Happy Valley Pastor Mike Sperou convicted of child sex abuse, sentenced to 20 years in prison

The Oregonian/April 30, 2015

By Rick Bella

Pastor Mike Sperou was sentenced Thursday to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing a girl who grew up in his Happy Valley church.

Two sheriff's deputies led Sperou away in handcuffs while several supporters sobbed. He didn't address the court.

A Multnomah County jury of six women and six men had convicted Sperou moments earlier on three counts of first-degree sexual penetration of a person under the age of 12. The jury deliberated just 2½ hours after hearing 12 days of conflicting testimony.

Circuit Judge Cheryl A. Albrecht also ordered Sperou, 64, to register as a sex offender and to pay the victim $20,000 for her ongoing counseling and mental health therapy. When Sperou is released from prison, he must remain under supervision for an additional 10 years.

Victim Shannon Clark said by phone that she was "thrilled" with the sentence, for her the closing chapter in a long legal struggle. Clark was among seven young girls who complained in 1997 that Sperou had abused her while her family was part of the North Clackamas Bible Community. After a Portland police investigation, prosecutors declined to file charges and dropped the case.

But the case was reinvestigated in 2013 and 2014, leading to new charges against Sperou based on new allegations.

"I am very happy that someone believed me -- after all this time," said Clark, 29.

Deputy District Attorney Chris Mascal said she was pleased that the jury saw Sperou's  pattern of abusing helpless children – now adult women.

"They've waited a long time for justice," Mascal said. "I'm happy they finally got it."

Defense attorney Steven L. Sherlag said he intends to appeal Sperou's conviction to the Oregon Court of Appeals. He said the judge's ruling constituted "reversible error" when she allowed six additional women not listed as victims in the case -- Jennifer Olajuyin, Bryn Garrett, Rachel Schackart, Emily Bertram, Amy Robinson and Jessica Watson --  to offer graphic testimony of their experiences with Sperou when they were girls.

Albrecht said she allowed the testimony only for the jury to decide if Sperou's contact with Clark was accidental or if it was part of a pattern of his behavior. If the appeals court agrees with Sherlag, the case would be sent back to Multnomah County.

"I am confident I will see us back in trial within two years," Sherlag said.

The trial has been unusual in several ways.

There was no physical evidence and the case turned solely on "he said-she said" testimony about incidents in the 1980s and 1990s.

The allegations pitted family members against one another. The parents of three women testified that they didn't believe their daughters' complaints. Those parents remain loyal to Sperou and the church, where they continue to hold positions of responsibility.

Meanwhile, parents of the other four women blamed their former friends for protecting and enabling Sperou. After a couple of sharp verbal exchanges in the courthouse hallway, the judge has asked sheriff's deputies to keep an eye on the opposing camps.

The case also is unusual for The Oregonian/OregonLive, which generally doesn't disclose the names of possible sex crimes victims. But all seven women connected with the case came forward and asked that their names be made public.

The jury returned a mixed verdict on the three charges against Sperou, all Class A felonies. One count relating to an encounter in 1993-94 drew an 11-1 vote to convict. Another referring to the same time frame, drew a 10-2 vote to convict. The third, relating to an incident in 1995-96, also drew a 10-2 conviction.

In Oregon, 10 guilty votes are the minimum to convict in all but the most serious crimes.

The trial has brought into focus the North Clackamas Bible Community, a small, orthodox Christian church whose core members live communally in a group of rental homes that straddle the city limits of Portland and Happy Valley. Sunday services, along with weekly Bible study and language classes, are held in the homes.

At its peak, the church had about 60 members, but now has about 27. About  a third of the members left the church in 1997 after the girls accused Sperou of molesting them.

Supporters say the church draws its strength from the extraordinary faith and commitment of its members, who are dedicated to scholarship and applying biblical principles in their daily lives. But some of those who left said the church plummeted when Sperou began drinking heavily, taking drugs, having affairs with the wives in church families – and eventually sexually abusing young girls.

Sperou admitted that he once drank heavily and took drugs to treat what was then-undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from his combat service in the Vietnam War. But he said he has since remained sober and is under Veterans Affairs medical care for his PTSD.

Throughout the trial, the prosecutor painted a picture of a charismatic pastor who dominated and manipulated church members, convincing them that he has the highest and best understanding of the Bible and could guide them toward spiritual improvement.

By contrast, Sherlag worked to show that memories degrade and evolve over time. He said Sperou's accusers likely weren't lying, but suffered from memory errors introduced by repeatedly retelling their stories, by improper interviews that suggested certain acts may have occurred, by pressure from their parents and by "contamination" – discussions with other alleged victims who may have had axes to grind.

A jury poll revealed that only one juror voted to acquit Sperou on all charges. The juror was not available for comment.

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