Four young women who attended a Salisbury Pentecostal church filed a lawsuit yesterday saying that the head of their church made unwanted sexual advances and had inappropriate sexual relations with some of them. When they confronted the head of the church, the lawsuit says, two were asked to leave the congregation, and when complaints were filed with the church's district governing body, the allegations were not properly investigated.
The lawsuit, which seeks $4 million in damages, alleges that Richard C. Lawson, bishop of the New Life Apostolic Church, told each of the women that his wife was sick and that he would need a companion when she died. Two of the women say they rebuffed his advances. Two others, both age 18 at the time, said the advances resulted in a sexual relationship.
"That is a bunch of junk," said Lawson. "That is just pure filth and trash."
The lawsuit is the latest jolt in what has been a tumultuous year for the 22-year-old church, which earlier this year claimed to have as many as 400 members, or saints. In January, the church was set on fire by an unknown arsonist and in March, Lawson's son Joshua, who is the pastor of the church, was indicted on sexual misconduct charges by a county grand jury. The younger Lawson was acquitted of those charges last month.
In mid-January, longtime church members confronted Richard Lawson with concerns that he had had illicit relationships with women in the church and gave them expensive gifts. Those who raised the complaints were subsequently "marked," or asked to leave the congregation. Dozens of others have left voluntarily.
In the lawsuit, the four women allege negligent retention, assault, battery, and infliction of emotional distress. Aside from Lawson, the defendants named in the suit are the New Life Apostolic Church, the Maryland-DC District of United Pentecostal Church International and United Pentecostal Church International. The suit was filed in Wicomico County Circuit Court.
Congregants had formally complained about Lawson's behavior in 1998 and 1999, according to the lawsuit, which claims the district governing body never investigated these allegations even though it had a duty to protect female members.
An official from the United Pentecostal Church International in Hazelwood, Mo., who declined to give his name, said his organization had not been served with the legal papers and would not comment on the lawsuit. Superintendent J.H. VanSant, with the Maryland-D.C. District, did not return a message left with his secretary.
The lawsuit was filed using pseudonyms for the four women. "These episodes are very personal and embarrassing to the women," said E. Dale Atkins, III, a Baltimore lawyer representing the women. Atkins refused to make the women available for interviews.
One of the plaintiffs alleges that Lawson gave her a wedding ring set in the fall 2005, when she was 18. According to the suit, he told the woman his wife was sick and would die soon and later invited her to his home when his wife was away. There, according to the lawsuit, he touched her inappropriately and "he told her that it was acceptable for him to desire her because she was already his wife, just not on paper."
The woman wrote to the Maryland-D.C. District in January, and VanSant wrote back that he had appointed a committee to look into her allegations. He said that she needed to furnish additional information, including witnesses, according to the lawsuit. The complaint was dismissed in March, according to the lawsuit.
Another woman, who also was 18 at the time of the alleged advances and who had been part of the church since she was 7, said that Lawson told her that his wife was sick and "he and she should be together," according to the court papers. He said he saw a vision in which the two of them were together after his wife died and that "because spiritually they were one, physical contact was appropriate," according to the papers.
Two other women - sisters - rebuffed alleged sexual advances. One, who was 26 at the time, alleges Lawson met with her in his office in October 2005, and told her that his wife was sick and that he had heard from another minister that he was going to marry a black wife, according to the court papers. She was asked to leave and then wrote a letter the district office complaining about Lawson's behavior, according to the lawsuit. Her complaint was dismissed, according to the lawsuit.
Her sister said that in October 2005, when she was 21, Lawson asked her to do missionary work in Africa and the Philippines with him, told her his wife "did not have long to live," and offered to buy her a car, according to the court papers. The lawsuit alleges that she was also asked to leave the church, and also wrote a complaint to the Maryland-D.C. District that was never acted upon.
During the last year, rumors, gossip and allegations have swirled around the church, causing discomfort and confusion among many congregants, some have said in interviews. A group of parishioners, including two women in the lawsuit, voiced concerns about Lawson's alleged behavior in January. As a result, they were asked to leave the church.
"They made accusations that [are] not conducive with a spiritual atmosphere," Lawson said in an interview yesterday. "It is hard to have these people in the church. They are there making accusations against the church and my son. So we asked them to leave."
Barbara Joynes, who had been a member of the church for nine years, and her husband, Jason, were both marked in January. "It was devastating to my husband," Barbara said. "He loved these people. He loved them totally." She said her husband had been a member of the church for 17 years when he was asked to leave.
Others have left on their own accord - in part because others were marked. "We've all scattered to different churches in the region," said Marie Minner, who belonged to the church for 10 years before she and her husband left voluntarily in February. At New Life, she said, there was "too much anger, too much hate."
Walter Minner, her husband, said in his 15 years at the church he had never seen Lawson do anything inappropriate. He left because the rumors were upsetting his wife and causing the couple to argue.
Lawson, a contractor by trade, moved to Salisbury with his wife in 1984 and went door to door seeking congregants. Four years later he incorporated the church.
Over time the membership swelled, and the church bought property on the outskirts of Salisbury where the current 26,000-square-foot building was constructed. Now, he said, he is trying to rebuild his congregation.
"We're trying to get the fire behind us, we're trying to get this thing with my son behind us, and here these people aren't going to let it go away," Lawson said.