Licking Baptist Church is a small congregation in Hebron, Ohio, founded in 1807. It has no website that I can find. And some terrible things happened there.
In 2005, Pastor Lonnie “Joe” Aleshire Jr. admitted to raping one teenage girl at a Hebron, OH church, and molesting her sister. In all, the 41 year-old pastor pleaded guilty to rape and nine other sex charges.
The girls were 16 and 13 at the time. The pastor was a volunteer, working full-time for the Department of Youth Services. His father was the full-time pastor.
Before the guilty plea, when the two sisters first made their accusations, the pastor had them disfellowshipped and shunned by the congregation. The church rejected the girls who’d grown up there, even holding a candlelight vigil for the “embattled” pastor at his jail cell!
The pastor, even after entering a guilty plea, clogged the courts with a series of appeals — so many that he was ordered to stop and found guilty of perjury. The Columbus Dispatch reports,
The elder sister told police that Aleshire forced her to the ground and raped her at the church; the younger said he had repeatedly molested her.
Aleshire, 41, a married father of four, served nearly seven years in prison and was released in January. He tried to recant his guilty plea, filing so many appeals that Licking County Prosecutor Ken Oswalt charged him with perjury. He pleaded guilty to that, too, and a judge this week sentenced him to five years’ probation and ordered him to stop appealing the case.
Merely filing appeals does not make one guilty of perjury. That requires lying under oath. The pastor repeatedly claimed his innocence in court pleadings, until he eventually admitted to that lie, resulting in five years probation being added to his seven years in prison.
The abuse, which occurred between 2003 and 2004, was reported in early 2005. Later that year, Aleshire pleaded guilty to six counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, three counts of sexual imposition and one count of rape.
The victims, now young women, testified in the civil trial about the intimate details of their sexual abuse for the first time — details they had not shared with each other or their parents. Farlow followed the questions a Licking County Sheriff’s Office detective asked them more than seven years ago.
The women sued the pastor, the church, the Baptist association the church was a member of, and the other pastors of the church. The case against everyone but the pastor who actually committed the rapes was thrown out.
This decision was appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Licking County, Ohio Fifth Appellate District and the dismissal of the claims was upheld.
The suit went forward against the pastor who’d pled guilty to rape, and he was easily convicted. The plea of guilty made any defense impossible. The only question was damages.
The Licking County Common Pleas Court jury, though, took little time to side with the sisters. After two hours of deliberation, jurors decided that Aleshire should pay $2 million in damages to one sister, $1.25 million to the other, and about $550,000 to each of their parents. A judge also will determine attorney fees to be awarded to the family.
Farlow said the victory is about more than money. The sisters, she said, finally feel like someone believed them.
It is, of course, extremely unlikely that the sisters will ever collect any of this money. After all, no one insures individuals against damages due to their own willful crimes. The only way for the girls to have reached an insurance policy would have been to bring the case against the church, the convention, or someone else who was merely negligent. And those cases were thrown out.
There are some important lessons to learn here. Most obviously, notice how easily the pastor was able to persuade the congregation to turn on the girls who accused him.
These girls had grown up in that church — a very small church. And yet the congregation preferred to shun them — as a matter of congregational discipline — rather than accept that they’d ordained a rapist.
You see, we tend to very nearly deify our preachers. We hear them speak from God’s word each Sunday, and so we invest ourselves deeply into their integrity and righteousness. Indeed, the preacher often really does us great good through his preaching, even if he’s guilty of some truly terrible things. And we just can’t accept that this man whom we are so invested in could be so bad. And we’ll distort reality to absurd lengths to avoid admitting our error.
When the pastor was first arrested, the church gathered around his jail cell, with candles in hand, to hear him preach. That’s right. They disfellowshipped the victims who’d grown up there and held church services in the jail — all so they could believe that their volunteer, part-time pastor was a good man.
Imagine being an elder or deacon at such a church who must deal with a bad preacher who is nearly deified by the congregation! How do you discipline or fire such a man?