Salisbury -- Four former congregation members filed a civil lawsuit against the bishop of New Life Apostolic Church on Thursday, accusing him of using his position to help start sexual relationships.
The plaintiffs are seeking a total of $1 million in damage against Bishop Richard C. Lawson, 57, for allegedly making separate advances toward the four women -- whose ages range from 18 to 26 -- in a two-year period starting in 2004.
Reached at his home Thursday evening, Lawson declined to comment until he could talk to his attorney.
Thursday's lawsuit comes less than a month after Lawson's son and current pastor of the church, 30-year-old Joshua Lawson, was acquitted on criminal charges alleging he had an inappropriate relationship with a then 16-year-old female member of the Salisbury church.
Soon after Joshua Lawson's charges came to light in February, the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office said someone tried to set the church on fire.
Baltimore attorney Dale Adkins -- who filed the suit with Salisbury attorney George Strott in Wicomico County Circuit Court -- said the bishop allegedly used his power as head of the church to try and further inappropriate relationships with the women. Members of the church and of the Pentecostal faith are required to meet certain standards of conduct and are directed by their pastor and bishop, who communicate them the will of God.
"It was abuse of trust and position in order to achieve his objectives," Adkins said.
The 18-page lawsuit accuses Lawson of approaching each of these women, saying his wife was dying and that he had visions they were meant to be his new wife, followed by alleged "inappropriate" touching in the form of kissing, holding hands or hugs. The suit also claims one then 18-year-old plaintiff allegedly had sex with the bishop for several months in 2005.
The lawsuit indicates the women were all confused by Lawson's apparent advances because he said he had been directed by God.
"He told her that his conduct was in accordance with God's will because spiritually they were already one and he wanted to connect with her physically until they could be married in a man's eyes," the lawsuit states.
Once the women rebuffed Lawson's advances, they were shunned by the church and many of its members, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also claims that the United Pentecostal Church International Inc. and the Maryland-DC District of the United Pentecostal Church International, which the New Life Apostolic Church falls under, was also responsible for not properly investigating claims made by the plaintiffs.
"They should have put a stop to this because they knew about this conduct," Adkins said.