Md. church member accused of molestation in 1980s

The Associated Press/February 4, 2013

A Las Vegas man has been charged in Maryland with molesting multiple boys in the 1980s while assisting with youth ministries at a church targeted in a child sex abuse lawsuit.

Nathaniel Morales, who had been working as a pastor in Nevada, is accused in an indictment of sexually abusing the boys when he worked with Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. That church until December was associated with Sovereign Grace Ministries, a Kentucky-based evangelical church group accused in a lawsuit in Maryland last fall of covering up allegations of child sex abuse by its members. The lawsuit was amended last month to name Covenant Life Church as among the new defendants.

An indictment returned in December charged Morales, 55, with ten counts of either sex abuse or sex offense. The indictment says the sex acts involved four boys and occurred between 1985 and 1990, when police say Morales was helping the church with youth ministries, conducted Bible studies, teaching at a Christian school and hosting sleepovers.

Morales, who was arrested in southern Nevada and extradited to Maryland, is scheduled for a pretrial hearing on Friday in Montgomery County Circuit Court, online court records show. His lawyer did not return calls seeking comment and a telephone listing for Morales could not be found.

The criminal investigation began in 2009 when a man reported to police that he was sexually abused by Morales when he was between the ages of 12 and 20. The man told police that his parents had spoken to the church pastor but that no police report was made. Several other men interviewed by police said they had been sexually abused by Morales as boys — sometimes in their own bedrooms or inside his apartment or his office at the school where he taught. The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault.

Police interviewed a co-pastor at the church who recalled having confronted Morales about the allegations. The pastor told police that "normally the church would appeal to the person to stop his criminal behavior and then, should it not stop, they would alert people that the person is not acting in a Christian manner. The person would need to show contrition," according to a police report filed in the case. The pastor said that going to the police was in the "realm of possibilities," but that he took his cues from the families, the police report says.

Another pastor, Grant Layman, said he had communicated with Morales several years ago and that Morales had admitted to "alcohol abuse and homosexuality," the police report says. He said that Morales told him that he remembered having committed abuses and having confessed his past to an older pastor, but that Morales now said he was very ill and could not recall the specifics of anything that occurred.

Don Nalle, the communications director of Covenant Life Church, would not discuss the specifics of Morales's criminal case, deferring to a statement posted last month on the church's website. That statement says the church is investigating the allegations.

"We are sickened by the thought of such abuse —sexual abuse in any form is evil and unconscionable. We are grieved by these allegations. We also recognize that we don't have all the facts. We would encourage everyone to withhold judgment until an appropriate legal process can be completed," the statement reads in part.

A lawsuit filed last October accuses leaders at Sovereign Grace Ministries, a three-decade-old family of churches, of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse to the police and of shielding known sexual predators of children. Sovereign Grace Ministries moved its headquarters to Louisville last year after three decades in Maryland and has struggled in recent years with fractured leadership and criticism over its discipline methods, especially the church's emphasis on sins, discipline and repentance.

Susan Burke, the lawyer who brought the case, said in a written statement that the "indictment supports our lawsuit's allegations of extensive wrongdoing by Sovereign Grace Ministries and its pastors. We look forward to our day in court."

Sovereign Grace Ministries has said the suit contains "a number of misleading allegations, as well as considerable mischaracterizations of intent."

Police say they're tracking the civil lawsuit and will conduct additional investigations if new information emerges from that.

Associated Press writer Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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