- Associated Press - Friday, May 1, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The pastor of a small Oregon church community that prosecutors described as cult-like has been sentenced to 20 years in prison after he was convicted of molesting the daughter of a church member in the 1990s.

Michael George Sperou, 64, pastor of the North Clackamas Bible Community, was found guilty Thursday by a Portland jury on three counts of unlawful sexual penetration of a person under the age of 12.

The verdict came 18 years after Sperou was first investigated in 1997, after seven girls reported he had sexually molested them when they were children. At the time, prosecutors didn’t bring charges because of inconsistent statements by the girls.

Two years ago they again brought their complaints to police. Prosecutors determined the statute of limitations had expired on complaints by all but one of them. But the other six were allowed to testify so jurors could decide whether the pastor’s behavior was intentional and part of an ongoing pattern.

Sperou denied the allegations during the three-week trial. The jury deliberated less than three hours before convicting him.

The trial exposed a hidden Christian spiritual community in Portland that formed to study the Bible and for self-improvement, but devolved into turmoil, leaving broken marriages and families torn between loyalty to their pastor and their daughters’ abuse claims.

Current and former church members testified Sperou was a charismatic figure, a great Bible teacher and spiritual mentor who was revered and loved by his followers. The pastor lived communally with the other families and worshipped together in rental homes in the Portland area.

But in closing arguments, the prosecution said the pastor kept many secrets, including drug and alcohol abuse, affairs and the frequent sexual abuse of young girls.

Sperou also was narcissistic and manipulative, Deputy District Attorney Christine Mascal said, pressuring and reprimanding adults and children and creating a cult-like following from which it was difficult to break free.

Mascal said Sperou invited the girls to the movies and on camping trips and gave them gifts, money, alcohol and candy. The girls, she said, “didn’t know it’s wrong, it was their daily life. They thought they were loved by this man, that’s what he told them.”

Sperou’s defense attorney, Steven J. Sherlag, argued the women made up the allegations under pressure from their parents, some of whom had left the church. Sherlag also said the women’s memories could not be trusted because of the passage of time.

“The stories continue to evolve,” Sherlag told the jurors. “False memories can cause trauma. Just because someone has a vivid memory, it doesn’t mean it’s a true memory.”

The seven women who brought the original allegations - now in their late 20s and 30s - testified in court that when they were girls the pastor would spend time with them alone in his basement bedroom and during trips out of town. They said Sperou invited them to watch movies with him in his bed while he wore only boxers.

In 1994, records show, two of the young girls told their parents about Sperou’s inappropriate sexual conduct. After several church members confronted him, Sperou allegedly apologized and the members forgave him and did not call police.

But discord continued, leading to a split in the church three years later, when two dozen members left. One of the ex-members then reported the alleged child sexual abuse by Sperou to authorities. Other parents remained loyal to Sperou at the price of cutting off contact with their own children over the abuse claims.

At the trial, a few parents who remain in the church testified that their daughters had made up the abuse. They include Sperou’s current wife, who told jurors she chose to remain with the pastor even after her then-husband left the church with their daughter.

According to court records, Sperou became pastor of the church in 1980. Its followers live in Happy Valley, a Portland suburb. Those who left the church said Sperou reprimanded, belittled and shamed those who questioned him.

Current members of the church sat on one side of the packed courtroom during the trial and former followers of Sperou sat on the other. After Sperou was led out in handcuffs, the former followers erupted in applause and hugged each other.

“I’m very happy the girls got justice,” said Carole Green, Sperou’s former wife, who has left the church. “Many of us are praying God will bring Michael to complete repentance while he’s in prison.”

Sperou must also register as a sex offender and pay the victim $20,000 for ongoing mental health therapy. After his release, he will be on post-prison supervision for 10 years. His defense attorney said he will appeal Sperou’s conviction.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide