “We are committed to providing counseling and spiritual care. Further, we recognize the critical importance of treating any allegation of abuse or misconduct seriously and its victims with compassion.”

Elders said Hughey and his wife, who married at First Baptist in Modesto 44 years ago, left town after news of his infidelities broke in The Bee, following a public confession to his congregation Sunday in which Hughey cited "consensual relations."

Earlier Wednesday, Highlands had erased Hughey from its website except for notices regarding the scandal. Removed were photographs of him 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."

Earlier this week, three of Hughey's churches since he left Modesto — Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Ark., Scottsdale Bible Church (where Hughey, in his 30s and 40s, groped at least three young women, they told The Bee), and Highlands — posted letters inviting congregants to share information of abuse at his hands, and to receive counseling. Scottsdale Bible Church also began an investigation.

At CrossPoint, Whiteford said late Wednesday that an outside firm will conduct an investigation.

"We are also reaching out to those in our church currently and those who have been affected by the acts in the past who are no longer in our church," Whiteford said in an email. CrossPoint will offer information on its website, he said, including counseling paid for by the church.

"Our desire is to assist and help these victims and others who have also experienced abuse and need healing," he said.

Hughey also worked in Sonora, Madera and Monterey before heading to Arkansas and Arizona.

All seven women interviewed by The Bee were young women pastored by Hughey, or on his youth staff, in Modesto and Scottsdale, and all described being taken by a popular, charismatic minister with a talent for singing and playing guitar. All said encounters started with back rubs after his wife had gone to bed in another room or was not around.

Some said chastity was among Hughey's favorite topics.

"Although it was 35 years ago, I still remember clearly that the focus of many meetings was sexual purity," said Katie Peterson, not an abuse victim and now an attorney in Seattle. She described a "cult-like" youth group environment that she found "damaging to so many students."

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390