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Whited Sepulchers

Lutheran church assistant pastor accused of sex abuse


A former Sonoma County man is suing a Windsor Lutheran church and its former assistant pastor, claiming he was molested nine years ago.

Vineyard of Faith Lutheran Church and ex-assistant pastor Christopher Benson are named in the lawsuit, which also includes the Lutheran Church’s Missouri headquarters and the regional Lutheran council.

The suit, filed in June in Sonoma County Court, seeks unspecified monetary damages for alleged psychological damage incurred by James Bowen, now 22.

Benson, through an attorney, denies anything inappropriate ever occurred.

The lawsuit claims the alleged abuse began nine years ago, when Bowen was 13 years old. It alleges Benson inappropriately touched Bowen, first at Bowen’s home and again later at Benson’s home. The 22-page claim doesn’t include specific dates of the alleged activity or exactly what sexual conduct is alleged to have occurred.

“It’s one of a long string of cases that put into the limelight a very serious issue,” said Bowen’s attorney, Richard Paris of San Rafael, referring to child-molestation scandals that ensnared the Roman Catholic church.

An attorney for Lutheran headquarters in Missouri, Irene Takahashi, said it is the policy of the church synod not to comment on pending litigation. An attorney for Vineyard of Faith could not be reached.

Benson’s attorney, Robert Beles of Oakland, said Benson did nothing wrong. He said he was filing a motion on Tuesday challenging the legal sufficiency of Bowen’s claim. Attorneys would not comment on Benson’s whereabouts or current status with the church.

“My client adamantly denies any misconduct,” Beles said. “My client denies any sexual misconduct or any inappropriate misconduct whatsoever. That’s his position now and that’s what it will continue to be.”

The church hasn’t filed any legal response to Bowen’s claims.

According to Bowen’s suit, the abuse began in mid-2000 when his mother sought counseling from Benson after she suspected one of her children was browsing Internet pornography sites.

Benson visited the Bowens’ home and asked the mother to leave the room, the suit alleges, asking James Bowen to stay behind to show him the computer evidence.

“However, what ensued was Benson engaging in unlawful sexual conduct with Bowen,” the suit claims. “Sexual acts orchestrated by Benson culminated in Bowen’s increasing discomfort until Bowen ran from the bedroom, crying hysterically, and unable to speak to his mother about this incident.”

Benson began inviting Bowen to private lunches twice weekly, where he “comforted” the boy with “his intimate touching,” the suit states.

Once, at Benson’s home, the suit says, Benson encouraged Bowen to watch him shower. The suit claims the boy found a stash of pornographic magazines under the assistant pastor’s bed, which his mother reported to the senior pastor at the time, Jeff Mueller.

In some cases of long-ago alleged child molestations, civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions are disallowed because too much time has passed since the alleged incidents. But the law allows civil claims to be filed by an adult up to age 26 if the sexual abuse occurred during childhood, Paris said.

“It took James a number of years to deal with the trauma,” he said. “He began to see that this was something he was going to have to deal with, whereas in the past he was kind of running away from it. It’s just too hard to face, but of course it affects you.”

The suit says an “informational report” was filed in March with the Windsor Police Department about the alleged abuse.

Capt. Matt McCaffrey, a spokesman from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department, which provides Windsor’s police force, said an investigation was opened into the allegations.

“We’re looking at it, but obviously it’s got some time behind it, so it doesn’t have the urgency of a normal sex abuse case,” he said. “It takes a while tracking down the witnesses when so much time has passed.”

The suit claims “Benson was engaged in the same or similar unlawful sexual misconduct with other young males who were church members of Vineyard.”

During an interview, Paris declined to be more specific about that claim.

The suit contends the church and its regional and national leadership are also responsible for the alleged abuse because it hired and supervised Benson.

A case management hearing has been set for Oct. 22 before Judge Elaine Rushing.
Copyright © 2009

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