Minister's conviction splits Veneta congregation, church leaders

The Register-Guard/August 12, 2004

By Jeff Wright

Veneta -- The doors of New Hope Christian Center here remain locked, closed two weeks ago after a music minister's conviction for sexually abusing a young church member.

Pentecostal Church of God district officials say they took the action because of financial duress brought on by an exodus of members.

But New Hope's former senior pastor and several church members say the closure is in retaliation for their support of the teenager abused by Charles Fenwick Jr., who pleaded guilty last month to crimes committed when he served as the church's music minister and associate pastor.

Denominational leaders are trying to sweep the scandal under the rug, said the Rev. Ron Crandall, who served as New Hope's senior pastor for nearly eight years until resigning in May because of failing health.

"What they're doing goes against the word of God and is totally contrary to the tenets of faith," he said.

Harold Gore of Drain, executive superintendent of the denomination's Northwest Regional District, said the charge of retaliation is untrue. The church was closed in part because Crandall refused to cooperate with district officials on how to best handle the matter, he said.

"He has been an extreme troublemaker and rebellious," Gore said.

The dispute has created a tug-of-war over the future of the Jeans Road church, where a readerboard next to the front door announces, "Ch. Temporarily Closed." Someone has vandalized the church's larger roadside sign with graffiti.

The church, established in 1945, has seen its membership dwindle in recent months from about 75 to 30. Remaining members are now gathering for worship at the Veneta Community Center. They've met with a lawyer and maintain they're the owners of the $1.4 million church.

Denominational leaders say their intent is to reopen the church eventually with a new pastor - to be selected by them, not New Hope members. They deny allegations that they want to sell the church property.

"That would be a last-case scenario," said Gore, whose district represents Pentecostal congregations in Oregon and southern Idaho. "We're not in the business of selling churches. We'd like to build more."

In a statement released Wednesday, Gore said former longtime New Hope Pastor Gary Saner has been asked to coordinate a "service of renewal" and help identify an interim pastor for the church. Saner now lives in California.

The statement includes an apology to the abused girl, now 19, and her family, and says district leaders "are sickened by Fenwick's actions. He took advantage of a position of authority and diminished us all."

Fenwick is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 25 in Lane County Circuit Court. He faces up to five years in prison under a plea deal he made to avoid trial on charges that he had a series of sexual encounters with an underage female, beginning in 1998 when she was 14. The girl was befriended by Fenwick at the Veneta church.

Fenwick, 36, pleaded guilty to three counts of third-degree sodomy and one count of third-degree rape. His plea deal allows him to seek probation at his sentencing.

Fenwick left New Hope in 2000 and briefly worked at Lighthouse Temple in Eugene as a worship leader. From there, he moved to churches in Camas, Wash., and Boise, where he was arrested in March and extradited to Lane County.

The girl attended a Pentecostal youth camp in Drain last summer and told officials there about the abuse, Lane County sheriff's detective Michael Lamb said. When no action was taken, she approached Crandall with the information last August, Lamb said.

Crandall said he reported the abuse the next day to law officials, as required by Oregon's child abuse reporting law. Clergy are among the public or private officials who must report suspected child abuse within 24 hours of learning about it.

Church bills went unpaid

Crandall, 44, said he resigned earlier this year because of stress-related illness tied to his conflict with church higher-ups. He was recently hospitalized for a blood clot in his lung.

The church's closure caught Crandall and its remaining members - including church board treasurer Jim Williams - by surprise.

Williams, a 24-year member, said the local church never sought financial help from the district until June, when it asked for help on monthly bills. Money was scarce because so many members had left the church in the wake of the Fenwick scandal, he said.

Then in early July, Williams said, district officials told him to send any outstanding bills to the district office in Drain so district officials could pay them. But by late July, he said, the bills were still unpaid and he was ordered by Gore and other district leaders to turn over New Hope's keys and accounting books. By then the outstanding bills, for utilities, computer and other operational costs, totaled about $2,500, he said.

Williams said he has no doubt as to why denominational leaders closed the church. "I believe they're trying to cover up the situation and support Chuck Fenwick," he said. "They're punishing us for sticking up for the victim."

Gore said the main reason for closing the church was its inability to pay its bills.

District officials thoroughly investigated allegations about Fenwick six years ago, Gore said, but couldn't satisfy a burden of proof after Fenwick denied any improprieties.

Ronald Minor, the denomination's national general secretary in Joplin, Mo., said he believes Gore and other district leaders have handled the matter in good faith.

"There's been no effort to break the law or cover up the situation," he said. The denomination has more than 1,200 churches across the country, including Chapel of Praise in Eugene and Victory Tabernacle in Springfield.

Determined to reclaim church

But Claude "Chip" Miller of Nampa, Idaho, a member of the Northwest region's district board, said several aspects of the New Hope closure are irregular.

Many other churches have sought and received financial help from the district without being closed down, he said. Also, district officials typically post a pastoral job opening as soon as a pastor leaves a church, he said. That still hasn't happened at New Hope.

"I believe in this denomination and what it really stands for, but I don't believe in the logic of the decisions that these men have made," he said.

Lane County Deputy District Attorney Bob Gorham, who helped prosecute Fenwick, said district leaders were uncooperative during the criminal investigation and failed to follow the child abuse reporting law when the victim came forward at camp last summer.

"It's fair to say that none of the people who knew about it, except Mr. Crandall, had any intention to report it," he said.

Gore said he doesn't know if all district leaders knew about the child abuse reporting law.

Though the district holds the New Hope property deed, local members are determined to reclaim the church, said Williams, the church board treasurer. Local members are the ones who bought the property and paid to build the two-building complex, and they have just $20,000 left to pay off the mortgage, he said.

Another alternative is to operate as an unaffiliated church, Williams said. "At this point, we're determined to be independent if we have to," he said.

Crandall said the controversy robbed him of his health and livelihood. But he said he's proud of the congregation's unanimous support of the victim and doesn't regret his actions.

"If this was my daughter, what would I want my pastor to do?" he said.

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