There is enough to criticize in the Christian church these days without abhorrent scenarios like this one.
The Oregonian/OregonLive generally does not disclose the names of alleged sexual-abuse victims. However, all seven women agreed to speak on the record, saying it's time the public heard their stories.
On June 20, a Multnomah County grand jury indicted Sperou on three counts of first-degree unlawful sexual penetration of a child under the age of 12 – two counts relating to incidents alleged to have occurred in 1993-94 and one in 1995-96. All are Class A felonies.
The alleged victim, Shannon Clark, told police that she withheld information from investigators in 1997 because "the culture of the church was to please Sperou" and because sexual contact from him "gave her validation within the church."
Sperou, who married the mother of one of the alleged victims 16 years ago, continues to lead the church, now called North Clackamas Bible Community.
Initially, Sperou did not respond to requests for an interview. The Oregonian/OregonLive then sent the pastor and his attorney a list of 30 facts and assertions amassed over months of reporting, giving him the opportunity to respond to all of the allegations against him. Sperou, agreed to an interview and photographs -- but no video -- at one of the church member's homes on Dec. 16.
Surrounded by his attorney, his wife and several church supporters, Sperou admitted past drug and alcohol abuse but categorically denied ever molesting or abusing his accusers. He also denied each individual allegation of physical or psychological abuse.
Sperou said he would welcome all of his accusers back into the church "with open arms."
"I believe it is our mission to love God, to love the church and to love one another," Sperou said.
After all these years, the full truth of what happened during a period of upheaval in Sperou's church may never be determined. All of the original cases are closed, due to the statute of limitations, and the current case turns on conflicting accounts of years-old events.
Sperou's attorney, Steven J. Sherlag, said the women's recollections likely have been affected by passing years.
"Your memory doesn't get better over time – it gets worse," Sherlag said. "Memory isn't static – it's dynamic. It is something that is modified and changed every time incidents or situations are recalled."
Sherlag said individuals with false memories may truly believe they are telling the truth after coming to believe what they repeatedly have told themselves.
Of course, that cuts two ways and the same could be said of Sperou's memory.
Statute of limitations
There is no single statute of limitations for sex crimes under Oregon law. Instead, the state sets limits based on the age of the victim and severity of the crime.
Six years is the time limit for cases of criminal mistreatment, rape, sodomy, unlawful sexual penetration, incest, sexual abuse and promoting or compelling prostitution. However, if the victim was under 18 when the crime was committed the law allows prosecution within 12 years after it is first reported to police or the state Department of Human Services or before the victim turns 30, whichever comes first.
In the case of Pastor Mike Sperou, the 12-year limit applies, because his accuser is less than 30 years old.
The statute of limitations is four years for misdemeanor sex-crime cases of third-degree sexual abuse, exhibiting an obscene performance to a minor or displaying obscene materials to minors. And if the victim was under 18 when those crimes were committed, the time limit doesn’t run out until four years after it is reported to police or the state Department of Human Services or before the victim turns 22, whichever comes first.
For more crimes and time limits, visit Title 14, Chapter 131 of the Oregon Revised Statutes.
|Christmas celebrations at church|
Sharon Garrett, and her husband, Ken, were early members of Sperou's congregation, drawn by the plain-language sermons that projected a deep commitment to faith. Sperou deftly cited biblical passages apropos of any modern crisis, sprinkled with words in Hebrew and Aramaic, they said.
"He was like the Pied Piper of Portland," said Sharon Garrett, attracting seekers "drawn by the music of community, spirituality, vision and purpose."
Renae Allen, who left the church in 2010, said established church members took prospective members out for what she called "love bombing," a wining-and-dining campaign that persuaded them to join.
Roger Whaley, a retired Gresham nurseryman who also left the church, said he now realizes he was taken in by Sperou's strong persona.
"He has an uncanny ability to read people and skillfully manipulate people," said Whaley. "We mistakenly thought he was very wise."
The Garretts, Whaleys and several other couples brought their children to live in rental houses on Southeast Flavel Street, Suncrest Drive, Idleman Road and Overlook Lane. The member-residents agreed to contribute at least 10 percent of their earnings to the church; others, they said, contributed much more.
Sperou lived in a house called "Portnomah."
Life upstairs in the house was spare, former church members said. Whole families crammed into single bedrooms, with children sometimes sleeping in windowless closets. While families scrimped and ate money-saving casseroles, they said Sperou enjoyed relative luxury, living alone in daylight-basement quarters with its own kitchen.
The seven women said they felt honored if Sperou invited them to spend time with him. They could watch pay-per-view movies on his big TV and eat take-out Chinese food, pizza and ice cream. They would cozy up with him in bed, they said.
In a 1997 interview with police, Sperou acknowledged that, "girls were encouraged to spend time with him," but said his wife or other adults were present when the girls came into his bedroom. He also told police that, "many times the girls would come down to his room to watch TV and while there would fall asleep and would subsequently end up spending the night."
|Becki Martin and Pastor Mike Sperou's ex-wife, |
Carole Green, along with Amy Martin,
Emily Bertram and Jessica Watson, pose for
a photo in the 1990s on Mike Sperou's bed.
When detectives asked him whether he put his hands underneath the girls' shirts while hugging them, Sperou told police that "he probably has" but that he "meant nothing by it." He also said the accusation that he put his hands on one of the girls' panties "could have happened," but denied using his finger to sexually penetrate another girl who fell asleep while watching TV with him in bed.
Sperou also acknowledged one instance of giving alcohol to the girls and confirmed to police that adult church members had confronted him about "touching the girls inappropriately when he had been drunk and wasn't aware of what he was doing."
The women said Sperou told them he suffered serious emotional pain and that they helped him find relief – a great compliment to young girls seeking approval from the church leader their parents so revered. In fact, they believed it was their "duty" to comfort Sperou, the girls told Portland police in 1997.
"He used to tell me that he loved me, that I was beautiful," said Jennifer Olajuyin. "He used to talk about sexual fantasies and sexual experiences he had."
Bryn Garrett, the daughter of Sharon and Ken Garrett, said she was so confused by Sperou's attention that she believed it would grow into a deeper, more meaningful relationship.
"He used to tell me I was beautiful," Garrett said. "He said I would grow up to be really sexy."
Renae Allen said Sperou once asked her to pick up a bottle of wine for him and a pizza for five or six of the girls. She said she was shocked to see him in his underwear, lounging on the bed with them.
"But by that time, they thought they should never oppose or challenge Mike," Allen said. "You didn't bring up his sins. I feel so stupid now for not being more suspicious."
At first, none of the girls thought it was odd that they and Sperou were in pajamas or underwear, lying in his bed together. They said they were completely in the dark about sex.
But it soon became uncomfortable.
Both Rachel Schackart and Shannon Clark said Sperou masturbated while holding them against him, which Sperou denied.
In 1996, the seven girls went to their parents. They told them that Sperou's initially harmless, affectionate gestures had crossed the line, that he was touching their breasts and genitals.
The allegations hit the church like a bomb, touching off the exodus of several families.
Portland police investigated and turned over their findings to the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office. That's when the case, which included no physical evidence or medical tests, failed to reach prosecutors' benchmarks for "winnability." After reviewing police reports, a deputy district attorney wrote a memo declining to prosecute.
"I have never seen a case where a defense attorney would have so much ammunition to create, maybe justly so, reasonable doubt," the memo reads. Wimp!
A major stumbling block, the memo says, was the girls' own conflicting statements.
The women acknowledge today that they made poor witnesses.
"We didn't tell the police everything when they questioned us," Bryn Garrett said. "We denied a lot of it because we thought we were supposed to protect Mike. I really loved him, and I didn't want to get him in trouble."
It was easy for the prosecutor to drop the case, said Bryn Garrett's father, the Rev. Ken Garrett, who has since become pastor of Grace Bible Church in downtown Portland.
"It could have sounded to them like a bunch of disgruntled ex-church members," he said. "And most of the girls had trouble talking about it at all."
As the girls grew up, their feelings toward Sperou hardened. They blamed him for exploiting them and stealing their innocence. But they all had gone their separate ways and rarely spoke to one another. That is, until Jennifer Olajuyin and Bryn Garrett, both now in their early 30s, independently began to wonder if they had the basis of a civil lawsuit.
Olajuyin soon contacted all the women and then approached Lake Oswego attorney Kelly Clark. He already had championed the cause of sexual-abuse victims nationwide, suing the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America, Mormon church and school districts.
Clark was sympathetic, the women said, but insisted that they first exhaust all possibilities for criminal prosecution. Clark died a few months later, but by then, the women had contacted the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office.
All seven women unequivocally stand by their allegations. And this time, prosecutors' ears pricked up when they heard their stories. For one thing, the accusers are articulate, adult women. Meanwhile, social attitudes have changed as more victims have come forward, bringing cases against adults in positions of trust.
When Deputy District Attorney Christine Mascal met with the women, she found a basis for action.
"This is the kind of case that deserves our full attention," Mascal said.
|Bryn Garrett (from left), 30, Jennifer Olajuyin, 32, and Rachel Schackart, 29, |
are among a group of women who have come forward
to talk about alleged abuse in their youth
"It says so much that they would put themselves through this process again," Helwig said. "Why would anybody do that? They are amazing, articulate women who have survived and grown, except for that big hole where justice was never served."
But after Mascal evaluated the information Helwig assembled, she realized that the statute of limitations had run out on all but three new allegations from Shannon Clark.
After Sperou was arrested and booked into the Multnomah County Justice Center Jail, he was released and resumed his pastoral duties.
It would seem to be much more responsible if he were to step-down, even temporarily, until the trial is over. Is there no elder board in the church?
His trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 13.
The defense, however, hopes to block the trial before it ever begins. In pretrial motions scheduled to be heard next week, Sperou's attorneys are expected to ask the court to dismiss the charges, arguing that the new allegations aren't new at all. The defense already has asked for all records regarding the seven women, looking for information that could discredit them or show bias in any testimony they may give.
Pastor, criminal defendant
Michael George "Mike" Sperou, 64, is a complicated person, by any yardstick. By his own oft-repeated accounts, he has had a very difficult life – which he cites while counseling followers or even in casual conversation.
He was born in San Francisco. His mother died of cancer when he was 8, and he was shuttled through a series of Catholic foster homes, surviving, he said, on the considerable street smarts he picked up along the way. He graduated from Lynbrook High School in San Jose in 1968.
Sperou said he joined the U.S. Army after high school and served in Vietnam, where he said he was wounded in action. He said he "flipped out" when he returned to the states, gripped by post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he went AWOL, living in Big Sur for nine months.
While visiting Portland, Sperou experienced an epiphany and found Christ. He said he then surrendered to the Army, received an honorable discharge and moved to Oregon.
Returning to Portland, Sperou enrolled at Portland State University. He attended classes from fall 1973 to summer 1979, but did not earn a degree, according to university records.
Sperou also enrolled at Western Seminary, attending from summer 1974 through spring 1978, again failing to earn a degree, according to seminary records.
Regardless, however, Sperou's personal magnetism attracted a flock of followers.
Former church members remember mostly positive experiences from the early years in the church, but soon there were signs of trouble.
Former church member Paul Clark, the father of Shannon Clark and a recovering drug addict living in Central Oregon, said he supplied Sperou with Vicodin, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana over a period of about 10 years. They often took drugs together, he said.
"I started by getting him Vicodin," said Clark, 63, a church member for 16 years. "He paid top dollar for that. Later, I got him everything – coke, heroin, meth. He snorted it because he didn't like needles."
According to Portland police reports, Sperou told investigators in 1997 that he had drug and alcohol problems but said he had entered treatment in 1991 and drank much less since then, with a couple of relapses. In his interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive, Sperou denied using illegal drugs in the mid-1990s and beyond.
Some former church members said that as Sperou's power grew, those who questioned any doctrine or practice – especially women – were publicly belittled and threatened with expulsion, which was equated with spiritual death.
They said church members called them "unteachable" or "lower than a worm."
"The women were slowly beaten down emotionally, and we felt we were terrible wives, mothers and Christians," said Jeanie Whaley, Roger Whaley's wife. "Our self-esteem was trampled on, and we worked desperately to get approval from the pastors. In our eyes, approval from them meant approval from God."
At other times, the women said, they were treated harshly, disciplined by church elders who engaged in emotional abuse to break down their self-esteem.
Shannon Clark remembered being forced by church members to eat a communal meal of beef stroganoff – which she hated – until she grew nauseated.
"When I threw up," Clark said, the church members forced her "to eat my own vomit."
Others, still loyal to the church, dispute the accounts, saying the church provides a loving environment that nurtures personal growth and commitment to faith and community.
The women and former church members said Sperou brandished his PTSD like a bloody crutch, telling all he remained deeply wounded emotionally. They said Sperou's inner circle fended off any complaints about him by saying that failing to forgive his sins was far worse than the actual sins.
Eventually, the women and former church members said, Sperou used his status in the church and considerable charm to seduce the wives in several church families. This caused the breakup of at least two marriages, including Sperou's own, they said.
Amy Robinson, another of the women who accused Sperou of molesting her as a girl, remembers discovering Sperou with her mother in 1996.
"I walked in on my mom and Mike making out, with their clothes partially removed," she said. Robinson said Sperou stomped off to the basement while her mother tried to soothe her, saying that their affectionate outburst was like "brotherly and sisterly love."
Robinson's father moved out in October 1996, taking her with him, according to police reports.
Two years later, Sperou divorced his wife of 23 years and afterward married Robinson's mother, Judy. Together, they still lead the church. Lovely!
|Mike and Judy|
"When you have a charismatic leader ... people give up themselves for the good of the group," said Marion Goldman, professor emerita of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oregon and scholar in-residence at Portland State University's Portland Center for Public Humanities.
A half-dozen church members, unanimous in supporting Sperou at his interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive, all said the church has been a spiritual beacon in their lives, offering a clear direction for their faith and service.
Assistant Pastor Bill Hartman said that joining the church 29 years ago changed his life for the better.
"I never left the church," Hartman said. "I've made a lot of choices in my life, including some bad ones. This was a really good one."
While following progress of the revived criminal case, the seven women who came forward with the initial allegations have been renewing their friendships. But this time, Sperou isn't the keystone locking their relationships in place.
The women did a lot of catching up, comparing the wounds they said they bear from their time growing up in the church, while sharing ways they have been coping.
They discovered that most of them had sought temporary refuge in alcohol and drugs, learning how to numb their emotional pain. They found most had trouble budgeting their money because they never had any experience managing their own finances. They also learned that most had gone through periods of promiscuity, believing their own self-worth was defined by their sexuality.
Jessica Watson said she has tried to harness her negative experiences for a positive goal. She is active in Oregon Abuse Advocates and Survivors in Service and lobbied the Oregon Legislature in hopes of having the statute of limitations lengthened for victims reporting sexual abuse.
But she said she still has identity problems.
"I keep trying to remind myself of who I am," Watson said. "Even with a loving husband, I still have trouble."
Some, like Emily Bertram, said they have trouble trusting people – especially men – and find they're always bracing for betrayal.
"I've been married for 12 years, and I still feel insecure about it," Bertram said.
Bryn Garrett echoed many of the same feelings.
"I don't trust people," Garrett said. "I don't think people love me when they say they do. I just don't believe people."
And Shannon Clark tearfully admitted that she broke up with her last boyfriend because she had trouble being intimate with him.
Some of the women have been subpoenaed to testify at Sperou's trial. All of them said they want to attend, hoping to find some kind of closure.
"No matter what happens at the trial, we will feel better just having people hear our story," said Bryn Garrett. "Finally, everyone will know what happened."