A Church With A Heavy Cross To Bear

Author: Shawn Hubler
Date Published: 01/28/1990

Religion: St. Cross Episcopal Has Been Buffeted By The McMartin Case, Recent Molestation Charges Against A Youth Counselor, And Now, The Loss Of Its Rector

For 45 years now, Norma Hughes has been a member of St. Cross Episcopal Church. She taught Sunday School there. Her children were baptized there. And confirmed there. And married there.

And when the McMartin Pre-School scandal touched her community five years ago, she never dreamed it could reach her church as well. Then it did.

And McMartin was only the beginning of what Hughes calls ”this terrible trial of accusations and threats.”

”It isn’t right that all this should happen to one church. It just isn’t right,” the 67-year-old woman sighed. ”It feels like this is happening to your own family.”

Hughes is not the only member of the Hermosa Beach parish who is feeling beleaguered these days. In a community that was sundered by the McMartin case, the story of St. Cross underscores the toll the scandal has taken — even after a jury acquitted the two McMartin defendants of 52 child molestation charges and deadlocked on the remaining 13.

Since the moment in 1985 when a former McMartin pupil testified that child molesters had dragged him to Satanic rituals at St. Cross, the church has been the target of vandalism and harassment.

Then, in the last month, a trusted youth counselor whom the congregation had befriended was charged with sexually assaulting two teen-agers he had met through the church. The counselor, a friend of the assistant rector at St. Cross, turned out to be a convicted child molester.

The two incidents — the one in 1985 unsubstantiated, the other pending in the courts — have shaken the 81-year-old parish to its stately core. Since 1985, the size of the congregation has dropped by about one-third, from more than 1,800 to around 1,300.

Three weeks ago, after the arrest of his friend, the assistant rector resigned.

And last Sunday, as a final blow, the church lost its rector as well. Citing ”the extreme stress of the past five years,” the Rev. Jack D. Eales, 61, announced from the pulpit that he was retiring on disability.

”The effect has been cumulative,” said Michael Lawton, a long-time vestry member who is now the senior warden of St. Cross.

But with pain has come strength, he said.

”There’s still a very determined core of people at St. Cross. We’re not as wounded as some might think.”

St. Cross was founded around the turn of the century, when Hermosa Beach was little more than a scattering of summer cottages. At the time, there was no Protestant church in the city; visiting ministers from Redondo Beach held what occasional services there were in a schoolhouse where the church now stands.

Sunday school was in the freight room at the back of the Post Office, according to ”The St. Cross Story,” a 1984 booklet drawn up by Edith Rodaway. It wasn’t until 1909 that the church got its first permanent building, at the southwest corner of 14th Street and Manhattan Avenue.

It was a tiny church, and far from rich. It was 1931 before the parish was able to scrape together the $500 it cost to upholster the pews. But with the end of World War II, like the rest of the South Bay, it began to grow, and by 1952, the parish had built a new, grander building on Monterey Boulevard.

High on a knoll, just blocks from the beach, the new church had a luminous azure stained-glass window over the altar. And in the brick courtyard, in a quiet moment, you could hear the cry of the gulls and breathe the faint, briny smell of the sea.

There were 10 church classrooms, and by the 1960s, ”we had the finest (Sunday) school in the Diocese of Los Angeles,” longtime member Hughes recalled recently. ”We had 100 teachers and close to 900 students, and it was a tremendous thing at the time.”

There were other strong points in the ’60s and ’70s as the parish continued to grow:

The Friday night Lenten fish dinners. The rector, Richard Parker, who was with St. Cross for more than 40 years. The outreach programs. The pipe organ. The participation, which, on holy days, filled the pews to capacity and beyond.

It was a thriving church, said Nesta Grasla, 71, who has sung in the church choir since the age of 15.

”A church isn’t just a church, you know,” Grasla said. ”It’s the people in the church.”

And the people at St. Cross were active in their community. In 1971, St. Cross founded the 1736 House as a crisis center for anyone who needed help. Eventually, it grew into a secular charity that, with the church’s support, houses runaways and battered women. In 1977, the church staff expanded to include the Rev. Victoria Hatch, the first woman ordained in the Los Angeles Diocese.

And by 1981, when Eales became rector, the church preschool had an enrollment of more than 100 toddlers from throughout the South Bay, cared for by a staff that one parent later described as ”a bunch of nice little old ladies.”

But in 1985, scandal came.

It started up the road, at the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. Children, it was alleged, were being molested there. And there were rumors that perhaps nursery schools weren’t the only institutions that couldn’t be trusted anymore. As the accusations of child molestation mounted against McMartin, they eventually spilled over into neighboring cities and throughout the South Bay.

It was during the McMartin court proceedings that the accusations reached into St. Cross, out of the mouth of a little boy.

Taking the stand in the preliminary hearing for the McMartin case, the child told authorities that six years before, when he was 4, he was taken to a church with other children from the McMartin school.

At the church, he said, there were lighted candles and people whose faces were masked by hooded robes who ”made a circle, holding hands, and started to moan.” They danced around the children, he testified, and afterward, he and his friends were forced to watch the slaughter of a rabbit on the church altar and to drink its blood.

Under questioning, the boy didn’t remember the name of the church, but said he and his mother had found it the year before after driving around the South Bay in search of it. The prosecutors and the boy’s mother said it was St. Cross.

”It was traumatic,” senior warden Lawton recalled, and it threw the church into a divisive debate: Was the child telling the truth? Should the church issue a denial or turn the other cheek?

On the advice of the diocese and the vestry members, ”we made a determination not to publicly defend ourselves,” Lawton said. ”We didn’t feel it was the Christian thing to do, to start throwing accusations back.”

Meanwhile, the accusations and investigation of organized child molestation had expanded to include the church preschool. Enrollment plummeted from 108 to 22. Financially incapacitated, it eventually closed.

In the course of the investigation, the entire church staff, including Eales, was subjected to lie-detector tests. There were threatening phone calls to the rectory and church.

And the child’s story was left unresolved.

At the close of the investigation of St. Cross, detectives told the parents of preschoolers there that two men had, in fact, confessed to molesting youths on the church grounds years before. But detectives said neither had been affiliated with the preschool, and neither could be charged because both confessed to incidents that had happened well beyond the six-year statute of limitations.

Moreover, they noted, a scrupulous examination of the St. Cross altar turned up not a trace of blood. In closing arguments, even the McMartin prosecutors chalked up the boy’s allegations of Satanism to his confusing nightmares with reality.

The controversy, however, was painfully slow to pass. By 1986, more than 500 parishioners had left St. Cross. Some left because of the controversy, others were part of the natural turnover that happens at any church.

But many, Lawton said, defected because they were frustrated that the church had not defended itself.

As time passed, Lawton said, the church began to regroup. There were special forums for the troubled congregation, and vestry retreats.

New members came in, and when they asked about the allegations, the vestry took pains to answer their questions, Lawton said. Some of the families who had moved to churches in El Segundo and on the Palos Verdes Peninsula dropped by for services on occasional Sundays.

Membership stabilized at around 1,300. It was considerably lower than it had been before McMartin, but at least the downward spiral had stopped.

And although the preschool remained ”a very painful subject,” Lawton said, there was talk again of working with youth. In 1988, the Rev. Richard Wescott was sent as an assistant rector to the church, where he immediately took over the youth group, whose membership, like that of the church, was flagging.

St. Cross seemed to be making a comeback, Lawton said. And then the church was buffeted again.

First, the McMartin case, the longest criminal proceeding in U.S. history, was sent to a jury for deliberations. The ill will the church had hoped would dissolve with time was resurrected as the McMartin verdict approached.

Shortly before Christmas, the church and the rectory were pelted with broken bottles and rotten eggs. A note left behind was signed, ”The Beach Cities’ Conscience,” and warned that ”there is simply no place for Satan worship in this town.”

The developments were so disturbing, Lawton said, that a security system was installed at the rectory. The rector, Eales, plugged in his answering machine, and stopped picking up the phone unless the the sequence of rings matched a secret code only those close to him knew.

Meanwhile, another scandal hit, this one unrelated to the McMartin case. A friend of Wescott, a Greek Orthodox priest whom he had brought in as a volunteer adviser to the youth group, turned out to be a convicted child molester.

Church officials said they found this out only after the priest, 47-year-old Stanley Adamakis, was arrested during the Christmas holidays on charges of molesting an 18-year-old he had met through a boy at the church. Authorities subsequently added a second charge to the case against Adamakis, that of molesting a 17-year-old boy. The priest has pleaded not guilty.

”The Stanley thing was another blow,” Lawton said. Under pressure from the diocese, Wescott resigned.

Eales, meanwhile, was beginning to show the signs of strain.

”He was beset,” Lawton said. ”(In the weeks after Christmas), he was very disturbed. He began smoking a lot more. He’d make small errors in writing and speaking. Typos in his letters, which he never had made before. He’d veer from subject to subject. All the outward signs of stress were very sharp.”

Lawton and others urged Eales to take a break. His doctors told him that the stress might cost him his life.

By the time the McMartin verdict was handed down a week and a half ago, the rector had made up his mind. He was due to take a medical leave for routine surgery on Jan. 22, and he would simply extend it into a disability retirement.

Ironically, said Lawton, the decision coincided with a verdict that should have hastened the church’s recovery. Peggy McMartin Buckey was acquitted and her son, Raymond Buckey, was acquitted on all but 13 counts, and on those 13, the jury had deadlocked.

And the church’s comeback had continued. The head counts of the congregation during 1989 were showing an increase in attendance of up to 9% above the year before.

But Eales said he had taken all he could stand.

”The doctors said to me, ‘Do you want a few more dollars of disability or a few more years with your wife?’ ” he said after his farewell sermon last Sunday.

As he said goodby at the church doors, church members hugged him one by one. Many cried openly.

”This church has lost an excellent man, and it’s totally undeserved,” said 47-year-old Ralph Kaye of Torrance.

Added Ron Russell, 63, who has been with St. Cross 16 years, ”Why can’t people see that this is just a normal community church that has done a lot of good?”

Today, a visiting minister will conduct the Sunday services.

Next week, it will be someone else. And in the coming months, the church will begin the emotional, painstaking process of choosing a new rector, Lawton said.

As for Eales, he says that when he recovers from his surgery, he and his wife plan to leave the South Bay. The church isn’t sure where Wescott, the assistant rector, will be sent. Adamakis is to appear in South Bay Municipal Court for a preliminary hearing Feb. 22.

Lawton says the church will try now to heal itself. Already there are plans for a church picnic sometime soon, or perhaps some other family get-together, something to help mark the church’s fresh start.

Which may or may not be possible.

Just last week on TV, a McMartin parent asserted that, despite the verdict, he believed the McMartin defendants are guilty — and so, he charged, is St. Cross.

Parishioners were weary, but this time, they were not as ready to turn the other cheek.

”There are misguided individuals, hardened vigilantes out there,” said one woman, a 16-year member of the church, who asked not to be named because she fears reprisal from the church’s enemies.

”If Jesus Christ came down today and said we were innocent, they wouldn’t be swayed. But I guess you just have to hope that God is watching over the church. Not to sound melodramatic, but you’ve got to have faith.”