Jeremy Cook was 15 when Nathanial Morales started sexually abusing him.
“What he did shook my world,” the 40-year-old told a Montgomery County judge Thursday. “Trust issues. Relationship issues. Belief. Faith. . . . It’s a constant, everyday thing.”
The judge was set to decide how much prison time to give Morales, who in the 1980s was a charismatic member of Covenant Life Church. Morales sang on the stage at services and helped lead youth Bible studies. He also sexually abused four teenage boys during the 1980s before leaving the area and settling in Las Vegas.
The three other victims also told their stories to the judge, in written statements.
“I trust no one,” wrote a 45-year-old. “Very painful,” wrote a 40-year-old. “My ability to love my wife as fully as I would like has been a huge after-effect,” wrote a 43-yar-old.
Circuit Court Judge Terrence McGann took it all in. He sentenced Morales to 40 years, saying it would have been easier for the victims if Morales had broken their jaws, because those injuries could heal.
“The scars,” he said of the cases before him, “are just as deep as they were back in the ’80s and the ’90s.”
The judge was scathing in his opinion of Morales, including Morales’s earlier claim that he didn’t remember what happened.
“You can’t even bring your despicable self to admit your crime, so you hide behind your phony, self-diagnosis of amnesia,” McGann said. “Mr. Morales, you are one pathetic human being.”
Three of the victims attended Covenant Life when Morales was there. And the case, which police began investigating in 2009 after one of the victims came to them, has been difficult for church members. Many have wrestled with competing narratives of what church leaders knew 25 years ago.
Last year, as news of the case broke, leaders released a statement saying they weren’t aware of the abuse until many years after it occurred. But in May of this year, testimony at one of Morales’s trials revealed that church leaders were told about three of the victims in the early 1990s, but did not call the police.
“We want to know what happened,” said Pam Plaisted, a member of Covenant Life since 1982, who went to the sentencing hearing with her husband, Steve.
Church pastors have addressed the case from the pulpit, at one point offering to go on leaves of absence if that was the wish of leadership committees. It was not, and the pastors have remained.
Several of the top ministers came to the church after the Morales controversy. And many members, including the Plaisteds, are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt — at least until they hear answers to their questions. “We want to know what they knew and when they knew it,” Pam Plaisted said.
Covenant Life leaders have declined requests to discuss the controversy, citing litigation facing the church. But they released a statement Thursday after the sentencing:
“As a church we are deeply saddened that children have been abused and victimized in the grievous ways described in the Morales trial. We believe those who testified did so with courage, and we continue to pray for the Lord’s mercy, comfort and healing grace in their lives and those of all victims. We are grateful to see justice done in today’s sentencing.”
Morales did not speak at the sentencing hearing Thursday. His attorney, Alan Drew, asked for a sentence of less than 20 years and said Morales would be amenable to sex-offender-type treatment.
Prosecutor Amanda Michalski then detailed Morales’s crimes, noting their impact on the victims. (The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of sex crimes. In this case, Jeremy Cook gave permission to be identified.)
Cook asked McGann to impose a lengthy sentence.
“The reason I am here today is so that he can never have the opportunity to hurt someone else,” Cook said.
In an interview after the hearing, Cook said one reason he has been so public about what happened to him is to let victims know that it is never too late for them to step forward. Over the past two years, he said, about a half-dozen people have told him that they have done just that.
“It shows you that even from something horrible, something good can come out,” Cook said.