Los Osos woman sues church over decades-old abuse. A new California law made it possible

A new state law has enabled a woman who said she was sexually abused by a youth pastor more than 40 years ago to sue him and the Modesto church where he worked.

Tracy Epler of Los Osos filed a complaint on Thursday against CrossPoint Church, formerly First Baptist Church, and Les Hughey, who was a youth pastor there in the 1970s. She said the church covered up the abuse, allowing his behavior to perpetuate at other churches for decades after.

“I am very tired of hiding and living a life of isolation and inner fear,” Epler told The Bee on Sunday. “I am tired of inner shame that never seems to go away. I am tired of thinking I don’t deserve to be happy. I am tired of carrying the burden of blaming myself for what happened , resulting in living a life of self-punishment.”

“It is time for me to transfer the weight of responsibility to them, the church, and no longer carry it myself,” she continued. “I want to be clean. I want to be free.”

The church and Hughey are identified in the complaint as ‘Does’ until a court orders theirs names can be added after necessary documentation is filed, said Epler’s Sacramento-based attorney Joe George, who is also a licensed psychologist.

However, Epler told her story of abuse to The Bee last year after Jennifer Roach, another victim of sexual abuse by a different youth pastor at First Baptist a decade later, came forward with her story.

In July, the church settled a lawsuit brought by Roach in the amount of $267,500. She also was represented by George.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 13 signed into law Assembly Bill 218, which extends the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file a lawsuit from age 26 to age 40 or within five years —formerly three years — from the date of discovery of an adult psychological injury caused by the childhood sexual assault. It also opened a three-year window for the revival of past claims that have expired due to the statute of limitations, which has allowed Epler, 60, to sue.

“Tracy is a brave woman who is protecting others by taking legal action,” George said in a statement. “We hope her courage will prod others with information about Pastor Hughey’s crimes — or other wrongdoing — to speak up, file reports with law enforcement, start healing and safeguarding other vulnerable youngsters.”

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Epler is suing for negligent supervision of an employee by the church, negligent supervision of her when she was a minor, negligent failure to report childhood sexual abuse and childhood sexual abuse.

CrossPoint’s lead pastor, Matt Whiteford, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

For two years in the 1970s, from age 17 to 19, Epler was coerced into having sex with Hughey, the pastor in charge of her youth group, she told The Bee last year.

She was a virgin when the abuse started and Hughey was a married 23-year-old.

“It was about obedience and submissiveness,” Epler told The Bee last year. “You had to. It was being obedient to God.”

It came to an end when a First Baptist staff member intercepted a note Hughey had written to Epler.

The staff member and Epler then independently confided in church leaders, both said. But the leader in charge of all youth pastors instructed Epler not to tell her parents or anyone else, she said.

“Then I was dismissed,” she said last year. “He said, ‘Thank you very much for coming and telling me,’ and that was the last and only time it was ever talked about. He didn’t send a female staff person to check on me. So instead of protecting me, he protected Les. I’m still shocked by that today.”

The claim says that instead of taking action against Hughey and reporting his crime to the police, the church “praised and glorified (him) as an amazing man, and supported and promoted his transfer” to become a youth minister at a church in Sonora.

It alleges that Hughey sexually abused at least two other minors before Epler and that the church “knew or had reason to know that (he) was a threat to her” but was complicit by allowing him to work there and engaged in a “cover up” of Epler’s abuse.

Epler remained silent about the abuse for years until confiding in her now ex-husband and eventually a counselor. She said she didn’t tell her parents until about 25 years after the abuse.

Inspired by Roach telling her story, Epler, along with three other women, came forward with their stories about Hughey.

In a written statement to The Bee last year, Hughey admitted having sex with girls in his charge when he was the youth pastor at First Baptist.

After that story published in The Bee in April 2018, more woman spoke out about Hughey. They were parishioners from a church in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he worked before going on to found a megachurch there.

Hughey resigned from the megachurch not long after and the Scottsdale Police Department launched an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct while he was a youth pastor at the Scottsdale Bible Church in the mid to late 1980s.

The department submitted a 100-page report, with interviews from more than a dozen victims and witnesses, to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in April. In August, prosecutors asked the Scottsdale Police Department for additional information they said is needed “before they can fully review the case for a charging decision,” a representative from the Office said Friday.

“The lives of many girls have been damaged. We take this damage into our relationships, our marriages, our families . Our damaged young lives were not important to the church staff members or to the institution as a whole ... Our secret of shame became their secret to manipulate and conceal as they deemed best,” Epler said. “While our lives have been brutally and tragically altered, their successful lives as leaders in the church continued and even flourished. No one has been held accountable for the crime against us and the cause for many others after us. Accountability is due.”

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Erin has been covering breaking news and crime at The Modesto Bee since 2010. She is a Humboldt State graduate and resides in Oakdale.