Back Rubs with Teen Girls Evolved into Sex; Another Former Modesto Pastor Accused

Hughey, 64, is senior pastor at Highlands Church, a nondenominational congregation in affluent Scottsdale, Ariz.

“I sinned and harmed the most important relationships in my life,” Les Hughey said in a statement issued after being contacted by The Modesto Bee. “Unfortunately, it’s impossible to undo what happened, so I instead accept and live with the consequences.”

 

The founder of a popular megachurch in Arizona admits having sex with girls in his charge when he was a married youth pastor at a prominent Modesto church four decades ago.

“I sinned and harmed the most important relationships in my life,” Les Hughey said in a statement issued after being contacted by The Modesto Bee. “Unfortunately, it’s impossible to undo what happened, so I instead accept and live with the consequences.”

His victims came forward soon after The Bee’s February report on Brad Tebbutt, who like Hughey was a youth pastor at Modesto’s First Baptist Church.

Tebbutt sexually abused a girl from age 14 to 17 in the 1980s, said the victim and a former First Baptist pastor who said Tebbutt confessed to him. Earlier this month, Tebbutt was placed on leave while an independent firm led by Billy Graham’s grandson investigatesTebbutt’s past for his current employer, the International House of Prayer of Kansas City.

For two years in the 1970s, from age 17 to 19, Tracy Epler said she was coerced into having sex with Hughey, the pastor in charge of her youth group. When she finally informed First Baptist leadership, she said, she was told to bury the secret — the same direction given to Jennifer Graves Roach after Tebbutt sexually abused her a decade later.

“There is a chance to heal,” Epler said in a recent interview. “This #MeToo movement is important, no matter how long ago it happened. We’re hoping something is done, or at least that this can bring healing to other girls.”

Matt Whiteford is the lead pastor at CrossPoint Community Church, which formerly was First Baptist. He said Friday that pastors who prey on congregants should be dismissed from the ministry.

Hughey, 64, is senior pastor at Highlands Church, a nondenominational congregation in affluent Scottsdale, Ariz. The church’s income last year was just under $6 million, according to the Virginia-based Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

Hughey issued a written confession at the direction of his board of elders after they received an inquiry from The Bee. It’s not clear whether the board had been aware of Hughey’s past; a former employer said leadership at that church, also in Scottsdale, was “shocked and sad” at the news, as background checks had turned up nothing before Hughey was hired there seven or eight years after leaving Modesto.

Hughey’s statement to The Bee characterizes his infidelity as “consensual relations with fellow college-aged staff.”

(click here to read Hughey’s statement)

They clearly were victims, two of the girls, now in their 50s, told The Bee.

“I was a good little girl and he was a powerful youth pastor,” said Tracy Epler, whose maiden name was Looney. “I knew I had to comply. And I knew it was wrong and I felt terrible but I didn’t know what to do about it.”

Epler, 59, now lives in San Luis Obispo County. Back then, she was a 17-year-old virgin, “very timid, quiet, very submissive,” she said, when Hughey, 23 and married two years, first had sexual relations with her. She felt alone, frightened and confused, and was terrified that anyone would find out, especially her parents, she said. “I was in an emotional prison that I didn’t know how to get out of,” she said.

“I always cried after (sex),” Epler said. “I cried afterwards in the bathroom because I’m cleaning myself and I don’t know what it is. (Crying) was my only release of being scared and sad and not knowing what was happening or why, and knowing it was terribly wrong. There was a huge sense of shame and guilt.”

Four women described Hughey as a handsome, charismatic young man in his mid-20s who made girls go weak in the knees and wowed huge worship crowds as he sang and played guitar. Ceres High School students felt particularly lucky that Hughey was in charge of activities at their campus, said Epler and Jane Berryhill, who ran programs with Hughey as Ceres High co-coordinator for First Baptist.

Hughey was raised in Modesto, according to news items in The Bee archive dating to 1960, when he was 7. He appeared in numerous play productions at Modesto High School and graduated in 1971, and married at First Baptist in 1974. Several articles proclaimed his music prowess at church events in those years; he told an Arizona magazine in 2016 that he had played in rock ‘n’ roll bands from age 12.

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