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Tuesday, July 31, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor and Christian radio personality arrested

Fans of gospel music likely know the name Tommy Tester well. He's a staple at WZAP 690 am in Bristol, Virginia, and has been for almost 25 years, but his recent arrest, has put his station in a tight spot.

Johnson City police arrested Tester Thursday night on charges of indecent exposure and public drunkenness. Police say the preacher was driving drunk when he stopped at a car wash and urinated with children present. Investigators say prior to his arrest, Tester, who was wearing a skirt at the time, made sexual advances to them.

WZAP Owner Al Morris says he has relieved Tester of his duties at the radio station until the facts of the case are determined. Morris says Tester's arrest came as a surprise to him and everyone at the station. Since the arrest, Morris says he has spoken with Tester, who he says denies all of the allegations. Morris asks everyone to pray for the man.

It seems people are taking that request to heart, including members of Tester's congregation. He is the pastor of Gospel Baptist Church. We're told, Sunday's service was packed.

LINK | Related article

Monday, July 30, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Exorcism ends in death

PHOENIX — Officers responding to a report of an exorcism on a young girl found her grandfather choking her and used stun guns to subdue the man, who later died, authorities said Sunday.

The 3-year-old girl and her mother, who was also in the room during the struggle between 49-year-old Ronald Marquez and officers, were hospitalized, police said. Their condition was unavailable.

The relative who called police said an exorcism had also been attempted Thursday.

"The purpose was to release demons from this very young child," Sgt. Joel Tranter said.

Officers arrived at the house Saturday and entered when they heard screaming coming from a bedroom, Tranter said.

A bed had been pushed up against the door; the officers pushed it open a few inches and saw Marquez choking his bloodied granddaughter, who was crying in pain and gasping, Tranter said.

A bloody, naked 19-year-old woman who police later determined to be Marquez's daughter and the girl's mother was in the room, chanting "something that was religious in nature," Tranter said.

The officers forced open the door enough for one to enter, leading to a struggle in which an officer used a stun gun on Marquez, Tranter said.

After the initial stun had no visible effect, another officer squeezed into the room and stunned him. The girl was freed and passed through the door to the relative, Tranter said.

Marquez was placed in handcuffs after a struggle with officers and initially appeared normal, but then stopped breathing, Tranter said. He could not be revived and was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Tranter declined to identify Marquez's daughter and granddaughter but said they lived in the house with Marquez.

The mother was not arrested, but police will consider criminal charges, Tranter said.

There was no phone listing at Ronald Marquez's address.


Sunday, July 29, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Born again religion reporter loses faith

From the LA Times, written by By William Lobdell, Times Staff Writer

When Times editors assigned me to the religion beat, I believed God had answered my prayers.

As a serious Christian, I had cringed at some of the coverage in the mainstream media. Faith frequently was treated like a circus, even a freak show.

I wanted to report objectively and respectfully about how belief shapes people's lives. Along the way, I believed, my own faith would grow deeper and sturdier.

But during the eight years I covered religion, something very different happened.

In 1989, a friend took me to Mariners Church, then in Newport Beach, after saying: "You need God. That's what's missing in your life." At the time, I was 28 and my first son was less than a year old. I had managed to nearly ruin my marriage (the second one) and didn't think I'd do much better as a father. I was profoundly lost.

The mega-church's pastor, Kenton Beshore, had a knack for making Scripture accessible and relevant. For someone who hadn't studied the Bible much, these talks fed a hunger in my soul. The secrets to living well had been there all along — in "Life's Instruction Manual," as some Christians nicknamed the Bible.

Some friends in a Bible study class encouraged me to attend a men's religious weekend in the San Bernardino Mountains. The three-day retreats are designed to grind down your defenses and leave you emotionally raw — an easier state in which to connect with God. After 36 hours of prayer, singing, Bible study, intimate sharing and little sleep, I felt filled with the Holy Spirit.

At the climactic service Sunday, Mike Barris, a pastor-to-be, delivered an old-fashioned altar call. He said we needed to let Jesus into our hearts.

With my eyes closed in prayer, I saw my heart slowly opening in two and then being infused with a warm, glowing light. A tingle spread across my chest. This, I thought, was what it was to be born again.

The pastor asked those who wanted to accept Jesus to raise their hands. My hand pretty much levitated on its own. My new friends in Christ, many of whom I had first met Friday, gave me hugs and slaps on the back.

I began praying each morning and night. During those quiet times, I mostly listened for God's voice. And I thought I sensed a plan he had for me: To write about religion for The Times and bring light into the newsroom, if only by my stories and example.

My desire to be a religion reporter grew as I read stories about faith in the mainstream media. Spiritual people often appeared as nuts or simpletons.

In one of the most famous examples, the Washington Post ran a news story in 1993 that referred to evangelical Christians as "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command."

Another maddening trend was that homosexuality and abortion debates dominated media coverage, as if those where the only topics that mattered to Christians.

I didn't just pray for a religion writing job; I lobbied hard. In one meeting with editors, my pitch went something like this:

"What if I told you that you have an institution in Orange County that draws more than 15,000 people a weekend and that you haven't written much about?"

They said they couldn't imagine such a thing.

"Saddleback Church in Lake Forest draws that type of crowd."

It took several years and numerous memos and e-mails, but editors finally agreed in 1998 to let me write "Getting Religion," a weekly column about faith in Orange County.

I felt like all the tumblers of my life had clicked. I had a strong marriage, great kids and a new column. I attributed it all to God's grace.

First as a columnist and then as a reporter, I never had a shortage of topics. I wrote about an elderly church organist who became a spiritual mentor to the man who tried to rape, rob and kill her. About the Orthodox Jewish mother who developed a line of modest clothing for Barbie dolls. About the hardy group of Mormons who rode covered wagons 800 miles from Salt Lake City to San Bernardino, replicating their ancestors' journey to Southern California.

Meanwhile, Roman Catholicism, with its low-key evangelism and deep ritual, increasingly appealed to me. I loved its long history and loving embrace of liberals and conservatives, immigrants and the established, the rich and poor.

My wife was raised in the Catholic Church and had wanted me to join for years. I signed up for yearlong conversion classes at a Newport Beach parish that would end with an Easter eve ceremony ushering newcomers into the church.

By then I had been on the religion beat for three years. I couldn't wait to get to work each day or, on Sunday, to church.

IN 2001, about six months before the Catholic clergy sex scandal broke nationwide, the dioceses of Orange and Los Angeles paid a record $5.2 million to a law student who said he had been molested, as a student at Santa Margarita High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, by his principal, Msgr. Michael Harris.

Without admitting guilt, Harris agreed to leave the priesthood. As part of the settlement, the dioceses also were forced to radically change how they handled sexual abuse allegations, including a promise to kick out any priest with a credible molestation allegation in his past. It emerged that both dioceses had many known molesters on duty. Los Angeles had two convicted pedophiles still working as priests.

While reporting the Harris story, I learned — from court records and interviews — the lengths to which the church went to protect the priest. When Harris took an abrupt leave of absence as principal at Santa Margarita in January 1994, he issued a statement saying it was because of "stress." He resigned a month later.

His superiors didn't tell parents or students the real reason for his absence: Harris had been accused of molesting a student while he was principal at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana from 1977 to 1979; church officials possessed a note from Harris that appeared to be a confession; and they were sending him to a treatment center.

In September 1994, a second former student stepped forward, this time publicly, and filed a lawsuit. In response, parents and students held a rally for Harris at the school, singing, "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." An airplane towed a banner overhead that read "We Love Father Harris."

By this time, church leaders possessed a psychological report in which Catholic psychiatrists diagnosed Harris as having an attraction to adolescents and concluded that he likely had molested multiple boys. (Harris, who has denied the allegations, now stands accused of molesting 12 boys, according to church records.) But they didn't step forward to set the record straight. Instead, a diocesan spokesman called Harris an "icon of the priesthood."

Harris' top defense attorney, John Barnett, lashed out at the priest's accusers in the media, calling them "sick individuals." Again, church leaders remained silent as the alleged victims were savaged. Some of the diocese's top priests — including the cleric in charge of investigating the accusations — threw a going-away party for Harris.

At the time, I never imagined Catholic leaders would engage in a widespread practice that protected alleged child molesters and belittled the victims. I latched onto the explanation that was least damaging to my belief in the Catholic Church — that this was an isolated case of a morally corrupt administration.

And I was comforted by the advice of a Catholic friend: "Keep your eyes on the person nailed to the cross, not the priests behind the altar."

IN late 2001, I traveled to Salt Lake City to attend a conference of former Mormons. These people lived mostly in the Mormon Jell-O belt — Utah, Idaho, Arizona — so-named because of the plates of Jell-O that inevitably appear at Mormon gatherings.

They found themselves ostracized in their neighborhoods, schools and careers. Often, they were dead to their own families.

"If Mormons associate with you, they think they will somehow become contaminated and lose their faith too," Suzy Colver told me. "It's almost as if people who leave the church don't exist."

The people at the conference were an eclectic bunch: novelists and stay-at-home moms, entrepreneurs and cartoonists, sex addicts and alcoholics. Some were depressed, others angry, and a few had successfully moved on. But they shared a common thread: They wanted to be honest about their lack of faith and still be loved.

In most pockets of Mormon culture, that wasn't going to happen.

Part of what drew me to Christianity were the radical teachings of Jesus — to love your enemy, to protect the vulnerable and to lovingly bring lost sheep back into the fold.

As I reported the story, I wondered how faithful Mormons — many of whom rigorously follow other biblical commands such as giving 10% of their income to the church — could miss so badly on one of Jesus' primary lessons?

As part of the Christian family, I felt shame for my religion. But I still compartmentalized it as an aberration — the result of sinful behavior that infects even the church.

IN early 2002, I was assigned to work on the Catholic sex scandal story as it erupted across the nation. I also continued to attend Sunday Mass and conversion classes on Sunday mornings and Tuesday nights.

Father Vincent Gilmore — the young, intellectually sharp priest teaching the class — spoke about the sex scandal and warned us Catholics-to-be not to be poisoned by a relatively few bad clerics. Otherwise, we'd be committing "spiritual suicide."

As I began my reporting, I kept that in mind. I also thought that the victims — people usually in their 30s, 40s and up — should have just gotten over what had happened to them decades before. To me, many of them were needlessly stuck in the past.

But then I began going over the documents. And interviewing the victims, scores of them. I discovered that the term "sexual abuse" is a euphemism. Most of these children were raped and sodomized by someone they and their family believed was Christ's representative on Earth. That's not something an 8-year-old's mind can process; it forever warps a person's sexuality and spirituality.

Many of these victims were molested by priests with a history of abusing children. But the bishops routinely sent these clerics to another parish, and bullied or conned the victims and their families into silence. The police were almost never called. In at least a few instances, bishops encouraged molesting priests to flee the country to escape prosecution.

I couldn't get the victims' stories or the bishops' lies — many of them right there on their own stationery — out of my head. I had been in journalism more than two decades and had dealt with murders, rapes, other violent crimes and tragedies. But this was different — the children were so innocent, their parents so faithful, the priests so sick and bishops so corrupt.

The lifeline Father Vincent had tried to give me began to slip from my hands.

I sought solace in another belief: that a church's heart is in the pews, not the pulpits. Certainly the people who were reading my stories would recoil and, in the end, recapture God's house. Instead, I saw parishioners reflexively support priests who had molested children by writing glowing letters to bishops and judges, offering them jobs or even raising their bail while cursing the victims, often to their faces.

On a Sunday morning at a parish in Rancho Santa Margarita, I watched congregants lobby to name their new parish hall after their longtime pastor, who had admitted to molesting a boy and who had been barred that day from the ministry. I felt sick to my stomach that the people of God wanted to honor an admitted child molester. Only one person in the crowd, an Orange County sheriff's deputy, spoke out for the victim.

On Good Friday 2002, I decided I couldn't belong to the Catholic Church. Though I had spent a year preparing for it, I didn't go through with the rite of conversion.

I understood that I was witnessing the failure of humans, not God. But in a way, that was the point. I didn't see these institutions drenched in God's spirit. Shouldn't religious organizations, if they were God-inspired and -driven, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?

I found an excuse to skip services that Easter. For the next few months, I attended church only sporadically. Then I stopped going altogether.

SOME of the nation's most powerful pastors — including Billy Graham, Robert H. Schuller and Greg Laurie — appear on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, benefiting from TBN's worldwide reach while looking past the network's reliance on the "prosperity gospel" to fuel its growth.

TBN's creed is that if viewers send money to the network, God will repay them with great riches and good health. Even people deeply in debt are encouraged to put donations on credit cards.

"If you have been healed or saved or blessed through TBN and have not contributed … you are robbing God and will lose your reward in heaven," Paul Crouch, co-founder of the Orange County-based network, once told viewers. Meanwhile, Crouch and his wife, Jan, live like tycoons.

I began looking into TBN after receiving some e-mails from former devotees of the network. Those people had given money to the network in hopes of getting a financial windfall from God. That didn't work.

By then, I started to believe that God was calling me, as he did St. Francis of Assisi, to "rebuild his church" — not in some grand way that would lead to sainthood but by simply reporting on corruption within the church body.

I spent several years investigating TBN and pored through stacks of documents — some made available by appalled employees — showing the Crouches eating $180-per-person meals; flying in a $21-million corporate jet; having access to 30 TBN-owned homes across the country, among them a pair of Newport Beach mansions and a ranch in Texas. All paid for with tax-free donor money.

One of the stars of TBN and a major fundraiser is the self-proclaimed faith healer Benny Hinn. I attended one of his two-day "Miracle Crusades" at what was then the Pond of Anaheim. The arena was packed with sick people looking for a cure.

My heart broke for the hundreds of people around me in wheelchairs or in the final stages of terminal diseases, believing that if God deemed their faith strong enough, they would be healed that night.

Hinn tells his audiences that a generous cash gift to his ministry will be seen by God as a sign of true faith. This has worked well for the televangelist, who lives in an oceanfront mansion in Dana Point, drives luxury cars, flies in private jets and stays in the best hotels.

At the crusade, I met Jordie Gibson, 21, who had flown from Calgary, Canada, to Anaheim because he believed that God, through Hinn, could get his kidneys to work again.

He was thrilled to tell me that he had stopped getting dialysis because Hinn had said people are cured only when they "step out in faith." The decision enraged his doctors, but made perfect sense to Gibson. Despite risking his life as a show of faith, he wasn't cured in Anaheim. He returned to Canada and went back on dialysis. The crowd was filled with desperate believers like Gibson.

I tried unsuccessfully to get several prominent mainstream pastors who appeared on TBN to comment on the prosperity gospel, Hinn's "faith healing" or the Crouches' lifestyle.

Like the Catholic bishops, I assumed, they didn't want to risk what they had.

AS the stories piled up, I began to pray with renewed vigor, but it felt like I wasn't connecting to God. I started to feel silly even trying.

I read accounts of St. John of the Cross and his "dark night of the soul," a time he believed God was testing him by seemingly withdrawing from his life. Maybe this was my test.

I met with my former Presbyterian pastor, John Huffman, and told him what I was feeling. I asked him if I could e-mail him some tough questions about Christianity and faith and get his answers. He agreed without hesitation.

The questions that I thought I had come to peace with started to bubble up again. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when he's never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord?

In one e-mail, I asked John, who had lost a daughter to cancer, why an atheist businessman prospers and the child of devout Christian parents dies. Why would a loving God make this impossible for us to understand?

He sent back a long reply that concluded:

"My ultimate affirmation is let God be God and acknowledge that He is in charge. He knows what I don't know. And frankly, if I'm totally honest with you, a life of gratitude is one that bows before the Sovereign God arguing with Him on those things that trouble me, lamenting the losses of life, but ultimately saying, 'You, God, are infinite; I'm human and finite.' "

John is an excellent pastor, but he couldn't reach me. For some time, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I saw, but I was losing ground. I wondered if my born-again experience at the mountain retreat was more about fatigue, spiritual longing and emotional vulnerability than being touched by Jesus.

And I considered another possibility: Maybe God didn't exist.

TOWARD the end of my tenure as a religion reporter, I traveled to Nome, Alaska. Sitting in a tiny visitor's room, I studied the sad, round face of the Eskimo in front of me and tried to imagine how much he hated being confined to jail.

Peter "Packy" Kobuk was from a remote village on St. Michael Island in western Alaska. There natives lived, in many ways, just as their ancestors did 10,000 years ago. Smells of the outdoor life hung heavy in his village: the salt air, the strips of salmon drying on racks, the seaweed washed up on the beach.

But for now, Packy could smell only the disinfectants used to scrub the concrete floors at the Anvil Mountain Correction Center. Unfortunately, alcohol and a violent temper had put Packy there many times in his 46 years. For his latest assault, he was serving three months.

The short, powerfully built man folded his calloused hands on the table. I was surprised to see a homemade rosary hanging from his neck, the blue beads held together by string from a fishing net.

I had come from Southern California to report on a generation of Eskimo boys who had been molested by a Catholic missionary. All of the now-grown Eskimos I had interviewed over the past week had lost their faith. In fact, several of them confessed that they fantasized daily about burning down the village church, where the unspeakable acts took place.

But there was Packy with his rosary.

"Why do you still believe?" I asked.

"It's not God's work what happened to me," he said softly, running his fingers along the beads. "They were breaking God's commandments — even the people who didn't help. They weren't loving their neighbors as themselves."

He said he regularly got down on his knees in his jail cell to pray.

"A lot of people make fun of me, asking if the Virgin Mary is going to rescue me," Packy said. "Well, I've gotten helped more times from the Virgin Mary through intercession than from anyone else. I won't stop. My children need my prayers."

Tears spilled from his eyes. Packy's faith, though severely tested, had survived.

I looked at him with envy. Where he found comfort, I was finding emptiness.

IN the summer of 2005, I reported from a Multnomah County, Ore., courtroom on the story of an unemployed mother — impregnated by a seminary student 13 years earlier — who was trying to get increased child support for her sickly 12-year-old son.

The boy's father, Father Arturo Uribe, took the witness stand. The priest had never seen or talked with his son. He even had trouble properly pronouncing the kid's name. Uribe confidently offered the court a simple reason as to why he couldn't pay more than $323 a month in child support.

"The only thing I own are my clothes," he told the judge.

His defense — orchestrated by a razor-sharp attorney paid for by his religious order — boiled down to this: I'm a Roman Catholic priest, I've taken a vow of poverty, and child-support laws can't touch me.

The boy's mother, Stephanie Collopy, couldn't afford a lawyer. She stumbled badly acting as her own attorney. It went on for three hours.

"It didn't look that great," Stephanie said afterward, wiping tears from her eyes. "It didn't sound that great … but at least I stood up for myself."

The judge ruled in the favor of Uribe, then pastor of a large parish in Whittier. After the hearing, when the priest's attorney discovered I had been there, she ran back into the courtroom and unsuccessfully tried to get the judge to seal the case. I could see why the priest's lawyer would try to cover it up. People would be shocked at how callously the church dealt with a priest's illegitimate son who needed money for food and medicine.

My problem was that none of that surprised me anymore.

As I walked into the long twilight of a Portland summer evening, I felt used up and numb.

My soul, for lack of a better term, had lost faith long ago — probably around the time I stopped going to church. My brain, which had been in denial, had finally caught up.

Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don't. It's not a choice. It can't be willed into existence. And there's no faking it if you're honest about the state of your soul.

Sitting in a park across the street from the courthouse, I called my wife on a cellphone. I told her I was putting in for a new beat at the paper.

Sunday, July 22, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Money for nothing -- checks for free

Chicago -- The Rev. Mark Sorvillo loved taking his parish's money and spending it on himself. Trips to Rome, Venice, Paris. And $900 meals at New York restaurants.

In 1999, Sorvillo found someone else to lavish his parishioners' collection-plate donations on -- a male stripper.

Sorvillo -- who pleaded guilty Friday to stealing nearly $200,000 from St. Margaret Mary parish on the North Side -- gave cars, plane tickets and thousands of dollars in cash to James Sosnicki, a married Louisville man who stripped frequently at gay clubs in Chicago, law enforcement sources said.

"He was like a big uncle to me," Sosnicki, 30, said Thursday. "If it wasn't for him, I'd probably be living in a cardboard box right now."

Sorvillo's lawyer, Brian Collins, declined to comment.

Sorvillo resigned from St. Margaret Mary in February 2006 after parishioners caught him stealing from the collection bags. He had been under suspicion since threatening to close the church's school because of the parish's strained finances. An investigation revealed he skimmed more than $40,000 from collections, wrote checks from parish accounts to himself and his creditors, and charged more than $62,000 at Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's and Marshall Field's to the parish. In October 2006, prosecutors charged him with felony theft.

Sorvillo, 54, will likely serve two years of his four-year sentence, according to prosecutors. Originally from the west suburbs, he became pastor of St. Margaret Mary in 1994 and, according to court documents, began stealing in 1997. About 800 families belong to the parish, including the family of Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine.

While investigating Sorvillo, authorities learned the priest had bought and insured an Acura in Louisville -- and discovered the driver was one James Sosnicki. While searching the rectory at St. Margaret Mary, investigators found naked photos of a dark-haired man who turned out to be Sosnicki, according to law enforcement sources. One showed Sosnicki sleeping naked in the rectory bed.

Investigators also found a poster advertising the 2004 "International Mr. Leather" competition -- featuring Sosnicki as one of the models.

In December, Chicago detectives traveled to Louisville to interview Sosnicki. He told police he first met Sorvillo at Madrigal's, a gay bar in the 5300 block of North Clark.

"Mark told me he was a teacher at Loyola University. It wasn't until I stayed with Mark at the rectory, St. Margaret Mary, that I realized he was a priest," Sosnicki told police, according to a police report reviewed by the Sun-Times.

Sosnicki came to Chicago two or three times a month, he said, stripping at gay bars such as Madrigal's, Man's Country and Cocktails. He made $50 to $100 a night, plus tips, he told police.

Sorvillo paid for his plane tickets to Chicago, Sosnicki said -- though he claims he paid Sorvillo back when he could. Sosnicki usually stayed at the rectory, but he sometimes stayed in hotels, with Sorvillo footing the bill. The priest even paid when Sosnicki's wife came along. "Mark would give me his credit card number, and I would book it over the Internet," he told police.

Sorvillo gave Sosnicki his credit card to take on a trip to Los Angeles, and took him and a man called "Arti" to New York City, where they stayed in the theater district and "went to a lot of plays," Sosnicki said.

They also sampled New York's gay club scene. "Mark wanted to have an encounter with another man, so Arti and I helped pick out a guy/prostitute at the club," Sosnicki told police. "Mark and the guy went back to the hotel. They were gone about an hour."

In addition to the Acura, Sorvillo helped buy Sosnicki a motorcycle and his wife a car. The priest bought Sosnicki clothes and a Dell computer, too, according to the police report.

Sorvillo also made cash deposits into Sosnicki's account at U.S. Bank. "For about a year or so, Mark would give me about $1,000 a month," Sosnicki told police. "He gave me the money for spending time with him."

Authorities are not sure how much money Sorvillo gave Sosnicki over the years. But "it appears that the priest was supporting him," a police source said.

Sosnicki has a history of run-ins with the law, including arrests for drugs, trespassing and disorderly conduct.

When questioned by police, he provided them insight into Sorvillo's character, calling the priest a "lost soul."

"Mark lived two separate lives: one with the priesthood, and his 'other' lifestyle," he said.


Pastor arrested for sexual battery

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. —- An assistant pastor at a Catholic church was arrested for investigation of sexual battery after he allegedly groped an undercover sheriff's deputy near a private beach, authorities said Friday.

The Rev. Geronimo Enrique Cuevas, 52, who was arrested on Wednesday, also was booked on suspicion of soliciting a lewd act from an adult in a public place, said San Luis Obispo County sheriff's Sgt. Brian Hascall.

The pastor was released on $2,000 bail.

Cuevas allegedly "grabbed the crotch area" of a sheriff's deputy working undercover on foot trails leading to Pirate's Cove, a secluded private beach known for nude sunbathing several miles south of San Luis Obispo, Hascall said.

Cuevas had been working at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Nipomo, part of the Diocese of Monterey. He was placed on administrative leave after the arrest, the diocese said.

"He no longer has any faculties to function as a priest," the diocese said in a statement Friday.

A message left with Cuevas' office was not returned.

Deputies regularly conduct undercover operations in and around the beach. Two other arrests were made during Wednesday's operation, officials said.


Friday, July 20, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Youth pastor: sex charges

A Battle Creek youth pastor was arrested Wednesday on charges of using a computer to solicit a child for sex, the Michigan attorney general's office said.

Troy Deal, 34, director of youth ministries at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church, was arrested Wednesday morning following an investigation that began in 2005.

Investigators said he used a computer to suggest sex with someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl. He actually was corresponding with an investigator from the AG's Child Public Protection Unit.

He was arrested at the church, 157 Chapel Hill Drive, and taken to the Calhoun County jail by investigators from the AG's office and Battle Creek police. He is expected to be arraigned in Calhoun County District Court this afternoon.

Investigators seized Deal's laptop computer.

Deal faces 11 charges, according to Matt Frendewey, a spokesman for Attorney General Mike Cox.

Deal is to be charged with using the Internet to solicit a child for sexually abusive activity, distributing sexually abusive material to the child and nine counts of using the Internet to communicate with a child for immoral purposes.

If convicted on all charges, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Deal has been youth ministries director for five years. Chapel Hill Rev. James Gysel on Wednesday declined comment on Deal's arrest.

Gysel reportedly met with youths and their parents Wednesday evening. An all-church meeting is planned for 7 p.m. today.

"We are alleging that the defendant spoke with a 14-year-old girl who was actually an undercover agent with the Attorney General's office," Frendewey said. "He was chatting with the agent and during the many chats solicited the 14-year-old girl for sexual activity."

Although Frendewey said he could not provide many details of the case, he said the complaint alleges Deal solicited the person who he thought was an underage girl to show pictures of herself and so is charged with distribution of pornography.

Deal had not proposed a meeting, Frendewey said.

"We have agents in the office and work undercover and pose as minors," Frendewey said. "They (suspects) reach out to use and they reach out to the 14-year-olds."

He said agents had a half dozen contacts with Deal between Sept. 21, 2005, and April 10, 2007.

"Progressively, the defendant became more aggressive," Frendewey said.

The investigation has only been about the online activity and there is no evidence any children from the church were involved, Frendewey said.

Because of Deal's position as a youth pastor, Frendewey said investigators took a close look at the possibility that children were victims.

"Being in the position he was in we make sure our office takes a look at it," Frendewey said. "It is every parent's greatest fear and that is why the attorney general is so committed to taking people like that off the street."


Youth pastor arrested for rape

A part-time youth pastor from Aztec Bible Baptist Church was arrested Thursday on charges that he had sex with a 14-year-old girl from his congregation.

Wendel Nix, 29, of Aztec, was taken into police custody at the San Juan County Detention Center on Thursday after San Juan Sheriff's Office deputies said they gathered convincing evidence that a crime was committed and obtained an arrest warrant, Detective Lt. Tyler Truby said.

Since last weekend, sheriff's deputies and Detective Marlyn Wyatt have investigated a claim made by a teenage girl that she and Nix had a sexual relationship, states a media release from the sheriff's office.

The victim alleged that she has attended the church for the past year, and over time, she and Nix grew close. Last month, Nix began sending her text messages saying how good he thought she looked and how well her clothing fit her, states the affidavit for an arrest warrant. Then he began calling her, hoping to get her away from her friends so that he could familiarize himself with what he called the "real her," the affidavit states.

After agreeing to take a drive into the hills with Nix at the end of last month, the victim said Nix kissed her, but then she became scared and demanded she be taken home. A few days later, after exchanging more electronic correspondence, they arranged another meeting and Nix picked up the girl and headed out toward Navajo Dam, the arrest affidavit states.

That was when the first of several sexual encounters the pair would have took place, according to police documents. This sexual relationship is believed to have lasted until Saturday, July 14, when the victim decided to put an end to it.

When asked why the girl eventually contacted police, Truby said that her friends and family members successfully persuaded her of the criminal nature of the exchanges.

"Just from visiting from friends and family, they had convinced her what had taken place was wrong," Truby said.

Nix faces four counts of criminal sexual penetration in the second degree and five counts of criminal sexual contact of a minor in the third degree. Bond for Nix was set at $300,000.

Truby said all criminal charges of a sexual nature that involve a minor are disturbing, but they are even harsher when the perpetrator is someone who is a trusted member of the community.

"It's always very disheartening when the suspect is somebody that has been placed in a position of authority and mentorship and (is supposed to) give children guidance," he said.


Baptist leader charged with aiding and abetting prostitution

Coy Privette has resigned from the Board of Directors of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and its Executive Committee, following revelations July 19 that he has been charged with six counts of aiding and abetting prostitution.

While withholding judgment and pledging prayers, news of the allegations has shocked North Carolina Baptist leadership. Privette was president of the Christian Action League and a prominent figure in North Carolina moral battles. He is free from Rowan County jail on a written promise to appear in court Aug. 22.

According to arrest documents secured by the Biblical Recorder, Privette's alleged actions took place in Rowan County hotel rooms from May 4 to June 25.

Privette, 74, is a former president of the Baptist State Convention, retired pastor, Cabarrus County commissioner, former board member of Southern Baptists' Christian Life Commission and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Tiffany Denise Summers, 32, of Salisbury was charged with six counts of prostitution in connection with the investigation.

A State Bureau of Investigation spokesman said the investigation is ongoing.

Privette's position as president of the Christian Action League is non-paid, but he was executive director of the League for 15 years, beginning in 1980. The Christian Action League lobbies legislators to be sure they consider a Christian, moral perspective in pending legislation, according to Executive Director Mark Creech, who was "shocked and dismayed" by the allegations against Privette.

"We discourage the promotion and use of beverage alcohol and other drugs, pornography, sexual immorality and other sinful practices that not only undermine the spiritual lives of those who participate in them, but also undermine the strength of our state and national character," the League's web site says.

In a press conference July 19 outside the League office, Creech expressed his love for Privette, whom he said mentored him in his Christian activism. He said Privette "has been a man of good reputation and excellent character."

Unable to reach Privette for comment, Creech said, "We only know the charges. We haven't heard from him and are reserving judgment until we do."

If the allegations prove true, Creech said, "Then I am absolutely broken hearted and disappointed."

"Our hearts are deeply burdened by this news," Creech said. "We are praying for Mr. Privette, his family and all those that this situation effects."

Milton A. Hollifield Jr., executive director-treasurer of the Baptist State Convention, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, "I am deeply grieved about these allegations should they be proven true. Although I am saddened by this news, I appreciate Mr. Privette and the good service he has rendered through the years to the people of this state including various Baptist organizations. The most important statement that I can make is that my prayers are with Coy and his family during this difficult time for all of them."

Hollifield said the Convention's nominating committee is charged with bringing nominations for new board members to fill unexpired terms to the Executive Committee for election.

The League board during a conference call removed Privette as president, pending resolution of the charges. League vice president David Hansley of Kinston has assumed the duties of president.

Creech feels charges against Privette will not hinder work of the Christian Action League with legislators as he seeks input into legislation that has moral implications. "I'm hopeful and don't believe it's going to injure our credibility with them," he said. "Legislators know better than anyone that one man does not represent the whole body.

"The Christian Action League has been an organization of considerable integrity with a positive record for honest, effective, good moral leadership," said Creech.

Privette was a state representative from 1984 to 1992 and has been a strong opponent of liquor by the drink, gambling and illegal immigration. He had been interim director of missions for Rowan Baptist Association until July 19, when an association spokesman said he was "no longer" in that position but would give no further details.

Privette and his wife, Betty, also taught English in China several times as a member of North Kannapolis Baptist Church, where he was pastor from 1962 to 1976.


Related LINK

Thursday, July 19, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Ellen meets Paula -- tonight!

ELLEN JOHNSON, President of American Atheists will be interviewed on the
popular CNN program "The Paula Zahn Show" this Thursday, July 19, 2007.

The program will examine the role of religion in presidential campaigns,
including the growing use of faith-based sloganeering by most of the
candidates. "The Paula Zahn Show" begins at 8:00 PM ET, check local
listings. For further information, visit

WHO & WHAT: American Atheists President Ellen Johnson live on "The Paula
Zahn Show" discussing the growing role of religion in presidential

WHERE: CNN, "The Paula Zahn Show"

WHEN: This Thursday, July 19, 2007 beginning at 8:00 PM ET. Check your
local listings.


AMERICAN ATHEISTS is a nationwide movement that defends civil rights for
Atheists; works for the total separation of church and state; and
addresses issues of First Amendment public policy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

God is Dead

An interview with Ron Currie Jr., author of "God is Dead"

Just because someone's an atheist, doesn't mean they're not spiritual in some sense of the word. That's important to keep in mind when hearing the title of the new novel by Ron Currie Jr., "God Is Dead."

The book is about what happens when God dies, and the world continues on basically the same as before. It does not end, but for a lot of people, it is turned upside down.

Q: How did the idea for "God Is Dead" come to you?

A: The book started with a single story -- "False Idols," the piece in which American parents have gone off the deep end and started worshipping their children as gods. At that point I'd never attempted a full-length narrative, and as far as I knew this was just a short story, albeit one with a premise and an attitude far, far different from any other story I'd written.

But then at some point while writing "False Idols," I of course had to explain why parents were worshipping their children. At first I had no explanation, which was a problem, because (and I've since had this lesson reinforced several hundred times) it's sort of counter intuitive but nonetheless true that the more outrageous a premise you're working from, the more believable the circumstances surrounding that premise need to be. Otherwise the reader raises his eyebrows and shakes his head and turns to something that won't treat him like he just yesterday fell off the turnip truck.

But so anyway, it occurred to me that these parents' idolizing their children was a simple transference of the basic human need to worship, from God onto their kids. And how did this come about? Well, God died, of course. Which naturally raised a lot more questions than it answered, questions that happily took an entire book to sort out.

Q: Did your own religious background, or lack of, have a role in this?

A: Sure, of course. I was raised Catholic, went to CCD (religious education), and graduated at some point to full-blown, rabid atheism. I've since been cured of the rabid part, but I'm still an atheist. I think, though, that sometimes those who have religion, so to speak, mistakenly believe that atheists are spiritually barren, and in my case that's not true. I have very powerful, very definite spiritual longings. And in certain ways "God Is Dead" is me having a conversation with myself, trying to figure out the big questions of morality, sexuality, the purpose of existence, within the context of my own very real godless world.

But at the same time the book isn't so serious as all that. There are plenty of Three Stooges moments to make the pill go down easier. There's even a brief homage to the Patrick Swayze classic "Road House," just waiting to be discovered by those as obsessed with terrible '80s movies as I and my friends are.

Q: In the book, God dies and at some point, dogs eat his remains and then they grant interviews, I believe. Are you trying to say something about how ridiculously media crazy we've become, or am I stretching a bit?

A: It could be looked at that way. I'm reluctant sometimes to discuss messages imbedded in my writing, for two reasons. First, because any message or "meaning" should be the organic result of a story well-told. In other words, the story is not merely a vehicle for some sort of sociopolitical agenda, because if that's all it is then it fails, both as entertainment and as art.

Second, at this point, with the book finished and out in the world, whatever intent... I had shouldn't enter the conversation until readers have an opportunity to absorb and interpret for themselves. Writing isn't about making a book and then going around telling everyone what they should think about it, though there are many authors who try to do just that.

Q: What do folks in around town think of the book, or just the title, so far?

A: It's actually pretty funny. I keep a very low profile when it comes to my work. Say, for example, I meet someone at the gym and they ask what I do, I'll say "I work for myself." Cagey. Not exactly sure why. But inevitably it does come up, and I'm asked what the title of the book is, and the exchange usually goes something like this -- Me: "God is Dead." They: (Three seconds of blank staring) "Oh. Huh. Wow."

Q: What was the toughest part of writing this book?

A: From a practical standpoint? Finding the time while simultaneously working full-time as a cook. From an artistic standpoint, the toughest part, and I don't expect this to change, is maintaining faith (ha) and interest in the material long enough to see it through to the finish. There are so many times when you're convinced that what you're working on is absolute garbage, hobby-hour crap, unreadable, unfunny, the opposite of significant. It's very tough to work through that sort of self-doubt. At the same time, it's indispensable.

Q: Do you expect to get flack from religious groups? What will you tell them?

A: As time has passed and I've thought more about this possibility, it's occurred to me that there will probably be two reactions from the devout. The first group won't read beyond the title, and they'll immediately break out the Zippos and the lighter fluid, metaphorically speaking. The second group will actually read the book and understand that it's anything but an attack on them or their faith. It asks hard questions about faith, for sure, but faith without doubt is a cartoon, and then eventually it becomes something scarier and less funny than a cartoon -- like Falwell calling AIDS God's punishment for homosexuality, or Muslim fundamentalists beheading infidels for the YouTube audience. Those who have a real, thoughtful relationship with their God, those who work their faith every day, who turn it over in their hands and inspect it carefully for cracks and blemishes, will not be threatened by "God is Dead."

Q: Were there things that surprised you as you wrote it?

A: That's like 80 percent of the fun of writing fiction, being surprised by what surfaces. There were about a thousand surprises in "God is Dead," not the least of which was when Colin Powell showed up and started cursing at everyone like he'd just walked off the set of a Spike Lee movie.

Q: Do you recall the first thing you wrote that wasn't a school assignment?

A: I've got it hanging on my living room wall -- the only existing copy of a story I wrote in first grade, which my mother unearthed, much to my embarrassment, and had framed. Title? "The Story." Very postmodern. Especially for a 5-year-old.


Monday, July 16, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Murdering for God

Article found by Atheist Dad

A Cypress man charged in the death of a Southwest Airlines flight attendant said Saturday that he was doing God's work when he went to a Montrose-area bar last month, hunting for a gay man to kill.

"I believe I'm Elijah, called by God to be a prophet," said 26-year-old Terry Mark Mangum, charged with murder June 11. " ... I believe with all my heart that I was doing the right thing."

Interviewed in the Brazoria County Jail Saturday morning, Mangum said he feels no remorse for killing 46-year-old Kenneth Cummings Jr., whom relatives described as a "loving" son who never forgot a holiday and a devoted uncle who had set up college funds for his niece and nephew. He worked at Southwest for 24 years.

Mangum, who described himself as "definitely not a homosexual," said God called on him to "carry out a code of retribution" by killing a gay man because "sexual perversion" is the "worst sin."

Mangum believed Cummings to be gay.

"I planned on sending him to hell," he said.

Cummings disappeared June 4. His charred remains were found June 16, buried on a 50-acre ranch near San Antonio owned by Mangum's 90-year-old grandfather.

Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne would not comment on the case, citing a gag order issued by a judge Saturday afternoon.

The Chronicle was unable to reach Mangum's attorney, Perry Stevens.

Mangum — who claimed he has studied the Bible for "thousands and thousands and thousands of hours" — said God first commanded him to kill during a "visitation," or dream, while he was in prison in 2001. He said his victim must be a man because men "carry the harvest of the sinner."

After six months' planning, Mangum said, he went to E.J.'s, a Montrose-area club, where he met Cummings. After they drank a couple of beers, he said, the two went to Cummings' home in Pearland.

Mangum said he stabbed Cummings with a "6-inch blade."

"It's not that I'm a bad dude," he said, expressing concern that people might view him as "strange." Pausing briefly, he said, "I love God."

When police searched Cummings' home, they found traces of blood that someone had tried to clean up, as well as evidence that a struggle had taken place, according to court documents.

Mangum became a suspect not long after Cummings disappeared, for reasons officials have declined to disclose.

Tim Miller, executive director of Texas Equusearch, which found Cummings' remains, said last month that Mangum had used Cummings' credit cards to buy lighter fluid, a flashlight and hydrogen peroxide while he was en route to dispose of the body outside San Antonio.

When credit card records showed that the cards had been used near San Antonio, investigators ran a property-records search that led them to the ranch owned by a Robert Mangum, Miller said.

Store video also showed that the person using the cards appeared to be Terry Mangum, investigators have said.

Cummings' remains were soon found in a shallow grave.

The Facts, the daily newspaper in Brazoria County, has reported that Mangum told investigators he did not kill Cummings. Mangum first said he killed Cummings, during a jailhouse interview Friday with that paper.

He is being held on $500,000 bail.


Thursday, July 12, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Christian terrorism?

Three Burleson men who belong to a "radical Christian activist group" were in the Johnson County Jail on Friday night after a church deacon caught two of them attempting to ignite an explosive device on Independence Day at a church under construction in north Burleson, authorities said Friday.

Dayton Lee Calaway, 19, and Michael Philip Plaisted Jr., 18, were arrested Wednesday night near the Victory Family Church after they got bogged down in mud as a fleet-footed deacon chased them from the church in the 400 block of Northwest John Jones Drive, police said.

Two other people drove away, the deacon told officers.

An explosive device in a glass container was found propped against the church door. The suspects apparently tried to detonate the device twice before being interrupted by the deacon, police and Burleson Fire Marshal Stacy Singleton said.

As authorities were investigating at the church, they were notified of a fire on undeveloped land behind a north Burleson residential subdivision. A nearby resident reported seeing a vehicle drive away.

On Thursday, Jered Michael Ragon, 18, voluntarily went to the police station for questioning after Calaway and Plaisted implicated him, police Detective T. Catron said. Police called a MedStar ambulance because Ragon's feet were burned, and a emergency medical crew treated him at the station.

Ragon had gotten gasoline on his feet as he tried to destroy evidence from the church fire in the field, and his feet were burned, Catron said.

Calaway, Plaisted and Ragon face charges of arson at a place of worship, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, Singleton said.

They remained in the Johnson County Jail in Cleburne on Friday night with bail set at $30,000 each. Ragon also faces a charge of tampering with evidence; bail was set at $5,000.

The glass container from the church and evidence found in the field have been sent to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lab for analysis, Singleton said. The ATF and the U.S. attorney's office are reviewing the case to determine whether federal charges will be filed, he said.

Search warrants served Thursday night and Friday morning at Ragon's and Plaisted's homes uncovered evidence that was also sent to the ATF lab, police said.

Cmdr. Chris Havens, the Police Department spokesman, said the suspects boasted about belonging to a leaderless group of 10 or 15 who share a belief that society has become too focused on self-improvement and self-gratification and has lost focus on the glorification of God.

"They admit to being Christian and being brought up Christian, but they believe there should be one denomination and one church, not multiple denominations," Havens said.

"They did not say they had a name for their group, other than they were a radical Christian activist group. That was the way they explained their group," he said.

The suspects said the group has three levels of involvement: Bible study, consensual fighting and destructive acts. Because one of their beliefs is free thought, however, participation in all three levels is not mandatory, they told police.

The three admitted to being in a core group of seven that created the explosive weapon as a test to draw attention to the demise of society and to see whether the device would work, Havens said.

"They believe that the past generations have accumulated trash and are responsible for making younger generations clean up their mess," he said. "They're trying to make a statement and get society's attention regarding that."

That's why two of the men said they were involved in an earlier fire in a recycling bin at Centre Point Church on Alsbury Road, Singleton said. That fire burned the materials in the bin but did not damage the church, he said.

None of the men has a criminal record, he said.

A fourth suspect, a juvenile, was not arrested because the others said he was not involved, Havens said.

Authorities are trying to learn the identities of the others in the core group, he said.

"We put them in the category of a domestic terrorist group," Havens said. "We hope to discover the names of other individuals involved and if other devices have been prepared along with any plans they may be talking about to further their cause."

Burleson police have no evidence to link the group to an arson fire and vandalism two weeks ago at the Bethesda Baptist Church of Saginaw, Singleton said.

"We don't have anything that leads us to believe they've been anywhere else right now," he said.



Tuesday, July 10, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

School Board to hear mother's request to ban books on homosexuality, abortion

Laura Lopez wants dozens of books removed from two Palm Beach County high school libraries because the contents address homosexuality, abortion and atheism.

"Those books should never be in the schools for kids to see," Lopez, a mother of three from west of West Palm Beach, said Monday.

Following Superintendent Art Johnson's refusal in March to remove the books, the Palm Beach County School Board on Wednesday will hold a rare hearing on the book challenge.

The board set aside 15 minutes for Lopez's appeal, which she's entitled to under school district procedures.

County schools receive a Citizen's Request for Reconsideration of Instructional Materials an average of three or four times each year, said Meezie Pierce, director of K-12 Instructional Materials and Library Media Services.

These requests are always resolved by the schools, making Lopez's hearing at the School Board highly unusual.

Lopez did not attend December and January meetings of committees that reviewed and rejected her challenges at Royal Palm Beach High School and Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr. School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. Two of her children are incoming sophomores at Royal Palm Beach; one used to attend Dreyfoos. Lopez's youngest child is entering the fourth grade.

Dreyfoos Principal Ellen Van Arsdale, in a January letter to Lopez, listed four reasons for the committee's denial. Cited were Florida education standards that students examine "a literary selection from several critical perspectives," and a portion from a national Library Bill of Rights that "libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues."

Two of the books that Lopez challenged are: Sexual Values: Opposing Viewpoints by Charles P. Cozic and Abortion: Opposing Viewpoints by Tamara L. Roleff.

"The Committee believes topics of abortion, atheism and homosexuality are social issues that high school students encounter in the media and in some situations within their families and social networks, such as in debate tournaments throughout the School District," Van Arsdale wrote.

Rand Hoch, president and founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, said he's pleased to see the district take a strong stand against censorship.

"She [Lopez] has been repeatedly turned down based on the principle that access to a wide range of information for students is a good thing," said Hoch, whose nongovernmental gay rights group watches school issues.

Lopez, in a January letter to Johnson, wrote, "I know that the Constitution says freedom of speech but what about my freedom as a parent to not want [my children] to read about abortion and homosexuality in their school library."

Lopez, who said she is a member of Christ Fellowship Church, filled out a separate request for each objectionable book. She cited biblical passages and called for teaching religion and allowing prayer in public schools.

Monday, July 09, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor strikes teen girl

A Nixa pastor has been charged with child abuse for allegedly striking a 16-year-old female relative.

Michael A. Vargo, 35, pastor of Calvary Bible Church in Nixa, faces a Class C felony of child abuse, filed by the Christian County prosecutor's office.

The felony complaint alleges Vargo "knowingly inflicted cruel and inhuman punishment" on the teen, yielding "several bruises."

The alleged abuse occurred last month at Vargo's home in Nixa, according to court records.

Christian County Sheriff's Department Det. Brad Cole wrote in his report that the teen called a hotline regarding the alleged abuse.

"Prior to the contact with (the teenager), I contacted school resource deputy Ken Lovell, who gave me a letter written by (the teenager) while at school asking for help from one of her teachers and telling of the abuse."

Cole wrote Vargo was charged and later posted a $7,500 bond. A court hearing is set for 9 a.m. July 25.

Vargo declined to comment on the charge Friday, citing advice from his attorneys.

Saturday, July 07, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor charged with sex crimes and child porn

An associate pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church of Slidell was arrested Monday and booked Tuesday on two counts of aggravated sex crimes and 47 counts of possession of child pornography.

Deputies obtained warrants to search the home of James Griffin, 67, after they began an investigation about three weeks ago, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain said Thursday.

Upon searching Griffin's personal computer, investigators found 50 pictures, downloaded from the Internet, involving child pornography, according to Strain. They are searching computers he used at Immanuel Baptist and Grace Memorial Baptist Church in Slidell, where he formerly did volunteer work.

Griffin remains in jail on a $500,000 bond for each of the two aggravated sex crime charges, Strain said.


Pastor charged with groping

Akron - A 32-yr-old married pastor at The Chapel, the most popular church in Akron, is accused of grabbing two women at Chapel Hill mall.

Adam Barton of Cuyahoga Falls faces two counts of sexual imposition, a misdemeanor charge.

Police say Barton grabbed a 24-yr-old woman Tuesday inside the Charlotte Russe store. Minutes later, police say he grabbed a 17-yr-old girl in Victoria's Secret.

"His whole body just brushed up into mine," said the 24-yr-old who wished to remain anonymous. "And then he grabbed my butt. It felt intentional. It was not just a bump."

The woman instantly reacted.

"I turned around and I said, 'You just groped me,'and I punched him in the arm and the shoulder. He was just shocked and ran out," she said.

The woman told security officers and together, they found her alleged attacker browsing inside a store. When they approached him, the 17-yr-old appeared from around the corner and recognized him. The teen told police she was also groped by Barton.

"I was so angry that he could just get away with that. I thought, he just walked in here grabbed me and then walked out," said the victim.

Head pastor Knute Larson has placed Barton on pastoral leave until the matter is resolved. Larson is vacationing in Michigan, but he interviewed over the telephone. He said Barton was hired about 3 years ago.

"He has had a perfect record on issues of relationships and behavior. We are trusting due process. It's being handled," he said.

The woman who helped security find Barton in the mall does not blame the church for his actions.

"I don't want to bash the institution that he worked for or say that they're responsible for it. I think that he individually represents something that they don't," she said.

The woman also offers advice to anybody who may feel he or she has been violated. By reacting right away and then reporting it, she was able to fight back.

"I didn't want anyone else to have to be a victim," she said.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Faith: is it red, white and blue?

Patriotism and religion each hold a prominent place in the American story. That’s as it should be. To wed the two, however, is a disservice to patriots and to the faithful.

The Fourth of July is a time for Americans to honor our country and, for the many religious people among us, to honor God. But as the fireworks explode on Independence Day, let's resist an all-too-common tendency these days to drape the American flag around the Christian cross. Let's remember that religion is not patriotism, that patriotism is not religion — and that when we combine them both with a glorification of American military might, something has gone disturbingly askew.

Sadly, the distinction between faith and martial-tinged patriotism seems lost on some of our most fervent advocates for the military and religion. Rewind to Memorial Day weekend, when a Christian organization called Task Force Patriot USA and other groups staged a three-day salute to the troops at Stone Mountain Park in Georgia. Drawing about 100,000 people, the celebration featured Christian worship services and Bible giveaways, speeches by retired military personnel and Air Force jet flybys.

Not to single out Christianity. After all, a cross-themed celebration of the military is harmless next to jihadists who kill in the name of religion. And U.S. troops certainly deserve appreciation. Yet one has to ask: Do Christian worship and Bibles really belong with demonstrations of U.S. military might?

For one evangelical leader here in Oregon, the conflation of patriotism and Christianity reached the point where he took action that's considered anathema in many conservative church communities: He publicly spoke out against what was happening at his church.

Bob Hyatt, now pastor of the upstart Evergreen Community in the Portland area, worked on the staff of a local megachurch in the fevered period immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Despite being raised and educated in a strict Christian conservative environment in which the United States was regarded as God's favored nation, Hyatt was aghast to find the sanctuary frequently decked out in red-white-and-blue bunting with a pair of 50-foot American flags. In the Sunday service nearest the Fourth of July, congregants recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang patriotic songs. As the pattern continued through the early months of the Iraq war, Hyatt could hold his tongue no longer. At a pray-for-our-troops rally at the megachurch, he took a turn at the microphone and cited the teachings of Jesus in making the unpopular suggestion that the congregants also pray for Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people. He went on to write an Internet article titled, "Profoundly Disturbed on the Fourth of July," which was not well-received at the church and led to his leaving its staff.

'We were worshiping America'

Reflecting on those patriotic services, Hyatt wrote: "We had taken a time that belonged to the worship of God and turned it toward the appreciation of a country, a political system, a flag. We said that we were worshiping God through the singing of those patriotic songs, the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance and the rest, but in fact we were worshiping America."

There is considerable practical wisdom in the old saying about atheists in foxholes. A complete separation of faith and patriotism in a time of war is as unlikely as expecting religious soldiers not to turn to God in the face of enemy fire, and as unreasonable as expecting Christian believers to pray equally for al-Qaeda fighters and U.S. troops. Right or wrong, we have a long tradition of political and military leaders invoking God in non-neutral ways during times of war.

During the crucial D-Day invasion, President Franklin Roosevelt took to the airwaves with an appeal to "Almighty God" to "lead (our men) straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith."

Would those words arouse the ire of Americans today? Of some, probably. My own response to Roosevelt's religious invocation is colored by indelible memories of my visit to the World War II cemetery in Normandy. I still have vivid mental pictures of the graves of the American soldiers, of the crosses laid out in row after solemn row. Interspersed throughout the cemetery were many Stars of David, rising over the graves of the fallen Jewish soldiers whose role in the fight has special poignancy.

No doubt, faith has long played a role in the American military, but it has been an inclusive faith, one respecting a diversity of denominations and religions, with chaplains of different stripes available to assist soldiers on their own religious terms. Contrast that with what's been happening in the military in recent years, where sometimes-coercive Christian evangelizing has triggered lawsuits and lent a crusader overtone to the fight against terrorism. Contrast that inclusive tradition with rhetoric that portrays Jesus as America's "commander in chief" and efforts by a group called Christian Embassy to proselytize to our diplomatic corps and military leadership. Is militaristic Christian nationalism really where we want to take this country and our dominant religion?

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama recently spoke of the danger to our critical thinking ability when we become too convinced of America's righteousness and God's allegiance with the United States. While acknowledging the evil of the 9/11 attacks, Obama sounded this note of caution: "The danger of using good vs. evil in the context of war is it may lead us to be not as critical as we should be about our own actions."

Obama went on to cite the prisoner abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib and "unjust" detentions at Guantanamo as examples of the abuses of which we are capable when we become too convinced of our inherent God-sanctioned goodness.

'The light is the light of Christ'

The progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis has sounded similar warnings to Christians who might go too far in mixing their patriotism and faith. Wallis has repeatedly chided President Bush for voicing a theology that speaks of America as "the hope of all mankind the light (that) shines in the darkness."

Wallis acknowledges the biblical foundation of such language, but he adds, it is important to note that, "In the gospel, the light shining in the darkness is the Word of God, and the light is the light of Christ. It's not about America and its values."

God and country — the two live side-by-side in the hearts of many tradition-minded Americans. Yet faith and patriotism are different ideals that at times require vastly different allegiances. Given the reality of religious pluralism in America, the government cannot rightly become the instrument of any one form of belief. Conversely, our country will not always do right — no nation can — and only by maintaining its distinct identity can religion retain its ability to call people to conscience.

May patriots honor the flag on the Fourth of July. And may religious people revel in the beauty of their faiths. But let's remember that being Christian is not a requirement of patriotism. And that patriotism is most assuredly not a requirement of being religious. Let's honor the flag and faith — by keeping a reverent measure of distance between the two.


Sunday, July 01, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

I have never been happier’ says the man who won gold but lost God

Posted by Atheist Dad

A giant leap of faith took Jonathan Edwards to Olympic glory in Sydney. Then he found the foundations of his life were crumbling

It is the afternoon of September 25, 2000, and Jonathan Edwards is making his way to the triple jump final at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney. In his kitbag are some shirts, spikes, towels – and a tin of sardines.

Why the sardines? They have been chosen by Edwards to symbolise the fish that Jesus used in the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. They are, if you like, the physical manifestation of his faith in God.

As he enters the stadium, he offers a silent prayer: “I place my destiny in Your hands. Do with me as You will.” A few hours later he has captured the gold medal, securing his status as one of Britain’s greatest athletes.

Edwards’s faith was never an optional add-on. It has been fundamental to his identity – something that has permeated every fibre of his being – since his trips to Sunday school in the company of his devout parents; since he went to a Christian youth camp in North Devon and devoted his life to Jesus, tears streaming down his cheeks and his face glowing with divine revelation. Since he decided to risk everything to follow God’s revealed path, moving to Newcastle in 1987 to become a full-time athlete in the belief that his preordained success would enable him to evangelise to an unbelieving world; since he withdrew from the World Championships in Tokyo in 1991 because his event was scheduled for the Sabbath.

By the time Edwards retired from athletics in 2003, he had established himself as one of Britain’s most prominent born-again Christians. He soon landed the job of fronting a landmark documentary on the life of St Paul and also secured the presenting role on the BBC’s flagship religious programme, Songs of Praise. He looked to have made the transition to life after sport with a sureness of touch that eludes so many professional athletes. Perhaps this was another advantage of his bedrock faith in God.

But even as he toured the nation’s churches with his BBC crew, Edwards was confronting an apocalyptic realisation: that it was all a grand mistake; that his epiphany was nothing more than self-delusion; that his inner sense of God’s presence was fictitious; that the decisions he had taken in life were based on a false premise; that the Bible is not literal truth but literal falsehood; that life is not something imbued with meaning from on high but, possibly, a purposeless accident in an unfeeling universe.

Having left his sport as a dyed-in-the-wool evangelical, Edwards is now, to all intents and purposes, an atheist. But why? It is a question that has reverberated around the Christian community since the rumours began to circulate when Edwards resigned from Songs of Praise in February. Edwards a backslider? Impossible.

I am sitting opposite Edwards, 41, in the garden of his large home in Gosforth on the outskirts of Newcastle, but he does not resemble a man whose world has been turned upside down. His boyish face, cropped with sparkling, silver-grey strands, is alert and alive. One gets the impression that he is looking forward to the ordeal of a lengthy interview. Perhaps he regards it as a kind of confessional, an opportunity to bare all and be done.

“I never doubted my belief in God for a single moment until I retired from sport,” he says. “Faith was the reason that I decided to become a professional athlete, in the same way that it was fundamental to every decision I made. It was the foundation of my existence, the thing that made everything else make sense. It was not a sacrifice to refuse to compete on Sundays during my early career because that would imply that athletics was important in and of itself. It was not. It was always a means to an end: glorifying God.

“But when I retired, something happened that took me by complete surprise. I quickly realised that athletics was more important to my identity than I believed possible. I was the best in the world at what I did and suddenly that was not true any more. With one facet of my identity stripped away, I began to question the others and, from there, there was no stopping. The foundations of my world were slowly crumbling.”

Edwards retains the earnest intensity that was his hallmark when he gave talks and sermons at churches up and down the country. He is a serious person who regards life as a serious business, even if he is now unsure of its deeper meaning. But why did someone with such a penetrating intellect leave it so long to question the beliefs upon which he had constructed his life? “It was as if during my 20-plus-year career in athletics, I had been suspended in time,” he says.

“I was so preoccupied with training and competing that I did not have the time or emotional inclination to question my beliefs. Sport is simple, with simple goals and a simple lifestyle. I was quite happy in a world populated by my family and close friends, people who shared my belief system. Leaving that world to get involved with television and other projects gave me the freedom to question everything.”

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

— 1 Corinthians i, 20

“Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ you are already on the path to unbelief,” Edwards says. “During my documentary on St Paul, some experts raised the possibility that his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an epileptic fit. It made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis. When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.”

Would Edwards have been as successful a sportsman had he been assailed by such doubts? It is a question that the world record-holder confronts with bracing candour. “Looking back now, I can see that my faith was not only pivotal to my decision to take up sport but also my success,” he says. “I was always dismissive of sports psychology when I was competing, but I now realise that my belief in God was sports psychology in all but name.”

Muhammad Ali once asked: “How can I lose when I have Allah on my side?” Edwards understands the potency of such beliefs, even as he questions their philosophical legitimacy.

“Believing in something beyond the self can have a hugely beneficial psychological impact, even if the belief is fallacious,” he says. “It provided a profound sense of reassurance for me because I took the view that the result was in God’s hands. He would love me, win, lose or draw. The tin of sardines I took to the Olympic final in Sydney was a tangible reminder of that.”

The upheaval of recent months has not left Edwards emotionally scarred, at least not visibly. “I am not unhappy about the fact that there might not be a God,” he says. “I don’t feel that my life has a big, gaping hole in it. In some ways I feel more human than I ever have. There is more reality in my existence than when I was full-on as a believer. It is a completely different world to the one I inhabited for 37 years, so there are feelings of unfamiliarity.

“There have also been issues to address in terms of my relationships with family and friends, many of whom are Christians. But I feel internally happier than at any time of my life, more content within my own skin. Maybe it is because I am not viewing the world through a specific set of spectacles.”

“If I should cast off this tattered coat, And go free into the mighty sky; If I should find nothing there, But a vast blue, Echoless, ignorant – What then?

— Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines

“The only inner problem that I face now is a philosophical one,” Edwards says. “If there is no God, does that mean that life has no purpose? Does it mean that personal existence ends at death? They are thoughts that do my head in. One thing that I can say, however, is that even if I am unable to discover some fundamental purpose to life, this will not give me a reason to return to Christianity. Just because something is unpalatable does not mean that it is not true.”

His crisis of faith offers a metaphysical dimension to the inner turmoil that afflicts so many sportsmen on their retirement. Some will say he has journeyed from light into darkness, others that he has journeyed from darkness into light – but none could doubt the honesty with which he has travelled. The Eric Liddell of his generation has sacrificed his religious beliefs on the altar of intellectual honesty, a martyr of a kind.

World of his own

— A committed Christian, Edwards refused to compete on a Sunday until 1993, most notably missing the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. “It is an outward sign that God comes first in my life,” he said at the time.

— Contested the World Championships for the first time in 1993, the first of five successive appearances, winning a medal at each one, including gold in 1995 and 2001.

— There was little hint of his 12 months to come in 1995 when, the previous year, he finished sixth at the European Championships, second at the Commonwealth Games and was ranked No 9 in the world.

— Edwards’s life changed in 1995, when he set three world and seven British records, achieving the unprecedented feat of two world records in his first two jumps of the final of the World Championships in Gothenburg. His 18.29 metres that day remains the world record. His wind-assisted 18.43, to win the European Cup in Lille, is the longest triple jump on record.

— A run of 22 consecutive victories ended when he finished second to Kenny Harrison, of the United States, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Edwards had finished 23rd and 35th in his two previous Olympics and finished second and third at the World Championships between Atlanta and the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where he took gold.

Words by David Powell


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