Pastor fires back in new abuse case

Last modified: 6/11/2011 12:00:00 AM
The previous pastor of Concord's Trinity Baptist Church yesterday rebutted accusations that he told a teenager who reported being molested in the 1990s to forgive her abuser. He also said he had no legal obligation to call the police because she was an adult when he learned of the allegations.

The Rev. Chuck Phelps said the woman came to him with her mother and stepfather in 1996, when she was 19. He said they told him the police were being notified, and he vehemently denied telling the woman - who alleges she was molested by her stepfather - to 'forgive and forget' the abuse, which she says began when she was 17 and happened at night in the family's Warner home.

'That is language that is being suggested by a special-interest group that publicly criticizes independent Baptist churches to generate media attention,' Phelps, now a pastor at a Baptist church in Indianapolis, said in a statement. 'That allegation is a bald-faced lie.'

The woman, now 34 and living in California, spoke to the police last month after learning of the case against Ernest Willis, who was convicted of raping his 15-year-old babysitter in 1997 while both were members of Trinity Baptist.

The girl, Tina Anderson, became pregnant as a result of the rapes and was presented by Phelps to the congregation to ask forgiveness.

In the statement he released yesterday, which was issued by his lawyer, David Gibbs III of Florida, Phelps compared the situation currently under investigation by the Warner police to the case against Willis, who was the subject of a report Phelps made to the Concord police in 1997, but who was not prosecuted until Anderson agreed to speak to the police last year.

The police said they couldn't find Anderson to interview her after Phelps helped arrange for her to move to Colorado. But Phelps characterized their efforts in that case as a 'lack of law enforcement follow-up.'

With the Warner case, Phelps said he was told by the woman's family in 1996 that the allegations were 'being reported' to the police.

'The police failed in their work, and somehow the pastor of a local church is being 'questioned' about this matter 15 years after the police knew about it,' Phelps said.

He said that 'the better question for the media to ask is how come law enforcement keeps dropping the ball on what was reported to them years earlier!'

Warner police Officer Scott Leppard, who is investigating the case, said he doesn't know whether the allegations were ever reported in the 1990s. The department destroys its records after seven years, he said.

But the woman - who asked to be identified only by her first name, Cheryl - maintained yesterday that the police were never involved in her case in 1996.

'They were not,' Cheryl said yesterday. 'That's a lie.'

Cheryl, who moved into her uncle's home in California in the summer of 1996 after telling her relatives that she had been molested, said she told Phelps what was happening to her before that year. She couldn't remember exactly when that conversation happened, she said, but she believes it was soon after she turned 18, which would have been February 1995.

And while Phelps said Cheryl's family told him the abuse started when she was 18, Cheryl was adamant it began earlier.

'I know when it happened, and I know when it stopped,' she said.

Robert Sheffield, Cheryl's uncle, said yesterday that Cheryl originally told him and other family members that the abuse began when she was 18.

But she later told him that it began earlier, when she was 17, Sheffield said.

'The entire story we received from Cheryl did not come out at one time,' Sheffield, who lives in Big Sandy, Texas, said in a phone interview yesterday. 'She was so traumatized, stuff kept coming out of her for years.'

Phelps yesterday posted on his website, drchuckphelps.com, part of a letter he said was sent to him by Sheffield in October 1996.

In the portion of the letter posted on the website, Sheffield said Cheryl told him her stepfather had been touching her at night, starting when she turned 18 and continuing for a year. He said Cheryl's mother was told of the abuse in January 1996, shortly before Cheryl turned 19, and that her mother went to Phelps for help.

Phelps said the letter went on to say that an officer with the Warner police was investigating the case.

Sheffield said yesterday that he had read what Phelps posted on his website and said he remembered writing everything except the part about the police investigating the case.

'That's news to me today,' Sheffield said. 'That's completely foreign to me.'

Sheffield said he wanted to call the police in 1996, but Cheryl was scared and refused to talk to an officer. Instead, Sheffield said, he called DCYF, since he was concerned about Cheryl's younger sister living in the Warner home.

Sheffield also said he didn't send that letter to Phelps, but wrote it in response to letters he said Cheryl had been receiving from friends at Trinity Baptist. After Cheryl moved to California, letters began arriving at Sheffield's house, 'questioning why she was leaving God, leaving the church,' Sheffield said. 'It was all being blamed on her by them.'

He said the person to whom he sent the letter must have given it to Phelps.

Sheffield said he also had a phone conversation with Phelps either shortly before or after he mailed the letter. He said he asked Phelps why he didn't report the allegations to the police, and 'what I remember him saying is he did not have any obligation, any legal standing to report this,' citing confidentiality rules protecting a pastor's conversations with church members, Sheffield said.

While Phelps said yesterday that he never instructed Cheryl to forgive and forget, 'I'll never forget that,' Sheffield said, recalling his conversation with the pastor. 'He used the words 'forgive and forget.' That it did no good to destroy that family.'

New Hampshire law requires that anyone, regardless of occupation, report suspicions that a child has been abused or neglected. There is no law requiring that people call the police if an adult reports being sexually abused.

Asked whether the reporting law would apply in a situation where an adult claimed to have been abused as a minor, Associate Attorney General Ann Rice said that would be a question of interpreting the law.

Failure to report is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail. Like other misdemeanors, the crime can only be prosecuted for one year from the date of the offense.

As for sexual assault, the statute of limitations runs until the victim's 40th birthday, if the victim was under 18 when the abuse occurred.

Leppard, the Warner police officer, said yesterday he is waiting to hear back from a Merrimack County prosecutor before deciding whether to file charges in Cheryl's case.

The current Trinity Baptist pastor, Brian Fuller, said the man under investigation by the Warner police has been banned from attending church services.

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com.)




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