5 religious leaders charged in child sex scandal in Ozarks

Commune members who fled said abuse part of ceremonies

Associated Press/September 5, 2006

Washburn, Mo. – Turning their backs on the isolated religious commune in the rugged Ozarks where many had grown up, a group of members fled with only the clothes on their backs, trudging several miles down a gravel road to the nearest phone to call friends or family for help.

A woman in the group soon told a sheriff's deputy horrific stories of how the compound's leaders had molested girls as part of religious ceremonies during which they were told their bodies were being prepared for "service to God."

That was the beginning of a child sex scandal that has ensnared five leaders from two affiliated churches and cast a spotlight on a remote corner of the Ozarks that has long been home to spiritual communes, sheltered by deep oak woods, steep hills and a culture in which people keep to themselves.

"It's a shock, a sickening kind of shock. It's not the kind of thing you want to wake up in the morning and hear about," said Linda Hopping, who lives a few miles from one of the backwoods churches but said she had never heard of it before now.

The five defendants are accused of molesting five girls in all. More alleged victims have come forward since charges were filed in mid-August, and prosecutors said more people will probably be charged.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty. Their attorneys refused to comment.

One of those arrested, Pastor George Otis Johnston, 63, called it "angel kisses" when he touched one girl sexually before and after church services, the girl told investigators. Mr. Johnston also allegedly told the girl that "he was ordained by God to fulfill her needs as a woman." The abuse against that girl, prosecutors say, started when she was 8 and lasted until she was 16.

The youngest of the alleged victims was 4 when the abuse started, according to court papers. The molestation occurred as far back as the late 1970s and as recently as April, authorities said.

Mr. Johnston is charged with sodomy and child molestation. Also charged are Mr. Johnston's nephew, the Rev. Raymond Lambert, 51; Mr. Lambert's wife, Patty Lambert, 49; and her brothers Paul Epling, 53, and Tom Epling, 51.

Experts said communal-style religious groups are not uncommon in the Ozarks, with at least half a dozen now in the area.

"You don't find this in New York City, but you do find it in rural areas – tight communities, very close communities. You do not tell outsiders what's going on," said Gary Brock, professor of sociology at Missouri State University in Springfield.

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