Pastor in child abuse scandal is cleared

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IT IS A PERFECT Hollywood script. The leading characters are a crusading church minister, a rogue detective and a dashing defence lawyer. The setting is small-town America. The story is about one man's battle for justice and a father's love for his child. There is a witch-hunt, there are false accusations of illicit sex and a nail-biting courtroom climax. And, yes, there is a happy ending.

The word in Wenatchee, the real-life town in Washington State where the drama actually took place, is that Robert Redford has already expressed an interest in obtaining the film rights. At least five authors are said to be planning books.

The church minister is Pastor Robbie Roberson. Until he and his fourth wife, Connie, were arrested in March this year on 14 counts of child rape and molestation, his mission in life had been to serve and to feed the poor parishioners of the Pentecostal Church of God. Pastor Roberson protested his innocence from the start. He claimed he was being victimised by a local policeman, Detective Robert Perez, because he had been waging a campaign to obtain the release of members of his congregation who had been similarly charged and, he claimed, wrongfully imprisoned. His martyrdom would have been bearable, he said, had the local authorities not taken away his five-year-old daughter, Rebecca, and placed her in a foster home.

The Wenatchee prosecutors maintained that Becky was one of the children the pastor had raped. Detective Perez claimed Mr Roberson was the leader of a child sex ring. He based his allegation on the testimony of a 10- year-old girl who must be known, for legal reasons, as D E. The first child to corroborate the stories of, among other things, mass orgies on the altar of Mr Roberson's church was M E, D E's sister. Both girls lived with Detective Perez. He and his wife were their foster-parents.

It was after the girls' natural parents, Idella and Harold Everett, were arrested by Detective Perez and jailed for 4 and 23 years respectively that Mr Roberson, who had ministered to them for years, began a campaign to set them free.

Detective Perez warned the pastor to keep away. He refused to do so and was arrested.

Enter Robert van Siclen, a silver-haired lawyer from Seattle. He and a small team of assistants set out to investigate the investigator. They came across a number of children who said Detective Perez had bullied them into incriminating innocent adults. The news spread that something terrible was going in Wenatchee, and the media poured into town.

The local chamber of commerce, the mayor, the editors of the Wenatchee World bristled. Their town was being portrayed as darkly insular, weird. So they hit back, accusing the Wall Street Journal, in particular, of engaging in tabloid journalism, and the media in general of being engaged in a disinformation conspiracy with a network of child molesters.

After the trial of Robbie and Connie Roberson began a month ago, it quickly became evident to Mr van Siclen that the district judge, "Chip" Small, was working hand in glove with the prosecution. "The judge was amazingly obstructive," Mr van Siclen said on Friday. "He simply refused to allow me to present my case from the standpoint of the children who had been tainted in earlier interviews with Perez. And D E did not testify even though it was through her that everything began."

Judge Small, it appears, had made up his mind about the case before the trial had begun. In refusing an interview to a reporter from Newsweek, he said he would be available "after sentencing".

As it turned out, the prosecution failed abysmally to construct a plausible case. And the house of cards collapsed during Mr van Siclen's cross-examination of Detective Perez. Protected by the judge from some of the tougher questions, he looked, in the words of a reporter who was present, "unbelievably nervous". When Mr van Siclen announced that there were no further questions, he stood up, wiped his brow and breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

However, Mr van Siclen, briefed by his investigators, did manage to extract from him an extremely damaging admission. M E, his foster-child, was one of the key prosecution witnesses. It turned out that on the morning that she was due to testify, Detective Perez grabbed her by the arm so hard that he bruised her, led her into a room in his house, twisted the girl's arm behind her back, forced her to the ground and straddled her.

The suggestion that her foster-father was coercing her to testify against her will, combined with the lack of prosecution evidence, persuaded the jury, last Monday afternoon, to acquit Mr Roberson and his wife on all counts.

On Wednesday the couple were re-united with their daughter Rebecca after an absence of nine months. On Friday, in Wenatchee, Mr Roberson said he would continue to campaign for the Everett couple and others he and Mr van Siclen believe werewrongfully incarcerated.

"I'm not leaving town. I'll be back behind the pulpit this Sunday, preaching again for the first time since all this started back in March. I will continue this battle, which was what got me into all this in the first place. Harold and Idella, I say to you: I will fight and fight until you are back home! I will be Wenatchee, Washington's worst nightmare!"