By Aaron Earls
Highlands Church has placed founder and senior pastor Les Hughey on leave after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced.
The Scottsdale, Arizona, megachurch released a statement April 23 saying church elders had only recently learned of the accusations when multiple women told the Modesto Bee he had victimized them at First Baptist Church, Modesto, California, in the 1970s.
In his own statement to the media and the church, Hughey admitted he had “sinned and harmed the most important relationships in [his] life.”
He contends the issue was “consensual relations with fellow college-aged staff.”
But the allegations against him are more serious and have increased since he gave his initial statement.
Tracy Epler told the Modesto Bee that when she was 17 to 19 years old, Hughey coerced her into having sex with him while he was a leader of her youth group at First Baptist in the 1970s.
At the time, Hughey was married and in his 20s.
After the accusations came to light, the church leadership asked Epler to remain quiet, she said. They removed Hughey from his position but never told the congregation why and gave him a “celebrated send-off,” according to Epler.
She and three other women told the Modesto Bee of Hughey engaging in inappropriate touching of teenage girls. This often happened after youth meetings in the home of Hughey and his wife, the women said.
Their descriptions of “full-body massages” mirror the latest accusations reported in The Arizona Republic.
Carey Fuller told The Republic she thought she was the only one who was sexually assaulted in that manner by Hughey until she read the accounts of the women in Modesto.
According to Fuller, Hughey touched her inappropriately on a church van one night during a mission trip to Mexico when she was 16 and he was in his late 20s.
She said within hours of reading a story detailing Hughey’s actions in Modesto she learned at least five other women had experienced the same thing while Hughey was a youth group leader at Scottsdale Bible Church in Arizona.
Juliet Buckner Pekaar also says Hughey sexually abused her while at Scottsdale Bible Church. She said it began when she was 16 and didn’t end until she was 19 and married to another youth pastor at the church.
“His power was in making you think you were the only one,” she told The Republic. “Nobody ever talked to each other, so there was just this shame and depression.”
Kory Schuknecht, a member of Scottsdale Bible Church’s executive leadership team, told the Modesto Bee that no instances of sexual misconduct came up in their reviews or reference checks of Hughey when they hired him in the mid-1980s.
He said he double-checked with the church’s then-senior pastor. “And when Les was a pastor for us, we never had any accusations of sexual impropriety at all.”
However, Buckner Pekaar said she did attempt to tell church staff members about what Hughey was doing, but she told The Republic she gave up “after their reaction made it clear they weren’t interested.”
Highlands Church said it placed Hughey on indefinite leave as soon as elders were made aware of the accusations.
“Given the complexity and sensitivity of these issues, the Elders are in the process of securing a qualified independent organization to fully investigate all allegations,” their statement read.
Hughey is the second former youth pastor at First Baptist Modesto to be accused of sexual misconduct recently.
In February, the Modesto Bee reported Brad Tebbutt, who was on staff at First Baptist in the 1980s, sexually abused a teenage girl for years, beginning when she was 14 and had suffered the loss of her father.
When Jennifer Graves came forward to the church, church leaders told her to forgive and forget, she said.
Police were never called. The girl’s mother was never informed, according to Graves in the Modesto Bee.
“They gave me specific directions to never speak of the events to anyone, because it would damage the reputation of the church, and of Jesus himself,” she told the Modesto Bee. “The abuse was swept under the rug.”
Since then, First Baptist has changed its name to CrossPoint Community Church and has safeguards in place, according to lead pastor Matt Whiteford.
“I believe that it is immoral, inexcusable, and very sad that anyone who holds a title such as pastor would do the sorts of things you have described (about Hughey) and they should be disqualified from pastoral ministry,” Whiteford told the Modesto Bee.
“I and CrossPoint Community Church believe and affirm that victims should be able to speak up, be heard, and be helped.”
- Bill Hybels Resigns at Willow Creek Amid Misconduct Allegations
- Healthy Ways to Help Sexual Abuse Survivors in Your Church
- Proceed With Care: Handling Pastoral Misconduct
- Preventing Sexual Harassment Webinar (Brotherhood Mutual)
- Good Employment Practices Protect Ministries (Brotherhood Mutual)
- Creating Sexual Harassment Policies for Church Workplaces (Church Law & Tax)
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.