In the first of several civil lawsuits stemming from one of the nation's largest child sex abuse cases, a jury found Monday that there were no civil rights violations in the arrests of a Wenatchee, Wash., pastor and three others accused of conducting a bizarre sex ring in the basement of a Pentecostal church.
Although Pastor Robert Roberson and the others had been acquitted earlier on criminal charges, a civil jury found that they were not entitled to collect up to $60 million in damages they had sought after accusations that separated them from their children, left them imprisoned for months and cost them many of their assets in legal fees.
In a case that raised fundamental questions about how legal authorities respond to allegations of child sex abuse, the verdict appeared to rest on whether authorities had reasonable cause to make arrests based on children's allegations that they had been molested.
Many of the children later recanted, as did many of the adults who confessed to the crimes--all complaining that the information had been coerced by an overzealous police investigator whose then-9-year-old foster daughter was one of the chief accusers.
"Our system requires officials to take actions when there are allegations of child abuse," said attorney Stanley A. Bastian, who represented the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, which participated in the investigation.
"These particular plaintiffs claimed they did not commit these crimes. The fact that they were found not guilty doesn't mean they get money. The system worked," Bastian said.
Connie Roberson, who was arrested along with her husband and had her 5-year-old daughter placed in foster care as a result of the allegations, fought back tears after the verdict. "I just thought back to our criminal trial, and when he [the judge] said: 'Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.' That meant more to me than when they [the jury] said: 'No, no, no' today," she said.
"We lived the injury. We know the truth. When you live something and you stand before the courts and they don't agree with you, it's because they didn't live it," she said.
Robert Roberson said he will continue fighting to see that 14 other Wenatchee residents still imprisoned in the sex abuse case are freed. "A verdict is a verdict. That doesn't mean that's the end of it, it doesn't mean it's right," he said. "There were a lot of jury verdicts in Wenatchee, Wash., that sent a lot of innocent people to jail."
Earlier this month, a state appeals court released Mark and Carol Doggett from prison, ending for the moment a saga that began for them when they learned that their son had had sex with their daughter. The couple sought help from state social workers, and instead were accused and convicted of molesting their own children.
In all, 43 Wenatchee residents were accused of molesting about 60 children. The case decided Monday after 12 weeks of testimony also included claims from other members of Roberson's church: Sunday school teacher Honnah Sims, who was acquitted of all charges in 1995, and parishioner Donna Rodriguez, against whom criminal charges were dropped before trial.
Roberson also is suing the jail where he was incarcerated in Wenatchee. Several other former defendants in the case have civil suits pending.
Attorney Robert Van Siclen, who represented the Robersons and many of the others accused, said the jury's finding for the police on all causes of action "means there was probable cause to go forward in this particular case. It doesn't take much to reach probable cause."
City officials argued that, even if those accused were eventually acquitted of the molestation charges, police officers and social workers were required to take action when they had reasonable cause to believe a crime had been committed, even before all the facts were in.
"A criminal jury comes back and makes a finding of not guilty, it shows the system works. They had their day in court," said Robert Sealby, one of the attorneys for the city of Wenatchee. "I think this [verdict] vindicates the decisions that were made in this case. It shows there was no collusion, no conspiracy."