Early next year, the first of several child-sexual abuse cases involving church leaders is expected to be heard in a courtroom in southwest Missouri. The sex charges were filed this summer by women who grew up in a religious community deep in the Ozarks. Most of the accusers and the accused are related by blood or marriage.
The five women who have pressed charges are all now adults. They attended Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church in Washburn, Mo. If what they say is true -- and that's still to be proven -- they were lured into sexual conduct by some of their church leaders when they were children, one as young as 8.
At a preliminary hearing in the Newton County, Mo., courthouse in October, 20-year-old Mackenzie Kyle Amey testified against her alleged molester, 63-year-old pastor George Johnston, a man she used to call Grandpa. Her younger sister has also made claims against Johnston. Attorney Andy Wood represents Johnston. He says his client is innocent.
In neighboring McDonald County, Duane Cooper, an attorney for Raymond Lambert -- the other pastor accused of multiple counts of statutory sodomy and child molestation -- also questions the timing of the accusations. Cooper says Lambert is innocent, and Cooper isn't happy about all the publicity the case has received locally.
"There's an assumption of guilt," Cooper says. "As soon as people see it on TV, hear about it on the radio, read about it in the newspapers, they assume because the great powers of the state have charged a crime, that a person is actually guilty."
Cooper and other lawyers representing Raymond Lambert say they don't want to try their client's cases in the media, but they agreed to let NPR ask pastor Lambert about the effects of the accusations on his life.
"It's been tough on everyone, but I believe we're going to make it," Lambert said. "My vision of what our farm would be -- a school, a farm -- in a moment of a few days, and seemingly a few hours, it all changed."
One accuser, who fears reprisals for speaking out, tells NPR she left the community in April. Since then, she no longer attends church because she finds it hard to trust any religious figure. She doesn't want to be identified by name. She alleges her sexual relationship with pastor Raymond Lambert started when she was 15.
Another woman who left is Charyn Epling. She says she wasn't encouraged to read the Bible in this community because it was preached to her that only men of God read it.
Charyn Epling is now reading the Bible. The first thing she learned, she says, is that "nowhere in the Bible does it state that you can touch a child. Nowhere. You cannot sexually touch a child, and that's basically what this is all about."
Next week, a hearing is set for one of the accused church leaders in McDonald County. Other cases are pending, and one trial is set for February.