News

Investigations growing in cases of former Modesto pastors accused of sexual misconduct

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

The same firm is conducting separate clergy sex scandal investigations of two former youth pastors at Modesto's First Baptist Church, both of whom went on to long ministry careers elsewhere after church leaders here covered up their alleged abuse.

Virginia-based GRACE, or Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, has been hired by Scottsdale Bible Church to sort things out in the wake of Les Hughey's recent resignation from Highlands, a church Hughey founded 20 years ago, also in Scottsdale. Hughey, 64, stepped down after The Modesto Bee revealed accusations of him having sex with girls in the Modesto congregation four decades ago.

GRACE also is investigating Brad Tebbutt, who was a youth pastor at First Baptist in Modesto when he sexually abused another girl 30 years ago. Another Modesto pastor said Tebbutt confessed to him, and Tebbutt's current employer, the International House of Prayer of Kansas City, hired GRACE, run by a grandson of the late Billy Graham.

Highlands launched an investigation with another firm, MinistrySafe; another of Hughey's former employers, Fellowship Bible Church in Arkansas, said they will sponsor a probe by an independent company as well.

First Baptist in Modesto, after a vote by congregants, changed to CrossPoint Community Church in 2010. Its lead pastor more than a week ago said CrossPoint would hire a company to look into the Hughey allegations, and said congregants would learn more in church on April 29.

But in his sermon that day, CrossPoint lead pastor Matt Whiteford said nothing about an investigation.

He spoke for 50 minutes about pastors' responsibility and how people should react when disappointed in their leaders. Whiteford also referred people to The Hope of Survivors website helping victims of clergy sexual abuse; offered to help connect people with professional counselors; and had some therapists on site to talk things out on the spot with whoever wanted.

But Whiteford never mentioned the names Les Hughey or Brad Tebbutt, offered no apology for his predecessors who are no longer at CrossPoint, and had nowhere to send people if they want to report what, if anything, happened to them. Years ago, former leaders at First Baptist had told girls to bury their secrets, all told The Bee.

On Friday, Whiteford said CrossPoint had had three meetings in recent days with a prospective investigative company, but had nothing to report. He indicated that no more meetings are expected this week.

Options for people who want to share information include:

Sending email to GRACE at amy@netgrace.org, according to Scottsdale Bible Church.

Emailing help@fellowshiponline.com, according to Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Ark.

Emailing MinistrySafe at olivia@lovenorris.com, according to Highlands Church.

Several women calling themselves survivors of Hughey's abuse — all were teens in the 1980s (he worked at Scottsdale Bible Church from age 32 to 43) — established their own email account, weareherewomen@gmail.com, said Carrie Fuller and Jennifer Lefforge. They came forward shortly after The Bee reported former Modesto women, encouraged by the #MeToo movement, said Hughey had sex with them when they were in his charge in Modesto long ago.

Weareherewomen@gmail.com was created for "women (who) do not feel comfortable coming forward, but want a safe place to talk," Fuller said in an email.

Lefforge, also via email, said, "I truly believe that coming forward to police, and the media if they want to, is their best bet for healing, but they each have to decide that on their own."

Tracy Epler, who broke the Hughey story by saying that he coerced her into sex over a two-year period when she was 17 to 19, offered thoughts to those thinking of telling their stories. "My plea for you is to replace your fear with freedom — the freedom to tell your story while we all surround you with love, support and strength," she said.

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.

"Presently, there is a venue and platform. The road has been paved," Epler continued. "Telling our story is the hardest, most painful and exposing thing to do. But once told in a public way, be amazed at the healing and relief that takes place."

Lefforge wrote a blog post with encouragement, saying other survivors will "confidentially listen to you and give you guidance on what to do next."

She praised Epler and Jennifer Roach, Tebbutt's victim. Lefforge also wrote, "To the churches who knew and covered this up: you were wrong, it was evil, and you allowed (an offender) to roam free and abuse others."

Jennifer Graves Roach discusses how she was sexually abused as a teenager by Brad Tebbutt, a former youth pastor at First Baptist Church, starting in the 1980s in Modesto, California. (Garth Stapley/Modesto, Peter Haley/Tacoma News Tribune

Another avenue for coming forward, although limited to crimes committed in Scottsdale, is its police department, a spokesman said. The agency has received three reports from women who allege sexual misconduct by Hughey.

Arizona law allows reporting for some old crimes, including sexual offenses, but that law was not in effect some 30 years ago and it's not clear whether authorities can pursue Hughey's case.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390

  Comments