RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A warning now that our next story deals with disturbing subject matter.
Early next year, a Missouri court will hear the first of several child-sexual abuse cases involving leaders of a church deep in the Ozarks. The women who made the allegations grew up in the religious community.
As part of an NPR investigation, Doualy Xaykaothao reports that most of the accusers and the accused are related by blood or marriage.
DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: The five women who have pressed charges are all now adults. They attended Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church in Washburn, Missouri. If what they say is true, and that's still to be proven, they were lured into sexual conduct by some of their church leaders when they were children, one as young as eight. This is 20-year-old Mackenzie Kyle Amey, one of the accusers.
Ms. MACKENZIE KYLE AMEY (Plaintiff): I was starting to develop or go through puberty, and I had some stretch marks coming. And he told me that he could heal them for me and he touched my breasts.
XAYKAOTHAO: She's testifying at a preliminary hearing in the Newton County Courthouse in October. Her alleged molester is 63-year-old Pastor George Johnston, a man she used to call Grandpa. Her younger sister has also made claims against Johnston. Attorney Andy Wood represents Johnston. He says his client is innocent.
Mr. ANDY WOOD (Attorney): These are two children that allegedly state that they were sexually abused by George Johnston over eight or nine year period, that they were both being basically digitally(ph) raped by their grandpa, or who they referred to as their pastor. Never said anything to each other.
XAYKAOTHAO: Why do you think this has come up now, though?
Mr. WOOD: I don't know. That's one of the questions I have.
XAYKAOTHAO: In neighboring McDonald County, an attorney for Raymond Lambert, the other pastor accused of multiple counts of statutory sodomy and child molestation, also questions the timing of the accusations. Duane Cooper says Raymond Lambert is innocent, and Cooper isn't happy about all the publicity the case has received locally.
Mr. DUANE COOPER (Attorney): As soon as people see it on television, hear about it on the radio or read about it in the newspapers, they assume because of the great powers of the state have charged a crime that a person is actually guilty.
XAYKAOTHAO: Cooper and other lawyers representing Raymond Lambert say they don't want to try their client's cases in the media. However, they agreed to let me ask Pastor Lambert about the effects of the accusations on his life.
Pastor RAYMOND LAMBERT (Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church): It's been tough on everyone, but I believe we're going to make it. I believe we're going to make it. My envision of the work that we have done, starting from nothing to building homes and to starting a school, and to perceive of what our life would be of course in a moment of a few days, and seemingly a few hours, all changed.
XAYKAOTHAO: One accuser, who fears reprisals for speaking out, tells me she left this community in April of this year. Since then, she no longer attends church because she finds it hard to trust any religious figure. She doesn't want to be identified by name. She alleges her sexual relationship with Pastor Raymond Lambert started when she was 15.
Unidentified Woman: Subjecting myself to him is like subjecting myself to God. And he told me that I needed to remove all my clothing and lay on the bed with him. At that time, I believed that it was right and that it was okay. And so, really, I didn't feel like I needed to tell anybody because I was believing in that at the time.
XAYKAOTHAO: Another woman who left is Sharon Epling(ph). She says she wasn't encouraged to read the Bible in this community because it was preached to her that only men of God read it. Sharon Epling is now reading the Bible. This is the first thing she says she learned.
Ms. SHARON EPLING (Former Member, Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church): There is nowhere in the Bible - does it state that you can touch a child. Nowhere. You cannot sexually touch a child, and that's basically what this is all about.
XAYKAOTHAO: Next week a hearing is set for one of the accused church leaders in McDonald County. Other cases are pending, and one trial is set for February.
Doualy Xaykaothao, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can hear more on this story later today on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
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