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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In southwest Missouri, police are investigating allegations of child sexual abuse involving church leaders and church members. Prosecutors say there are multiple victims. NPR's reviewed extensive legal documents in these cases over several months and also talked to most of the accusers as well as some of the accused. The accused deny all the charges.

NPR's Doualy Xaykaothao reports that some of the alleged sexual contact may have been committed as part of a ritual or ceremony. These are crimes rare in the U.S. And a warning here, this story contains disturbing subject matter.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: This is the kind of story that generates headlines and local gossip. Just listen to this crowd at Charlie's Grill in the city of Neosho.

Unidentified Man #1: When they get to be in groups, they start to be, like, fanatical about their beliefs and things.

Unidentified Man #2: It's no different than Jim Jones.

Unidentified Man #1: It's a compound. It's not just - why do they have church compounds? I mean -

Ms. WILMA MILLER: When I was a kid, that sort of thing was called incest.

XAYKAOTHAO: Ron Baker, Gerry Gorm(ph) and Wilma Miller feel this way because there have been extremists and fringe groups in this corner of Missouri. In this same area, there's also data showing a high number of cases of child sexual abuse reported annually to the Department of Social Services.

What makes this story different is that almost all the accusers, five so far, and the accused, five total, are related by blood or marriage.

Newton County's Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Bill Dobbs explains.

Mr. BILL DOBBS: you would almost need to see the genogram to see the familial relationships. We have in McDonald County, Raymond Lambert(ph) who is married to his stepsister. We have George Johnston who is an uncle to Raymond Lambert. It is alleged by some members of that community that the religious leaders may in fact be the biological parents of several children who've been born into this group.

XAYKAOTHAO: Our story focuses mostly on the pastors Raymond Lambert and his uncle, George Johnston. Both men are charged with multiple counts of statutory sodomy or child molestation.

Pastor Lambert led his flock on a 100-acre farm. Pastor Johnston led his on a 10-acre farm. They ministered in the family's Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church. Before you hear more about their cases, it's imperative that you understand what happened earlier this year.

In the spring, 10 people secretly moved out of the 100-acre farm. Most of those left behind were shocked, since members of this religious community were unusually close. A woman who left with this group agreed to be interviewed but only on condition of anonymity. NPR agreed to this because she fears for her and her family's safety. She's also an alleged victim named in one of the child sexual abuse cases.

This woman is in her late 20s. She says she fled because she realized her extended family was behaving like a religious cult.

Unidentified Woman: They operate in a cult-like fashion. Raymond Lambert sets all the rules for the people who live there. He tells you what to go to school for, he tells you who to marry. He basically controls your life.

XAYKAOTHAO: Former residents of this religious commune say non-church members were kept at arm's length. While children were home schooled, adults did have jobs outside the farm. Some worked at Wal-Mart's headquarters in nearby northern Arkansas. The anonymous woman says Pastor Raymond Lambert told her to study music in college, so she became a music teacher.

One day last year, while surfing the Internet, she accidentally came across a cult awareness Web site. The Bible-based cult she read about began to sound like pages out of her own life. Alarmed, she contacted a California rabbi linked to this site. She says he counseled her for months. And in April of this year, she finally found the courage to leave everything she once believed in.

Pastor Raymond Lambert not only controlled her, but she says he also used his role as a minister to sexually molest her.

Unidentified Woman: The first incident started with taking my clothes off when I was 15 years old. He touched me from head to toe, every part of my body, and told me that this body belongs to God. And the only way that I could subject myself to God is to give my body to Raymond, who's God in the flesh.

XAYKAOTHAO: She grew up on the farm passionately believing in God and church, trusting that her sexual relationship with Raymond Lambert would bring her closer to God.

Unidentified Woman: I believed that it was right and that it was OK. I didn't feel like I needed to tell anybody because I was believing in that, at the time.

XAYKAOTHAO: In June, she filed child sexual abuse charges against Raymond Lambert. Not long after, Missouri police began to investigate other church leaders in this community, including Pastor George Johnston, an uncle of Raymond Lambert

Mike Barnett is Newton County's child-abuse investigator. He says another alleged victim, a 17-year-old girl, told him that Pastor Johnston sexually abused her starting when she was 8 years old.

Mr. MIKE BARNETT (Child-abuse Investigator, Newton County): It became worse at about 12. He would tell her that he was ordained by God, that this was her way to heaven, and that she needed to give her body to him.

XAYKAOTHAO: Barnett says he investigates child abuse all the time, and cases involving religion are rare. In a police statement, he says 63-year-old Pastor George Johnston told this alleged victim that even if she had sexual intercourse with him, she would remain a virgin.

In neighborang McDonald County, the state alleges that Johnston gave, quote, angel kisses to this same young girl, where the kiss would involve touching and fondling of her breasts and other inappropriate areas.

Mr. DOBBS: Raise your right hand please. Do you swear, on your word, to tell the truth, so help you God?

XAYKAOTHAO: At a preliminary hearing in October, another alleged victim, 20-year-old Mackenzie Kyle Aimee(ph), takes the stand in the Newton County courthouse. Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Bill Dobbs asks her what happened in the winter of 1998 when she was 12.

Ms. MACKENZIE KYLE AIMEE: I was starting to develop or grow through puberty. And I had some stretch marks coming. And he told me that he could heal them for me. And he touched my breast.

XAYKAOTHAO: On the stand, she alleges Pastor George Johnston, whom she used to call Grandpa, was going to teach her algebra. But instead -

Ms. AIMEE: He touched me on my breasts and my vagina.

XAYKAOTHAO: Months before this, families in this religious community were coping with other disturbing news. Amey Burkett grew up on the 100-acre farm.

Ms. AMEY BURKETT: In April, I learned that my grandfather thought that his daughters needed taking care of spiritually. And so in order to do that and in order to keep his daughters, he had sex with them. He then went on to father a child from most all of his daughters or his daughter-in-laws.

XAYKAOTHAO: Her grandfather was the late Cecil Epling, a minister originally from Ohio. According to Burkett, Epling wanted his seven sons and four daughters to become a tight-knit community, so he helped them buy the Missouri farm. When grandfather Epling died, his stepson, Raymond Lambert, took over the ministry. George Johnston later joined the family's church.

Family members say Cecil Epling passed his sexual beliefs to both pastors, teaching them that they needed to fulfill the sexual needs of their daughters and selected girls in the church. Again, Amey Burkett.

Ms. BURKETT: What's inside of them is God. And they think that they have all the power, all that it takes, to take care of a woman.

XAYKAOTHAO: Taking care of a woman meant having sex with them, in some cases from early childhood on. She says Pastor Raymond Lambert believes women should be put in their place to make them humble. Burkett says this usually required stripping off your clothes.

Ms. BURKETT: He would always say, if you're spiritually hindered, it's one of two things: your mind or your flesh. By taking off your clothes and knowing that you aren't ashamed of your body, it did feel like it set you free. And I know that sounds weird. A lot of things sound weird to me now, but it didn't then.

XAYKAOTHAO: Lawyers for Raymond Lambert and George Johnston say each of their clients deny every charge made by the alleged victims. Defense attorney Dwayne Cooper represents Raymond and his wife, Patty Lambert.

Mr. DWAYNE COOPER: No one has begun to question, why are you talking now? What are their motives in coming forward at this time, all of them simultaneously?

XAYKAOTHAO: Pastor George Johnston's attorney is Andy Wood.

Mr. ANDY WOOD: George and his wife are just absolutely devastated. This has come out of nowhere. These kids that they did think of as being their grandchildren, now these kids have made these just horrible, horrendous accusations against him. And obviously, it's ruined their whole life.

XAYKAOTHAO: I met Pastor Johnston at a preliminary hearing for one of several child sexual-abuse cases against him. He's a balding man, with a moustache and pasty skin. During the hearing, he sat solemn and devoid of expression, rarely looking up at anyone in the courtroom. When I ask him about the charges against him, he declines to speak about his cases, deferring me to his lawyer.

Lawyers for Pastor Lambert and his wife, Patty, agreed to let me talk to their clients, but with substantial restrictions. I was allowed only to ask about life on the farm, and how the allegations have affected them.

Raymond Lambert is charged with seven counts of statutory sodomy and child molestation in McDonald County. Patty Lambert is charged with child molestation.

In a soft voice, Pastor Lambert begins to tell me about his life.

Mr. LAMBERT: You wake up one day and things have all changed. And the whole world now seems to be looking at our lives, and they're accusing us. We've been tried and sentenced in the media already.

XAYKAOTHAO: Lambert says he loves every person who left the 100-acre farm, including those now accusing him of child sexual abuse. He says the allegations have been tough for his entire congregation.

Mr. LAMBERT: God said he was going to try us. The only problem of it is, we never thought we'd be tried in such a way.

XAYKAOTHAO: While he speaks, his wife Patty holds his hand tightly.

Mr. LAMBERT: Everyone that lived there by choice would build, and we would watch each other's children as we went out to work. And it was a place of a community - it was not something of a forced thing.

XAYKAOTHAO: Raymond and Patty Lambert say families left the farm not because they feared Raymond Lambert, but because of rumors that the FBI or other authorities might take children away from families and put them into foster care.

Mr. LAMBERT: They're not fearing me.

Ms. LAMBERT: They're not fearing Raymond.

MR. LAMBERT: They're not fearing me. That's not what this is about.

Ms. LAMBERT: The fear came from the outside. I have no great fear of these charges, because I'm going to trust my God all the way through it.

XAYKAOTHAO: Raymond Lambert nods his head in agreement.

Mr. LAMBERT: If our love and our truth about one another, and about what God has given us and about our relationship, my wife and I, hadn't been based on something true and strong, this would have tore our life apart.

Ms. LAMBERT: That's right.

Mr. LAMBERT: But thanks be to our lord that our love is stronger.

Ms. LAMBERT: We stand together.

Mr. LAMBERT: We stand together and we believe as one that our lord is going to make a way, as he's made a way and going to make a way for all those that have left.

XAYKAOTHAO: The child sexual-abuse allegations have affected more than 30 families. One trial date has been set for Pastor George Johnston in February. No matter what the legal outcome of any of these cases, this community that so many believed in for decades is gone.

Doualy Xaykaothao, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Tomorrow, we continue the story of this community in the Ozarks. Family members described life on Grand Valley Farm before allegations surfaced, and how they are now adjusting to a new life without their spiritual leaders.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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