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Wednesday, September 06, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor sued — affair alleged

NORFOLK Va - A Baptist minister who was ousted as pastor at a prominent Berkley church earlier this year now faces civil lawsuits accusing him of financial and sexual improprieties.

The allegations have shaken the congregation of the nearly 80-year-old Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.

The Rev. Charles F. Mc-Keller faces civil suits by an estranged couple who claim that instead of counseling them to repair their marriage he drove them further apart by engaging in a sexual relationship with the wife.

Hayward and Patricia Cuthrell filed separate lawsuits in Norfolk Circuit Court against McKeller and Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Each is seeking $2 million.

According to court records and interviews, the church suspended, then fired Mc-Keller after the wife recorded one of their sexual trysts and presented it to a church deacon.

After he was suspended, McKeller ran up thousands of dollars in charges on the church's credit card, according to another civil action filed in Norfolk General District Court by the church against McKeller.

McKeller counters in his own court filing that the church owes him severance and vacation pay.

McKeller declined The Virginian-Pilot's request for an interview, but his attorney denies the allegations in each lawsuit.

"If anyone loses, it's the church," said McKeller's attorney, Bruce C. Sams.

"They could lose members. It's already happened," he added. "It takes away from the mission of the church - serving your neighborhoods and your community. Instead, they're using resources to engage in back-and-forth litigation."

Church trustees and deacons declined to comment. Church members approached out side Antioch this week also declined to be interviewed.

Church member and state Del. Kenneth C. Alexander, D-Norfolk, said Antioch has lost members as a result, but the church is "forging ahead" and continues to hold services and operate its clothing and food banks.

"It's like any other assembly of people. Whenever ministers come to a church, some bring people with them and when ministers leave, some people rally behind the institution and some members go with that leader," he said. "There's no crisis. The order of things continues."

McKeller joined Antioch in late 2004 after serving at Oakwood Chapel Church Disciples of Christ in Norfolk.

In April 2005, the Cuthrells came to McKeller seeking pastoral and marital counseling, according to the lawsuits filed by the couple, who were living in Portsmouth at the time.

McKeller, one suit says, "abused his confidential relationship by mentally manipulating" Patricia Cuthrell into a sexual relationship with him. McKeller told her that her husband was having an affair, "which was not true," the court papers say.

The relationship between Patricia Cuthrell and Mc-Keller, which continued through February of this year, ruined the Cuthrells' already strained marriage, the court papers say. The couple, through their attorney, John W. Bonney, declined to be interviewed.

Patricia Cuthrell says in court affidavits that she did not resist McKeller's advances. At times, McKeller paid some of her bills, bought her alcohol and took her to a store called the Pink Banana Boutique in Virginia Beach to purchase sex toys, the affidavits say.

"Pastor McKeller told me during these encounters that I was not yet ready for baptism and that God had brought me to him for this purpose," she said in an affidavit. "He prayed with me after our sexual encounters and tried to dissuade my attempts to reconcile with my husband."

When McKeller objected to her attempts to end the relationship, she complained to a church deacon, the affidavit says.

An unidentified deacon asked her to obtain evidence so she tape-recorded a sexual encounter with him in the church office, the papers said.

In a letter dated April 23, church leaders informed McKeller that he was suspended with pay. McKeller's attorney said the pastor later was terminated.

McKeller's salary was $75,000 and he was living in a Portsmouth house that overlooks the Bide-A-Wee Golf Course. The house has a "for sale" sign out front.

Sams, McKeller's attorney, called the allegations in the lawsuits "baseless and false" and added that McKeller never engaged in any "inappropriate behavior" with Patricia Cuthrell.

In the church's civil action against McKeller, he is accused of making more than $3,700 in unauthorized charges on the church's credit card. Court records show that three days after his suspension, McKeller purchased two $900 computers, color printers, a cell phone with a pre paid wireless plan, cleaning supplies and air sanitizers.

McKeller counters that the church owes him more than $12,000 in severance and vacation pay. His attorney said that dispute likely will be settled out of court.