Pastor accused of child rape ruled with an iron hand

Allegations shatter small congregation in South Kitsap

Seattle Porst-Interlligencer/November 9, 2007

Port Orchard -- Church leaders in South Kitsap County are a genial group. Despite theological differences, they meet monthly for lunch, hobnobbing about charity events or ways to improve their ministry. Over the years, they occasionally extended invitations to Pastor Robbin Leeroy Harper, asking him to join their circle. But the mild-looking church leader rebuffed every overture.

Pastor Robb, as he is known to adherents, led a congregation of 60, who met several times a week on the quiet, rural road where Harper had founded The Church. There, in a gated compound, he preached a non-denominational -- though strict -- interpretation of the Bible and kept largely to himself.

Many in South Kitsap believe they now know why.

Eight days ago, Harper was charged with multiple counts of child rape stretching back at least to 1994, after five young women -- all of them one-time members of the congregation -- accused the married father of four of years of sexual abuse within the church compound.

"When you're up to no good, you tend to hide," said Jamie Greening, pastor at First Baptist Church in Port Orchard. "Even the most theologically separatist types remain involved in their communities. But this group was pretty much completely behind doors. The word that I would use is fringe, very fringe."

The bunker mentality likely contributed to the alleged crimes remaining hidden for so long, Greening said. Certainly, it shielded him from prying questions and left his followers vulnerable.

After the first group of five accusers came forward, another two made reports, then three more. So far, a dozen women and girls -- one just 10 years old -- have described molestations to police, each progressing through a similar pattern.

Typically, the pastor began by giving girls aged 7 or 8 "inappropriate hugs," moving his hands across their bodies and under their shirts, according to the victims' statements.

Within a year or so, he would penetrate them digitally, display pornography and expose his penis, court documents say.

When the girls were 15 or 16, Harper allegedly initiated intercourse, countering their protests by explaining that he was preparing them for adult relationships.

"Harper would convince her that what he was doing was OK and that her sex life was a huge contributor to a successful marriage," court papers say.

The 60-year-old pastor has pleaded not guilty and is being held on $500,000 bond in Kitsap County Jail.

Court documents say that shortly before his arrest, Harper approached the father of one victim at church and "confessed that he had been inappropriate with his daughter."

The revelations have decimated Harper's congregation -- they haven't met since -- and several members said they were particularly shattered to realize how long the alleged assaults had continued, undetected.

"I was involved in what you might call an inner circle for some years," said Rick Thurston, a member since the mid-1990s. "That's one of the things that's bothered me the most -- how could I not see this? Maybe I just trusted the man."

Many in Harper's group, including Thurston, had come from other churches they found disappointingly watered down, even hypocritical. Harper, touting an unyielding standard of Christianity -- no associating with non-believers, for instance -- seemed pure.

"You want to believe that good things come from church and only good people go to church," said Danel Swan, a former member whose 20-year-old niece was the first to make a report to police. Harper had been molesting her since age 12, the young woman said.

Initially, Swan and the girl's father had been attracted to Harper's no-frills style of ministry. He lived in a mobile home. He was always on-site.

Swan even had him perform her marriage ceremony. But within a few years, she fled.

"It was condemnation, condemnation, condemnation -- until you can't take any more," Swan said. "You start to think you're going crazy. It was absolute control. He had a way of making you feel that if there was something going on in your life, you had the devil in you. And he was powerful. You believed him."

She described a close, tight-lipped society where members routinely gave more than 10 percent of their earnings to The Church.

Though records indicate that Harper and his wife, Christine, lived on Social Security and veterans benefits, they drove a Jaguar, and later a red Hummer.

Many members were struggling with personal difficulties, and in Harper they found an answer, someone who would listen to them and pick up the pieces.

"He got you when you were down," Swan said.

At least one of the young women accusing Harper described his methods as "brainwashing." Several former adherents spoke of his domineering manner.

"We keep hearing this over and over again, that he had this control over people in the congregation with regard to their personal lives -- the kinds of cars they drove, where they lived, even where they'd work," said Scott Wilson, a spokesman for the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office. "Everything went through the pastor for his approval."

Married to the pastor for the last 35 years, Christine Harper, 56, says she is pained by the revelations, and she does not dispute them.

"It's very obvious that my husband really messed up and I feel sorry for that," she said. "He knows he will likely be spending the rest of his life in prison."

She dismissed outright, however, accusations of mind control or cultism from the wider Kitsap community.

"Nobody was made to do anything here," Christine Harper said. "People have to take responsibility for their own lives. Nobody can tell somebody who they're supposed to see or not see. It's just silly to even talk like that."

It was nearly three decades ago when her husband, suffering from injuries he'd sustained during service in Vietnam, first became involved with ministry, she said.

Harper was not a believer, but a local church group prayed for him, he healed completely, and their lives changed almost overnight.

"There were all these miracles happening," Christine Harper said. "It got a lot of attention. My husband was being invited all over to speak. There were prayer meetings where people just flocked to us. He was obviously very gifted, but everything just happened too fast. All these people were coming to him for help, and he didn't have anyone to help him."

Now she wonders if she could have done more.

The Harpers' marriage was not as strong as it could have been, she conceded, and for years she had harbored suspicions about her husband's attentions toward other women -- adult women, she hastened to add.

"There were things I felt uncomfortable about," she said. "But I can't even fathom some of these charges."

The couple's four children, who range in age from 19 to 27, are suffering, too, she said.

Last week, someone in their home called police to request a patrol car after hearing gunshots. Later, a deputy found the family dog dead in a nearby ditch, though the manner of death remains unclear.

"People are hurting, I understand that," the pastor's wife said. "But there are lots of victims here. I seriously believe that my children and myself are also victims in this who need healing."

She has not shown up at any of her husband's court appearances, instead remaining shuttered within the compound, walking among the buildings and peering out from behind the fence that surrounds it all.

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