The elders of Overlake Christian Church gathered recently to deliver tough news to the family of the Rev. Bob Moorehead, the popular pastor who resigned under suspicion a year ago.
The elders told the family they had new evidence that forced them to conclude that, despite his continued denials, Moorehead was guilty of molesting male church members, according to an Eastside pastor advising the elders.
This represents a dramatic reversal by the elders, who, for more than a year, defended the pastor to church members, the media and the religious community.
Moorehead's family didn't oppose the new findings and was "very supportive" of the elders, said the Rev. Jan Hettinga, pastor of Northshore Baptist Church, who is among a group of Eastside pastors helping Overlake to heal from the incident.
The elders also confronted Moorehead, who continued to deny the allegations, Hettinga said.
"I think he's pretty isolated right now," Hettinga said.
The elders' revised stance was revealed in a letter to church members made public yesterday, about a year after Moorehead preached his last sermon at Overlake, Washington's best-attended church.
In the letter, dated May 18, the elders said they had erred in their support of Moorehead, and asked the congregation to forgive them.
The letter did not describe any specific misconduct on Moorehead's part, but the elders, calling themselves "ordinary, fallible men," said they had discovered new evidence that showed he "did violate the scriptural standards of trust, self-control, purity and godly character required for the office of elder and pastor."
The letter said the elders will continue to encourage Moorehead to "seek spiritual restoration."
Overlake's new pastor, the Rev. Rick Kingham, would not elaborate on the statement. Kingham said he spoke for all the elders.
Hettinga said an inquiry committee of six Eastside pastors, three Overlake elders and an Overlake associate pastor, Dana Erickson, concluded that Moorehead inappropriately touched a number of men.
After reviewing new information, the group unanimously agreed that "Bob Moorehead was indeed guilty" and submitted a report to the church's eldership, Hettinga said.
Moorehead, 62, has been accused by at least 17 men of molesting them, but no criminal charges have been filed. Many of the alleged incidents occurred before baptism and wedding ceremonies, mostly in the 1970s.
The elders' letter said the new testimony "meets the biblical standard of multiple witnesses," a requirement that previously proved a stumbling block in finding against Moorehead.
Hettinga said witnesses to incidents of sexual misconduct had come forward since Moorehead's resignation. Hettinga also said additional accusers lodged complaints, a statement Kingham would not corroborate.
Moorehead has steadfastly maintained his innocence, saying he was the target of "horrible, perverted, reprehensible accusations." When he quit the church, he said it was only because his reputation had been irrevocably sullied.
In the letter, elders said they would have asked for Moorehead's resignation if he hadn't quit.
This is not the first time the elders admitted mistakes in handling the sexual-misconduct allegations that rocked the church. Last June, they took the pulpit to acknowledge they may not have shown sensitivity to Moorehead's accusers. That statement stopped short of an apology.
But in yesterday's letter, the elders came closer to saying they believe Moorehead was guilty of sexual misconduct. And the letter - signed simply "The Elders, Overlake Christian Church" - apologized to church members "for failing to correctly perceive God's will."
The letter did not include an apology to the alleged victims, an omission that outraged some who made claims against Moorehead.
The letter "is about the most politically correct, watered-down, lawsuit-friendly letter you can get," said the former wife of one accuser. "It's missing the mark."
Gary McLean, a former church member who accused Moorehead of improper touching, said yesterday he was still waiting for a public apology to Moorehead's alleged victims and to those persecuted by the church for taking their side.
"I want to know that Overlake apologizes for what they put my family and hundreds of other people through," said McLean. "They accused us of lying when all we've ever done is tell the truth."
McLean said he doesn't expect an apology from Moorehead himself: "He'll go to his death never admitting this."
Camden Hall, an attorney hired to represent some accusers, said the elders should be replaced.
"The elders of the church who blamed the victims and not the victimizer should be sanctioned in some manner, and the whole church should get down on its knees and apologize to these people," Hall said.
But Dennis Sullivan, who left the church because of his dissatisfaction with its handling of the Moorehead scandal, said the elders' letter was a significant gesture.
"I got a spiritual closure," said Sullivan. "It was a tremendous feeling to read that and know the truth was out."
In addition to the apology to church members, the elders' letter outlines a new procedure to examine serious allegations against elders, pastors or staff members; it requires immediate suspension pending the outcome of an investigation.
The accusations, Moorehead's tainted leadership and months of turmoil have taken a toll on the nondenominational church.
Kingham said membership is stable, and that some who left in the midst of the maelstrom are drifting back. But a monthly newsletter mailed to members indicates the budget has been cut about $300,000 since 1997, when it peaked at almost $3.9 million.
As a young minister from Oklahoma, Moorehead built Overlake from a congregation of 75 in 1970 to a megachurch of 6,000, and made it the heart of an array of community activities.
In late 1997, just after opening a newly built church in Redmond, it was disclosed that Moorehead had faced charges of masturbating in a public restroom in Daytona Beach, Fla., in July 1996.
The charges were dropped, but the circumstances stirred suspicion among some church members. Then several men publicly alleged early last year that Moorehead had inappropriately touched them in the past.
The allegations were particularly devastating to the congregation and the evangelical-church community given Moorehead's public condemnation of homosexuality and gay rights.
As rumors and allegations created schisms in the church, the elders ordered an investigation, saying any findings would be made public.
After receiving the report from a private investigator, the elders said they found no basis to discipline Moorehead because there were no witnesses to any alleged wrongdoing, some of the accusers wished to remain anonymous, and no one had "cried out" at the time of the alleged incidents. They then declined to release the report.
Moorehead is believed to be living in Florida, where he has a second home. But the ghost of scandal still haunts Overlake.
"We still know people haven't been able to bring this issue to closure," Kingham said yesterday. "It's not like this issue went away with Pastor Bob's resignation."
The letter was sent because elders "really believe the spiritual health of the church" was at stake, as were relations with other Eastside congregations, said Kingham.
A possible civil lawsuit by Moorehead's accusers did not prompt the letter, he said. Hettinga praised Kingham, a former vice president of Promise Keepers, an evangelical men's organization, for his role.
"I think he came in with skills, and with a personality and background that equipped him to deal with . . . the complexity of the situation," Hettinga said.