Early last year, the pastors of Covenant Life Church — a congregation of several thousand in the middle of Montgomery County — faced a crisis.
Detectives had just charged a former member with molesting four teenage boys more than two decades earlier and indicated that, back then, some church leaders looked the other way. The pastors decided to take a strong stand.
“Covenant Life Church had no knowledge of such abuse until many years after the abuse when an adult who had been victimized as a child came forward,” they wrote on the church’s blog in February 2013, decrying the trauma that sexual abuse can inflict. “We continue to invite your prayers for all those involved in these matters.”
Now, the church has been forced to confront statements made in court that three of the teen victims or their families had come to church leaders for help in the early 1990s and that the church officials did not call police.
The testimony came during a May trial of Nathaniel Morales, who was convicted of the long-ago abuse and is scheduled to be sentenced at an Aug. 14 hearing that likely will draw more attention to the abuse and how pastors handled it.
Also pending is a civil lawsuit filed by former members who accuse past leaders of covering up sexual abuse. The claims have been dismissed largely because of statute of limitations reasons, but the lawyers have appealed and want to bring the claims back into play.
“We find ourselves, church, at one of the most difficult moments that we faced together,” Lead Pastor Joshua Harris said May 18, adding that he would step down if necessary.
“I want Jesus to be exalted,” he said as applause rose from the crowd over his halting voice. “That’s what I want.”
Among those listening to Harris’s sermon was a 43-year-old man, sitting next to his wife and youngest child, who has attended Covenant Life most his life. He was 12 when Morales, who helped lead teenage Bible studies and often joined sleepovers with the boys, began abusing him.
“The details revealed at the trial have stirred many understandable questions about when pastors were informed about this situation and how they responded,” Harris was saying. “In particular, we released a statement last February that said we weren’t informed of the abuse until many years later. And based on what we understood when we wrote that, we believed that that statement was accurate, and right now, we’re still getting conflicting information.”
The victim later recalled in an interview that he approached Harris after the service. He said he told the pastor that if he was to blame for not being forthcoming about what the church knew, he should take responsibility. The Washington Post does not identify victims of sexual abuse.
But the man also knew that Harris had arrived at the church in 1997, years after the abuse and years after Morales had left the church. Harris may not have known what happened back then. And if so, the victim told him, he should stay. “Don’t bow to that pressure,” he told Harris.
On Sunday, church leaders again addressed the controversy. A man speaking on behalf of two church groups said each had weighed whether Harris and other ministers should be placed on leaves of absence — and decided such action was not warranted.
On the advice of lawyers, though, the speaker said he could not share details of the group’s discussions — a sentiment that echoed past caution from the pulpit.
The 43-year-old victim was also at the church Sunday. He said he knows four families that have left the congregation recently. He wants to stay. But he also wants to hear church leaders reveal everything the church knew many years ago — and to do so now, regardless of the legal matters.
“Everything should be laid on the table,” he said.
Covenant Life grew out of the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. By the late 1980s, about 1,100 Covenant Life members were meeting at Magruder High School in the county. Among the members was Morales, who sang onstage and helped with a teenage youth group. Testimony from his trial painted a picture of how he preyed on boys.
The 43-year-old man, the first victim to testify, told jurors that he was about 11 years old when he met Morales. A year later, he testified, he awakened during a sleepover to find Morales fondling him.
The abuse continued for several years, sometimes when other boys were nearby. “I assumed and hoped they were sleeping,” the man said.
Years after the abuse had stopped, when the victim was in his early 20s, he told his pastor at Covenant Life what had happened. That minister, Grant Layman, also testified.
Defense attorney Alan Drew pressed him on whether he reported the matter to the police: “You didn’t do it?”
“No, sir,” Layman answered.
At least two adults in the church, including a pastor, spoke to Morales about the allegations after they surfaced, trying to counsel him, according to testimony. Layman said Morales soon left the church on his own.
Another member of the church, who worked there, testified that he was made aware of the abuse in the early 1990s — because his son was one of the victims. The witness said he approached the church at the time and eventually spoke with Morales, telling him he forgave him.
Sunday mornings at Covenant Life have all the energy and spirit of many evangelical, mega-church services. A band with drums and guitars leads songs, with congregants lifting their arms. Preachers dress informally — jeans, open collars, sweaters.
At least four times in the past year, ministers have addressed the legal matters — either directly or indirectly — from the pulpit.
At one point, Harris, the lead pastor, acknowledged that when he was a child — he grew up in Oregon — he had been a victim of sexual abuse. He knew the pain, confusion and isolation the crime can bring, and he had a message for anyone finding himself or herself in the same position.
“What happened to you is not your fault,” he said.
But many church members are yearning for a full explanation. As for the victims of Morales’s abuse, they said that after the abuse decades ago, they relied on advice from adults.
“That was the way we were raised,” one testified. “You take these things to your pastors. So we took it to the pastors at Covenant Life Church, and we were told that it would be handled. It would be taken care of.”