Amended suit filed against church leaders

The Register-Guard/April 1, 2005
By Jeff Wright

An amended lawsuit filed Thursday accuses two top Pentecostal Church of God officials of counseling a young rape victim against going to police, instead urging her to travel out of state to face her perpetrator and other church officials in a "church-conducted tribunal."

The two accused church leaders - Harold Gore of Drain and Jamie Joiner of Kennewick, Wash. - said the charges are inaccurate and that the revised lawsuit is an attempt to win a larger settlement. The out-of-state meeting never happened because the victim backed out at the last minute.

Gore is bishop of the denomination's Oregon-Southern Idaho district. Joiner is bishop of the denomination's adjoining Pacific Northwest district and an assistant general superintendent on the church's 12-member national executive board based in Joplin, Mo.

The revised suit, filed in Lane County Circuit Court, is the latest wrinkle involving Charles Fenwick Jr., who was sentenced last August to five years in prison, the maximum term, for sexually abusing the female parishioner, beginning when she was 14.

The female, now 20 years old, filed a $10 million lawsuit in October alleging that two Lane County churches were negligent in hiring and retaining Fenwick as an associate pastor. Fenwick worked at New Hope Christian Center in Veneta in 1998 and 1999, and at The Lighthouse in Eugene in 2000.

The original suit also listed New Hope's parent groups - the Pentecostal Church of God in Joplin and its Oregon-Southern Idaho district - as defendants. The amended suit, which now seeks damages of $12.5 million, also lists Gore and Joiner as defendants. It also alleges that the victim has suffered physical injury, including nausea, sleeplessness, pain and nervousness.

The revised suit alleges that Gore and Joiner violated Oregon state law that requires clergy to immediately report any allegations of sexual abuse of minors to police.

Gore, however, said Oregon state law exempting clergy-penitent conversations from the reporting requirement is applicable.

Gore was present at the Camp Corley youth camp near Drain when the woman first disclosed the abuse in August 2003. The suit alleges Gore counseled the woman "through the use of Biblical scripture, warnings and implied threats that disclosing the sexual assault to law enforcement authorities would be harmful to her and to the church."

Joiner gave similar counsel and, along with Gore, advised the woman to meet with Fenwick and other church leaders in Washington state and without benefit of her parents or other sympathetic parties in attendance, the suit alleges.

Gore said he asked "a few fact-finding questions" but never counseled the woman in any respect. At the time, the woman was an 18-year-old adult and on several occasions asked church leaders not to disclose her allegations to police, Gore said.

Fenwick, who ultimately pleaded guilty to rape and sodomy charges, was still denying the charges, and church officials were struggling to find a way to be fair to both parties, Gore said.

Joiner said denominational leaders were at first unsure how to respond and checked with church lawyers in Florida for guidance. He said church leaders at one point asked the woman if she would take a lie detector test, if Fenwick also would agree to do so.

The woman was initially open to meeting outside the state, and was free to bring her parents or anyone else with her, Joiner said. "The girl seemed very cordial, cooperative and wanting to work with us," he said. "Her statement was, `I just want to make sure Pastor Fenwick is dealt with so that this doesn't happen again.' "

Ronald Minor, the denomination's No. 2 officer in Joplin, said regional church leaders were merely trying to follow church bylaws, which dictate that "an accuser faces the accused." He said no disciplinary action has been considered against Gore or Joiner, and no official internal investigation is under way.

"Other than these allegations, no charges are pending against either of these men," he said.

The lawsuit, which identifies the woman by her initials only, has a mediation hearing date of April 28 and a scheduled court date of Aug. 9.

Greg Veralrud, the Eugene lawyer representing the woman, said she is attending college in Eugene and wants to avoid going to trial, if possible. "She's doing her best to get some normalcy in her life," he said.

Veralrud said the woman was in no way a penitent when she disclosed her abuse to church leaders.

Fenwick's actions split the Veneta church, which denominational leaders closed last summer, citing financial problems brought on by an exodus of members. Some church members and a former pastor, however, said the closure was in retaliation for their support of the abused woman.

The church reopened in November - renamed Gospel Tabernacle after the Rev. T.G. Spradlin moved his Cottage Grove congregation to the Veneta site.

Former members contend they are still entitled to possession of the $1.4 million property on Jeans Road. Jim Nelson, an Albany lawyer hired by the former members, said they are pursuing legal remedy.

"We will be filing litigation to either get the church back or get sufficient funds to build a comparable church," he said.

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