21 May 2008

Sex abuse lawsuits bring Christian Gospel Temple under fire

The White House Watch - May 21, 2008

Sex abuse allegations shock community


Whispers of child molestation at Christian Gospel Temple, once based in Chino, California, came to a deafening roar in recent weeks with four civil lawsuits alleging abuse, cover-ups and cult-like conditioning.

The Cross Plains church has come under fire chiefly at the hands of four women who grew up in the church and claim their abuse was brought forward to the leadership and swept aside.

Cheryl Mears Morrell, Crystal Mears, and Lynette Fay each point to their biological grandfather, former assistant pastor Reverend Paul Mears, as the perpetrator of their abuse.

The fourth litigant, Jennifer Meier-Beita, says her abuse occurred at age 8 at the hands of Carlos Cruz, a member who was 17-18 at the time. According to Beita, Cornelius Mears, the founder and pastor of Christian Gospel Temple, instructed her and her mother not to report the abuse either to authorities or to her own father.

Beita says a confrontation in 2004 with current pastor Steve Farmer resulted in a church meeting where multiple members alleged abuse.

“Pastor Farmer said Brother [Cornelius] Mears never knowingly allowed a child molester to sit among us, even though he had just learned of my abuse story and how it was handled,” recalled Beita.

Several former members confirm the meeting resulted in an emotional outpouring of allegations from an estimated 30 victims and heartfelt apologies from members who said if they had known of the abuse, they would have protected the girls.

“Carlos tormented me for years,” said Beita, “making sexual gestures and comments - he knew he had gotten away with something.”

Amidst claims she is in it for the money, Beita countered, “I don’t care if I ever see a courtroom; this is my courtroom-to give other victims a voice. I want people to drive by that exit and know not to take their children there.”

When asked what the church had done to help the alleged victims of the lawsuits after coming forward, Steve Farmer said in a forum given Monday night at the church, “We have met with each of one of these [women] at different times and talked with them and listened to them and prayed with them and encouraged them. And we encouraged them to do what was necessary and reporting what they needed to – we supported them in whatever they wanted to do. But because they were allegations, we didn’t know exactly what to do with that.”

Allegations and convictions

Roger DeWitt, a Christian Gospel Temple member who eventually followed the move to Tennessee, was convicted of child molestation in Chino when his sister-in-law Laura Pedigo filed charges for the abuse of her 11-year-old daughter in 1992.

“Five or six families knew of our situation, and no one tried to cover it up,” said Pedigo, who unlike others, went to authorities before approaching the pastorate. Pedigo left Christian Gospel Temple for an affiliated church in Houston, Texas where she remained. She left the church in 2004.

Former member Janice Linder said she was shaken to the core when faced with the fact her own father had abused two of her daughters and according to his written confession, several others within the Christian Gospel Temple Church over the course of 20 years. Thomas Cassalery, now deceased –retired to Salem, Oregon and was later convicted of child molestation and spent five years on probation.

“He was glad we had stopped him,” said Linder of her father, who was a Bible scholar fluent in seven languages. “It was hard knowing he had taken advantage of the children of my friends during their visits and vacations.” Linder says her father later told her Cornelius Mears had been made aware of the abuse by the mother of one of his victims.

Paul Mears

Several men have been alleged as perpetrators of sexual abuse, but Paul Mears is at the center of the controversy with his connection to the foundation of the church, its ministry, and the current lawsuits alleging fraud and cover-up.

While Paul Mears remained in the ministry despite allegations that Cornelius was aware of his problems, former members say Alberta and Terry Mears, the wife and son of Cornelius, were removed from church membership after being accused of mishandling money.

The official Christian Gospel Temple timeline provided Monday night at the church states Mears did step down from his Phoenix, Arizona pastorate after he was confronted by Lynette Fay’s maternal grandfather Dewayne Bobbit in 1998, the year CGT states they officially had knowledge of allegations against Paul Mears.

“We believe the claimed abuse happened outside our church confines,” said Pastor Steve Farmer, who was assistant pastor to Cornelius from 1981 until he took over sometime after 2001.

“We did not hide or condone this claimed abuse in any way. We urged the families to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the claimed abuse was reported.”

According to the timeline, Paul Mears returned to Christian Gospel Temple when it was on Dickerson Road after the failure to launch a Clarksville church in 1998.

He sat on the platform “a place of prominence during worship services” until Cornelius confronted him. After the confrontation, according to the timeline, “he [Paul Mears] sat in the back of the church and never again held a place of prominence.”

Farmer began preaching against pedophilia and incest during 2001 in response to allegations against Paul Mears.

According to the printed chronology, “Farmer never publicly calls Paul by name, but the congregation knows who he is addressing.”

These sermons apparently led to a confrontation between Mears and Farmer in 2003, when Farmer admitted the messages were in fact aimed at Mears and his refusal to respond to the allegations of his granddaughters. According to CGT records, Paul Mears “angrily tells Farmer to stay out of his business…walks out and doesn’t come back to the church.”

Pastor Farmer made it clear at the Monday night meeting Paul Mears is no longer a member of the Christian Gospel Temple.

Farmer spoke with other affiliated churches beginning in 2005 concerning allegations of sexual abuse among members and the procedure for handling them, and developed a policy to guide the ministry and members of the congregation.

This policy, provided Monday night categorically rejects child abuse as a sin, and operates under several principles including reporting of known abuse to authorities, with reporting of suspected abuse or inappropriate behavior to the pastor or elders, for their investigation.

The church also pledges not to interfere with the reporting of any child abuse.

On cult allegations

Current member James Massie rejects labels people are attempting to attach to Christian Gospel Temple, including the word “cult”.

“We embrace a diversity of ideas, and the pulpit is open for anyone to speak,” he said of the services that have been described by some as ordered and controlled by the pastor. This sentiment was echoed by Todd Morrell at the Monday night forum, as light jokes were made about recent accusations that pastoral approval is necessary for essentials such as hairstyle or dress.

While Christian Gospel Temple’s doctrine does not closely align with traditional evangelicals regarding the trinity, hell, or the devil, Massie said these issues are less important when considering a label like cult.

“At the core of our belief, the early church had the truth,” said Massie who explained much of that eroded after the death of the Apostles and throughout history until the reformation.

“We believe we are still reforming. We are seeking the truth,” said Massie, who said his church invites others on that journey, rather than having any exclusive claims on the truth.

“Labels promote a heart of separation and we are against that separation,” explained Massie.

Concerning the current lawsuits and the women behind them, Massie said “I have love and a deep feeling of sorrow for these girls. I want peace in their lives and if there is anything I could ever do to help them, I would.”

Massie went on to say that pastors everywhere need to start preaching against sin again.

“Sin destroys lives. We need to stop the cycle of pain. The only way to stop it is through the love of Jesus,” said Massie.

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