Frederick McLean is one of the most-wanted fugitives in the United States, charged with 17 counts of child sexual abuse in California. Law enforcement sources say that when a victim's family confronted McLean in 2004, he allegedly confessed. But before he could be arrested, McLean fled.
Authorities identified at least eight victims that McLean allegedly abused over the course of nearly a decade. One victim estimated McLean molested her "over 100 times," according to the U.S. Marshals Service. Deputy Marshal Thomas Maranda, who is leading the hunt for the 56-year-old fugitive, says McLean gained the trust of many of his victims through his leadership position, as a so-called ministerial servant, in his local congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses near San Diego.
"His role in the church was significant," Maranda explains, "because we believe that his participation in the church gave him access to his victims."
His role in the church also became a matter of legal controversy. Last year, some victims' families filed suit against the Jehovah's Witnesses, alleging that both McLean's local congregation and the church's national headquarters, the Watchtower Society, "knew, or should have known, that Frederick McLean was a pedophile."
The Jehovah's Witnesses recently agreed to pay to settle that lawsuit and eight other similar cases, without admitting wrongdoing. The cases all involved men the church allegedly knew had sexually abused children. The settlements for those cases are confidential and filed under seal.
However, NBC News has obtained a copy of one of the settlements from the McLean lawsuit, and it may offer an indication of the potential magnitude of the payouts. According to the court record, the church agreed to pay $781,250 to the accuser, who claimed McLean abused her from age 3 to age 9. (After legal fees and other costs, the accuser was set to receive approximately $530,000.)
Lawyers for the plaintiffs declined to comment.
The Jehovah's Witnesses did not comment specifically on any of the lawsuits, but issued a statement to NBC News: "For the sake of the victims in these cases, we are pleased that a settlement has been reached. Our hearts go out to all those who suffer as a result of child abuse. Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide are united in their abhorrence of this sin and crime."
Internal records now coming to light from the settled lawsuits may help explain why the church agreed to settle the cases. Documents show that the church knew for years that some prominent members were sexually abusing children and did little. Church officials allegedly became aware of several of the cases in question through what amount to internal judicial proceedings, at which local elders confronted suspected abusers, obtained confessions, then meted out punishments.
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James Henderson, for example, was a longtime Jehovah's Witness elder in Red Bluff, California - and a serial molester. The newly uncovered documents include a 1994 letter from a senior regional church official to headquarters stating that Henderson was sanctioned by the church, stripped of a leadership position, "in the early '70's" in another California town. "Now he has admitted to doing it again," the letter states. In the late 1980s, according to another internal church document, a local elder dismissed allegations that Henderson had been sexually abusing a young boy: "There was no way it could be true so it was forgotten."
By October 1994, Henderson was Presiding Overseer - the top elder - in his congregation. After a father of one of his victims confronted him, according to church records, Henderson confessed to other elders preemptively, although he said he had stopped molesting the boy more than three years earlier. That was significant, because, at the time, the church apparently had a policy of waiving sanctions if a sinner was repentant and the sin had occurred at least three years earlier.