Charges Amended in Church Abuse Case

New York Times/September 30, 2006

Pineville, Mo. -- The child-sex charges against two of five church leaders accused of abusing young girls from their congregations have been replaced with fewer charges because a statute of limitations has expired.

Paul S. Epling, 53, and his brother, Tom Epling, 51, were among five leaders from two affiliated churches accused of the abuse, which authorities say was sometimes conducted as part of a ritual or ceremony.

Similar charges were filed against the Eplings' pastor and the pastor's wife, as well as the pastor of a church commune in a neighboring county that is an offshoot of the Eplings' church. Those charges still stand.

The charges initially filed against the Eplings, both deacons of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church in McDonald County, stemmed from the suspected sexual abuse of two girls from 1976 to 1983.

The brothers' lawyer had argued that they were charged under statutes enacted in 1995. Assistant Prosecutor Dan Bagley then filed amended charges reflecting state law at the time.

Tom Epling had initially faced five counts of first-degree statutory sodomy, but those charges were replaced Friday with two counts of felony sodomy.

Paul Epling had faced two counts of first-degree statutory rape and five counts of first-degree statutory sodomy. He now faces one count of felony rape and two counts of first-degree statutory sodomy.

The Eplings are scheduled to appear Monday in McDonald County Circuit Court for a preliminary hearing, along with the pastor of the church, Raymond Lambert, 51, and his wife, Patty Lambert, 49.

Statutes of limitations are not an issue in the Lamberts' cases because their suspected crimes are believed to have occurred in 1995 or after.

In the case in neighboring Newton County, a preliminary hearing for the Rev. George Otis Johnston, Lambert's uncle, has been held, and a judge found enough evidence to go to trial. Johnston is charged with nine counts of felony statutory sodomy.

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