After being raped and impregnated by a fellow churchgoer more than twice her age, a 15-year-old Concord girl was forced by Trinity Baptist Church leaders to stand before the congregation to apologize before they helped whisk her out of state, according to the police.
While her pastor, Chuck Phelps, reported the alleged rape in 1997 to state youth officials, Concord police detectives were never able to find the victim. The victim said she was sent to another church member’s home in Colorado, where she was home-schooled and not allowed to have contact with others her age. It wasn’t until this past February that the victim, who is now 28, decided to come forward after reading about other similar cases, realizing for the first time it wasn’t her fault that she had been raped, she told the police.
The police arrested Ernest Willis, 51, of Gilford, last week in connection with the case, accusing him of raping the girl twice – once in the back seat of a car he was teaching her to drive in and again after showing up at her Concord home while her parents were away. He was charged with four felonies – two counts of rape and two counts of having sex with a minor, court records show.
In a statement to the police, the victim said Willis came to her home in the summer of 1997 without warning.
“He said he wanted to talk to me about something so I let him in the house,” she wrote. “He locked the door behind him and pushed me over to the couch. I had a dress on and he pulled it off. I pushed my hands against his shoulders and said ‘No,’ but he didn’t stop.”
At the time of the alleged rape, Phelps was in touch with the police, who told him to contact the Division for Children, Youth and Families.
But moving the girl out of state prevented the police from collecting evidence or a statement, the police said yesterday.
“Without a victim, it makes it very difficult to have a case,” said Lt. Keith Mitchell. “That basically made the investigation very difficult.”
At the time, Willis also refused to give a statement, police records show.
So for 13 years, a file on the case sat closed and marked “unresolved” at the Concord police station.
Police records do not show whether detectives asked church leaders to help them get in contact with the victim or if information was withheld.
“If somebody tried to cover this up or not cover this up, that’s a separate issue,” Mitchell said.
Phelps did not return a message seeking comment yesterday. He no longer works at the church.
“The leadership of Trinity Baptist Church reported this alleged crime within 24 hours of hearing the accusations on Oct. 8, 1997,” said spokesman Peter Flint from a prepared statement. “We continue in our commitment to cooperate with authorities so that justice is served.”
‘Completely in shock’
The victim said she came forward after getting in touch with Jocelyn Zichterman, who runs an online group for victims of church abuse.
In a seven-page statement to the police, the victim recounted the moments leading up to her departure from New Hampshire.
At 14, she began babysitting for Willis, a well-known member of the church. She told the police she would often stay the night if he got home late.
Just over a year later, he offered to give her driving lessons. While in the parking lot of a Concord business, Willis asked her to pull over to switch seats, she told the police.
But instead he pulled her into the backseat and raped her, according to a statement to the police.
In the summer of 1997, Willis raped her again, this time while at her home while her mother was out, according to police records.
“I was completely in shock, but too scared to go and tell anyone because I thought I would get blamed for what happened,” she said.
Over the next few months, the girl became suspicious she was pregnant. She called Willis, who brought over a pregnancy test that came up positive, she told the police.
“He asked me if I wanted him to take me to a neighboring state where underage abortions were legal . . . and he would pay for an abortion,” she told the police. “He then asked me if I wanted him to punch me in the stomach as hard as he could because that might cause a miscarriage.”
She declined both.
The victim told her mother about the pregnancy. Soon after, Phelps was also alerted.
The victim said Phelps told her she would be put up for “church discipline,” where parishioners go before the congregation to apologize for their sins.
She asked why. “Pastor Phelps then said that (Willis) may have been 99 percent responsible, but I needed to confess my 1 percent guilt in the situation,” the victim told the police.
“He told me that I should be happy that I didn’t live in Old Testament times because I would have been stoned.”
Fran Earle, the church’s former clerk, witnessed the punishment session.
At a night meeting of the church’s fellowship in 1997, Phelps invited Willis to the front of the room. Willis apologized to the group for not being faithful to his wife, Earle said.
“I can remember saying to my husband, I don’t understand it’s any of our business why this is being brought up,” Earle said.
Phelps then told parishioners a second matter was at hand; he invited the victim to apologize for getting pregnant.
“I can still see the little girl standing up there with this smile on her face trying to get through this,” Earle said.
A day after the session, Earle called the pastor’s wife, who said the victim had decided not to press charges for statutory rape.
“You’ve got to understand, we trusted our pastor and his wife to be telling us the truth,” Earle said. “They told us it had been reported. He reported it as a consensual act between a man and a woman. Well, I didn’t know a 15-year-old was a woman.”
Earle, who left the church in 2001 after 19 years, said it was regular to see young girls who were pregnant called to the front of the congregation to be humiliated.
Rob Sims, another former member, said the discipline sessions were formulaic – Phelps would read Bible verses, give a limited overview of what happened and then each person would read a statement.
“(The) statement agreed that they had done wrong and why they ‘now believed’ that they had sinned,” he said. “Then Pastor Phelps would give a few closing remarks and then a vote would be taken to remove the guilty party from membership or to keep them in membership but under discipline, or something to that effect.”
The police said the victim’s family asked for her to be moved to Colorado.
“I think that she clearly did not want to go to Colorado, and I’m quite sure she expressed that to the church, her mother and the pastor,” said Concord police Detective Chris DeAngelis. “However, she was a juvenile. Her mom requests assistance and that was what they came up with.”
Mitchell said the police are looking at pressing other charges.
Willis was released on $100,000 personal recognizance bail. He faces an arraignment June 16 in Concord District Court.