“”Sexual immorality” was the reason cited when longtime Pastor Ken Engelking resigned in January from Morning Star Community Church in Salem.
Four women had come forward the previous spring with allegations against Engelking, two other former church staff members and a member of an affiliated church.
In a 23-page annotated letter to the Morning Star board of directors, the women chronicled accusations of an abusive, adulterous relationship involving Engelking, and sexual assault and rape by three other men over more than 20 years, including as recently as 2010.
The church sought legal counsel, then hired a private investigator to look into the allegations. Nine months later, the board asked Engelking to resign.
Morning Star leaders declined to be interviewed for this story. In response to questions from the Statesman Journal, the board of directors provided a written statement detailing the allegations.
The statement offered an apology: “We are deeply sorry that anyone has ever experienced hurt, abuse, or felt unheard while under our care.”
All four women agreed to talk on the record to the Statesman Journal in an effort to empower other women, but not to be named, saying they feared possible retribution. At least one of the women has been harassed and berated on social media following Engelking’s resignation.
The Statesman Journal does not name victims of sexual abuse or assault without their permission.
The women’s letter describes a pattern of cover-up and patriarchal pressure inside the church started in 1982 and still led by Senior Pastor Scott Nelson.
In each case, the women said they were silenced by Nelson and other church leaders, pressured to not report what happened to them or do anything that could tarnish Morning Star’s image.
The church’s attorney said that “despite the view of some, these events are not part of a systemic culture or cover-up.”
One woman, in her 30s at the time, said she was told by a church leader that it was her fault she was raped because she had been flirting and wearing a tank top. A 15-year-old girl, when she confided to Engelking that she hadn’t told her parents about her assault, said he encouraged her to keep it secret.
The women say none were offered outside counseling or support after bringing forth the allegations.
Members of the clergy are mandatory child abuse reporters in Oregon. Any person younger than 18 is unable to give consent under Oregon law, so any sexual activity is considered abuse and must be reported.
But neither Engelking nor Nelson reported the incident involving the 15-year-old, not at the time it allegedly happened in 1994 or when it was detailed in the letter last year. There is no statute of limitations on reporting laws.
The women sent their letter in April 2017 to the five members of the all-male church board, including Keizer Police Sgt. Bob Trump and Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron.
Trump, as a police officer, is a mandatory reporter, but he did not report the abuse alleged in the letter. While Trump continues to serve on the board, Cameron told the Statesman Journal he resigned in May after the letter was received and the investigation launched.
The Statesman Journal found no reports of abuse filed by members of Morning Star or its board members with Salem Police or in Marion County court records.
Nelson, Engelking and Trump declined to comment.
The criminal statute of limitations has passed for all but one of the alleged assaults.
‘Protecting the church … covering up the sin’
Engelking had been a pastor at Morning Star for 31 years when asked to resign.
Two other alleged perpetrators, including one accused of rape, were allowed to quietly leave the church without repercussions. One, a youth pastor, was later ousted from a second Salem church, which determined he was involved in an inappropriate relationship.
The fourth alleged perpetrator was a member of Mike Silva International, which sponsored a 2010 mission trip to Columbia that included Morning Star members. The alleged rape was referred by Morning Star to the Silva ministry because it headed the mission, according to the board’s statement.
Silva is a director on Morning Star’s board.
Most churches, driven in part by the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal involving priests, have protocols in place for prevention of, and response to, sexual misconduct, according to multiple Salem-area pastors and a religious studies professor at Willamette University.
But Morning Star is an independent church. It is not affiliated with any denomination and grew rapidly from a Bible study in Nelson’s living room to three Sunday services in a 1,200-seat auditorium on a South Salem hill overlooking Kuebler Boulevard near Interstate 5.
Its leaders declined to discuss their protocols to protect victims of sexual misconduct. The church’s attorney would only say that protocols are in place.
When Nelson announced Engelking’s resignation, he said church leadership took what it considered “appropriate action” in the mid-1990s when the first allegations were made.
But it was clear after the 2017 independent investigation and “after much prayer, fasting, tears and meetings with deep sorrow” that Engelking had to resign, Nelson told his congregation Jan. 14.
He also told them he took “full responsibility for the fact that situations were not properly addressed all those years ago.”
After releasing a formal statement to the Statesman Journal, Nelson followed up with the congregation on Feb. 25, saying: “We did fail in many ways in our follow up and in our care.
“We don’t control what people think about us, we simply put our eyes on Jesus and we continue doing ministry,” he said. “Yeah, we’ve blown it, we’ve missed it, we failed.”
Each of the four women told the Statesman Journal their lives were forever changed by the alleged assaults. They said their subsequent relationships have suffered and they continue to require therapy.
Their faith never wavered, they said, although they all eventually left Morning Star and attend other churches.
One of the victims said she was compelled to break the silence after seeing the movie “Spotlight” about the Boston Globe’s investigation into sex abuse by Catholic priests and the church’s cover-up.
“I heard similar language throughout the film that I had heard from Scott Nelson about protecting the church — which means covering up the sin — and my heart ripped in two,” she wrote in the letter to the church board.
Intern pastor accused of assault
The youngest alleged victim said she was 15 years old when an adult pastor intern first touched her by rubbing her thigh while on a bus ride back from a 1994 church camping trip.
He pressured her to lie to her parents and meet privately with him on at least two occasions. During one outing, he pressed his body against hers while teaching her how to play miniature golf.
One night, he snuck into her home while her parents were out of town, slipping through a sliding glass door entrance to her room, she told the board.
She said he tried to convince her multiple times to lay in bed naked with him, side by side. He told her he wouldn’t do anything to her, and that she was safe with him.
He allegedly got on top of her while she laid in bed, still clothed, and mimicked intercourse without penetrating her.
After he climaxed and left the home, she said she “felt sick.” She remembers getting out of bed, washing her sheets and blankets, and taking a shower.
“I hate that night,” she told the Statesman Journal.
She didn’t immediately tell her parents. But after confiding in a church friend, the friend told her that Nelson handed over the “problem” to Engelking.
Soon after, she received a call from Engelking. She said he told her the pastor intern was moving to California. When Engelking asked if she planned to tell her parents of the assault, she replied “no.”
“He said that was ‘fine,’ that he had dealt with it and we could leave it all behind us now,” she said.
The youth pastor was “immediately dismissed” when the assault was disclosed to church officials, according to the board’s statement to the Statesman Journal. The church described the alleged assault as “criminal sexual contact with a minor.”
“Contrary to church policy, the pastor supervising the intern unilaterally decided not to report the incident to the minor’s parents or anyone else,” the board said in the statement.
“Following the 2017 investigation, the board determined that the initial disclosure of information was incomplete,” the statement read.
The former intern accused of sexually assaulting the girl declined multiple Statesman Journal requests to comment.
The alleged victim, now 39 years old, said no one at the church offered her counseling or other aid. She didn’t tell her parents of the assault until 2016.
“I’m so sad to think that the church’s reputation was more important than honesty and healing,” she told the Statesman Journal. “I hold Ken (Engelking) and Scott (Nelson) responsible too for their lack of willingness to seek justice and truth.”
Married pastor’s actions lead to resignation
A 22-year-old woman was inebriated and falling in and out of consciousness when Pastor Ken Engelking allegedly performed oral sex on her after a night of drinking in Portland in 1994.
Engelking invited the female youth leader, who he had mentored since she was 14, out for drinks under the pretense of meeting friends, the woman would later tell the board.
No one showed up. They were alone. He was married.
He allegedly provided her drinks until she lost consciousness. She said she awoke in a hotel bed to find Engelking on top of her.
She said she and Engelking started a sexual relationship after the first encounter that lasted about nine months.
She said they had sexual encounters on Morning Star church property, at youth group events, on mission trips to Modesto, California, and at junior high camps. She said he would often sleep in her tent during church camping trips.
In 1996, her father, a Morning Star board member at the time, met with Nelson and Nelson’s wife, Denise, and told them about Engelking’s “ongoing sexual sin” with his daughter, she said.
According to her father, Nelson said his daughter was “culpable” because she was an adult when the relationship began. Her father countered that his daughter had been “clearly groomed to idolize him” since she was a teenager.
“Disciplinary action” was taken against Engelking in 1996, the church board’s statement said, without elaboration.
In 2002, the woman said she and her husband met at Shari’s restaurant in Keizer with Nelson and Pastor Randy Butler of Salem Evangelical Church, where the couple attended at the time, to discuss Engelking’s conduct.
Butler said the woman looked “broken” during the two-hour meeting with Nelson in which she shared a list of 52 sexual encounters with Engelking. Nelson did not take the list of allegations with him when he left.
“I believe he stated this was a Morning Star matter and that he would take care of it,” Butler said in a statement to the Statesman Journal.
Morning Star leadership took additional “disciplinary action based on the new disclosures in 2002,” according to the church statement, which did not specify the action against Engelking.
“The brokenness of humanity doesn’t just exist in the pew. It exists in pastors as well,” Nelson told his congregation when announcing Engelking’s resignation. “But pastors must be held to a higher standard.”
Months after watching “Spotlight” in 2016, the woman’s mother-in-law sent a page and a half long email to a Morning Star staff member questioning church leaders’ response after learning about the allegations against Engelking and allegations involving the minor who was allegedly assaulted by an intern pastor in 1994.
A month later, the mother-in-law received a three-sentence response stating the staff member shared it with Pastor Nelson and “some” of the board members.
“We are prayerfully reviewing your concerns and praying for everyone involved for continued healing, forgiveness and restoration,” the email read.
The woman, now 45, said it was that response that gave her the resolve to go beyond just reporting the allegations to church leaders.
She eventually connected with the three other alleged victims and they crafted the letter she said was 23 years in the making.
Church didn’t report alleged rape
Another woman was allegedly raped and sodomized on her 18th birthday by a Morning Star college pastor in his South Salem apartment in 1996.
As others left the birthday party, the pastor asked her to stay behind so he could give her a present.
She had joined the church’s college and career group to help lead worship with him just weeks before. He was in his mid-20s at the time.
As she was opening the gift, he tried kissing her, but she pushed him away.
He picked her up in a bear hug and carried her into his bedroom. She said he kept telling her “It’s OK. It’s OK,” after he ripped off her pants and forced himself on top of her.
She remembers screaming “No!” hundreds of times.
She was wearing her father’s purity ring, which he gave her when she was 16.
“He raped me. He assaulted me from every position possible,” she told the Statesman Journal. “It was violent.”
Afterward, she said he told her that no one had to know what happened and that “you are my 15th.” He didn’t elaborate.
She told her parents the next day, who threatened the man with physical harm if he didn’t leave Oregon within three days. He was gone in two.
A couple days after the assault, she said she told Engelking that the youth pastor “stole” something from her that she would never get back. She said Engelking told her the church would “take care of it.”
The alleged perpetrator had previously been disciplined for misconduct with an adult church member, according to the statement provided by the Morning Star board. It said the pastor abandoned his position and left the state before the “facts were fully disclosed” to church staff.
The board acknowledged the alleged assault was criminal in nature, but it was not reported to law enforcement.
Woman told alleged rape was her fault
The most recentcase involves a woman who was allegedly raped on a 2010 mission trip to Colombia with Morning Star church members.
On the last night of a five-day trip, she was allegedly raped by a man affiliated with Mike Silva International, an evangelist group directed by longtime Morning Star board member Mike Silva.
Silva’s website states he has traveled to at least 35 countries sharing the Gospel with millions of people as part of his traveling evangelical mission trips and festivals.
After returning to Oregon, the woman who was in her 30s at the time, said she called Engelking’s wife, Lori, for counsel. She remembers Lori Engelking blamed her for the alleged rape, stating she was “asking for it” because she was flirting and wearing a tank top instead of the T-shirt required by church staff.
Lori Engelking, now the church’s worship ministries assistant, declined to comment for this story.
The woman said she told Nelson a month and a half later that she had been raped. He told her that reporting the assault would “disrupt the church body,” she told the Statesman Journal.
In another conversation, she said Ken Engelking told her there was no reason to inform Silva of the assault.
In its statement the Morning Star board said it referred the rape allegation to Mike Silva International, the ministry in charge of the overseas mission.
Silva did not respond to requests for comment. His assistant told the Statesman Journal he was in Colombia on a mission trip.
Morning Star leaders did not report the rape allegation to police and did not respond to Statesman Journal questions about the case.
“I never stopped attending Morning Star because I was made to believe I should just keep my mouth shut,” the woman, now 46, told the Statesman Journal. “I kept my silence just as I was told.”
She left the church in 2015. And in August 2017, she filed a report with Salem Police. She said she didn’t want to pursue charges, but wanted law enforcement to have the assault on file.
Salem Police Department Lt. Dave Okada confirmed the report was filed.
Change won’t happen ‘until people know’
Driven by the #MeToo movement, the national conversation about widespread sexual harassment and assault has never been more fervent.
Sex abuse scandals involving USA Women’s Gymnastics, film producer Harvey Weinstein and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore have dominated the news.
One in four girls will be sexually abused before they turn 18, and one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Type in a Google search for the words “church,” “pastor” and “sexual abuse,” and more than 1.1 million results appear with story after story about victims who describe abuse to church leaders who did not report the allegations to law enforcement.
Stephen Patterson, a professor of religious and ethical studies at Willamette University, commended the four women for having the courage to come forward and share their stories.
“By speaking out, they can help change the problem, change churches that have not adopted protocols and safety measures,” Patterson said. “When you’re violated in church, and you’re a Christian, it’s a very deeply devastating experience.”
Patterson’s wife is a minister in the United Church of Christ, which he said has strict protocols to protect the church and its members.
“In her church, when staff are working with youth, there must always be two adults present at all times,” Patterson said. “Those adults have to be trained, similar to the training a daycare worker would undergo. That’s true of the Presbyterian Church, United Methodist Church, Episcopal.”
He said those church’s spiritual leaders also undergo psychological testing and training, including ethics and mandatory reporting.
Morning Star is a non-denominational evangelical church. Patterson said in some churches repentance is seen as more important than accountability in the justice system.
“This assumption that everyone is a sinner and that the problem of sin is solved by repentance and giving life over to God often leaves a blank space where accountability ought to be,” Patterson said.
George Copeland, a board member at Salem First Free Methodist Church, said churches also should hold each other accountable.
“The faith community depends on churches openly reporting staff misconduct to the appropriate authorities so that when background checks are performed, they’re accurate,” said Copeland. “We depend on each other to do that so we don’t pass the problem on.”
Copeland told the Statesman Journal that he was disturbed to learn a youth pastor on his church’s staff in 2003 was one of the alleged perpetrators at Morning Star.
That individual, he said, left First Free Methodist because he did not live up to the church’s standards by living with a woman to whom he was not married.
It may be too late to prosecute an alleged abuser, but reporting abuse can still protect potential future victims, said Brendan Murphy, Marion County deputy district attorney.
Oregon’s law provides civil immunity — they can’t be sued — if someone makes a report in good faith.
“The law is designed to encourage voluntary reporting, so conversation around when people have to report is discouraging,” Murphy said.
Law enforcement officers have been on the list of mandatory child-abuse reporters in Oregon since 1963. Members of the clergy were added in 1975.
Violation of the mandatory reporting law has always been a misdemeanor in Oregon. Today, it is a Class A violation with a maximum fine of $2,000.
“It is not a crime, and someone cannot go to jail,” Murphy said. “Of course, there may be collateral consequences — someone loses their job, for example — but that’s not part of the penalty.”
Mandatory reporters are rarely cited for failing to report. Murphy said he only knows of one case in the past 13 years in Marion County.
“We shouldn’t need significant criminal sanctions for people to call and report concerns of abuse or neglect,” Murphy said.
The women in this story said they came forward so their voices could be heard and to protect potential future victims.
While they are relieved by Engelking’s resignation, one of them said the “cancer is still there. Part of the problem may have been removed, but how women are treated there, and how they’re shamed by pastors … won’t change until people know about it.””
Statements from Morning Star Community Church regarding sex abuse claims
From the former pastor
“Morning Star Community Church Senior Pastor Scott Nelson read the following statement during services Jan. 14, 2018, attributing it to former pastor Ken Engelking:
Morning Star Family. As difficult as this is for myself, Lori and our family, we believe God’s promises for us and hope going forward. I love and support Pastor Scott and the leadership at Morning Star. I am deeply grateful for the chance to have served Jesus and minister the family at Morning Star for the past 31 years, and we’re very sad to have this chapter of our lives to end. I’m so sorry for the pain of my past sins have caused anyone and as I have in the past, take full responsibility for those sins. I ask forgiveness if I have caused you or someone pain because of my past actions. We are so thankful for God’s continued grace and mercy in mine and my family’s lives, and we will continue to trust and serve him. While there is much more I can say, there is hope for you that you will all continue to trust the lord no matter what. And I will do the same.
From the church board
Morning Star Community Church Board of Directors emailed the following statement to the Statesman Journal on Feb. 23, 2018:
In April, 2017, the Morning Star Board of Directors received a written complaint detailing allegations of sexual misconduct by staff of Morning Star Community Church. The allegations involved incidents that occurred between 1994 and 1997. The Board sought legal counsel who engaged a private investigator to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations. The Board cannot publicly address matters that were dealt with in confidence. However, without violating confidences the Board determined the following:
In 1994/1995 a youth pastor engaged in a sexual relationship that lasted approximately nine months with an adult woman who was a volunteer in the high school ministry. The Board determined that the information regarding the relationship was not fully divulged when the allegations first surfaced in 1996. Based upon the disclosures known in 1996, leadership took disciplinary action at that time. In 2002, more information regarding the relationship became known. Leadership took additional disciplinary action based on the new disclosures in 2002. The Board’s 2017 investigation resulted in additional details. When its investigation was complete, the Board asked for this pastor’s resignation, which was tendered.
In 1995 an intern was alleged to have engaged in criminal sexual contact with a minor in the high school ministry. This intern was immediately dismissed at the time of disclosure. Following the 2017 investigation, the Board determined that the initial disclosure of information was incomplete. Contrary to church policy, the pastor supervising the intern unilaterally decided not to report the incident to the minor’s parents or anyone else.
In 1997 a college and career pastor was alleged to have engaged in criminal sexual contact with an adult in the college ministry. This pastor had previously been disciplined for misconduct with another adult in the congregation. However, this pastor promptly left the state and abandoned his position before the facts were fully disclosed to Morning Star staff.
In 2010 an adult parishioner of Morning Star alleged she was the victim of a sexual assault while on an overseas mission trip that was sponsored and controlled by a ministry independent and separate from Morning Star. The Board referred this matter to the ministry controlling that overseas mission.
The Board immediately advised immediate reporting of all suspected criminal behavior to law enforcement.
As a result of the Board’s investigation, Morning Star has been and continues to take action to ensure the safety and well being of those in our care, and the healing of each person who has been hurt. We are deeply sorry that anyone has ever experienced hurt, abuse, or felt unheard while under our care. The Board determined that the time-frame of the incidents involved with this inquiry involving pastors or interns of Morning Star church occurred between 1994-1997.
From the board’s attorney
Attorney Daniel A. Hill, of Adams, Hill & Hess in Salem, responded to followup questions on behalf of the board in the following statement emailed to the Statesman Journal on Feb. 26, 2018:
Thank you for your inquiry. We appreciate your desire to be fair and accurate in your reporting. Unfortunately I cannot publicly address confidential matters and must keep confidential the details of the investigation, including the names of those involved. Nevertheless, in an attempt to address your questions, I can offer the following:
The Board is aware that some individuals who have attended Morning Star have posted negative reactions to social media posts made by at least one of those who initially brought the allegations to the Board’s attention in April 2017. The Board and leadership of Morning Star do not condone these negative social media reactions. It is painful to see the dialogue that has transpired that serves no positive or productive purpose.
The Board’s statement noted that the allegations it received in April 2017 involved conduct that was described in the April 2017 letter as criminal sexual misconduct. Whether or not the conduct was criminal is a legal conclusion outside the purview of the Board.
Each situation must be viewed independently. When the situation involving the minor first became known, the supervising pastor promptly terminated the intern and then unilaterally decided not to inform the minor’s parents or authorities.(Please note that in the earlier statement the phrase “or anyone else” was intended to refer to “authorities” and should be amended as such.
A response by Morning Star to inquiries from potential employers regarding former pastors/interns who have had allegations of sexual misconduct asserted against them, would have included disclosure of any non-confidential information.
The church has protocols in place to ensure the protection of victims of sexual and other misconduct. It is important to recognize that the events which are the subject of the Statesman Journal’s inquiry occurred approximately 23 years ago. The church is devastated by what happened and wants to help bring healing and wholeness to those who were wounded so long ago. However, despite the view of some, these events are not part of a systemic culture or cover-up.”
How we did the story: The Statesman Journal’s investigation into sex abuse claims at Morning Star
“An alleged victim of sexual abuse at Morning Star Community Church first reached out to Statesman Journal reporter Lauren Hernandez in May 2017, a month after the woman sent a letter detailing allegations to the church’s board of directors.
The victim remained in contact with Hernandez during the nine months the church conducted an independent investigation.
Statesman Journal reporter Capi Lynn received a tip Jan. 13 that longtime pastor Ken Engelking would resign from Morning Star the next day.
Hernandez attended the 9 a.m. service on Sunday, Jan. 14, during which Senior Pastor Scott Nelson announced that Pastor Ken Engelking had resigned under allegations of “sexual immorality.”
The Statesman Journal interviewed all four women and attempted to corroborate their stories through interviews with family members, friends and a local pastor at another church who had counseled one of the women.
Reporters did criminal background checks on parties involved and combed through newspaper archives to put together a timeline on the history of Morning Star and its growth.
The Statesman Journal also contacted officials with the Salem Police Department, the Marion County District Attorney’s office, as well as other churches and religious scholars.
The Statesman Journal reached out to Morning Star staff, board members and pastors’ wives, first through phone calls and emails, then via certified letters. All but one of the certified letters were delivered, either to the church, to board members’ places of business, or their homes.
The board responded Feb. 23 with a statement from a Salem attorney, who also asked the Statesman Journal to make no further inquiries of Morning Star staff or board members.
He passed out a one-page description of the allegations to church members.
The Statesman Journal followed up with a final inquiry Feb. 26 via email to the primary parties, including the attorney, “to ensure that we are being fair and doing our due diligence, giving you every opportunity to answer our questions or clear up any misunderstandings …”
The attorney responded the next day and attempted to address some of the newspaper’s questions.”