Fired Pastor Sues for $15 Million

Special to The Times

After flat-lining twice on the operating table, Pastor Joe Sabolick figured the worst chapter of his life was over.

But when he returned to his office at Calvary Chapel of Laguna Beach a few weeks later, the locks had been changed -- and his handpicked church board, including his older brother, had fired him amid allegations that he embezzled money and was "fixated" on the wife and daughter of an assistant pastor.

Today, Sabolick and the assistant pastor oversee a Calvary Chapel in Northern California and are suing Sabolick's brother and the Laguna church, accusing them of defamation. Claiming that church officials spread false rumors of wife-swapping and pedophilia -- later discounted by police and outside clergy -- the exiled ministers and their families are seeking $15 million in damages.

The lawsuit also describes accusations that Sabolick lied about having Jewish ancestors, fell under the control of Satan and "abused" his wife by making her wear "tight jeans."

The case has caused a stir in local Christian circles, shattering friendships and occasionally drawing pickets to Sunday services at the Laguna church.

Sabolick, 46, blames the imbroglio on "jealousy" from his brother George, 50. His lawyer compares the situation to Cain turning against Abel in the Bible.

On the other side is Calvary Laguna's board, which includes men who have been friends of Sabolick's since high school and college. They agree their former boss didn't commit adultery or molest girls, but they insist his behavior toward women was inappropriate for the job.

And they stand by accusations of sloppy finances, staff turmoil and warped theological teachings during his tenure.

In court papers filed Monday, church officials described Sabolick as "out of control" and asked a judge to dismiss the case.

"I love my brother, but I love my Lord more," George Sabolick said in a recent interview. "For Joe to say he didn't do anything wrong here is not true."

Growing up in a Rialto neighborhood that churned out six Christian ministers, Joseph and George Sabolick were always close, said their older brother, Mike.

Both accepted Christ as teens, although George soon rebelled.

At 16, he left home, sprouted an Afro haircut and joined a local folk-rock band. Spiritually, he and his little brother wouldn't cross paths for 12 years.

In contrast, Joe stuck to the straight and narrow. By 21, he was leading the worship band at Harvest Christian Fellowship, a burgeoning Riverside church.

Animated and charismatic, he later spent eight years as a youth pastor before departing in 1996 to form the Laguna church.

But music put him on the map. His signature hymn, "Come Just as You Are," has been played at Billy Graham revivals, Catholic Masses and, until this year, at evangelist Greg Laurie's Harvest Crusades.

Song royalties bring in about $70,000 a year, Joe said.

In the early 1980s, prodigal brother George renewed his faith while listening to a Christian radio show and joined the Riverside church where Joe sang.

George eventually organized a Bible study group and took a job as music director at Calvary Chapel Rialto. He stayed there until 2002, when Joe hired him to lead the musicians at Calvary Laguna.

For decades, Laguna Beach has been a jinx for the Calvary Chapel movement, a network of 1,100 evangelical churches started in 1965 by Chuck Smith, who pastors the flagship church in Costa Mesa. Each church is independent, but must subscribe to certain doctrines to use the trademarked Calvary Chapel name.

Sabolick's foray was the fourth by Calvary Chapel in an effort to make inroads in Laguna, according to his wife, Janelle. The previous congregation disbanded in the mid-1990s after a pastor sex scandal.

At first, the new church led a charmed existence. Debuting nine years ago with about 25 people, it outgrew a succession of rented chambers at City Hall and Laguna Beach High School before buying a $3.75-million industrial warehouse in Irvine in 2001.

By July 2004, when Sabolick checked into UCLA Medical Center for throat surgery, Calvary Laguna claimed 2,000 members.

But after Sabolick went under the knife, strange things began happening, he said. First, a routine operation to remove vocal cord nodules turned nearly fatal when his heart stopped twice and a lung collapsed.

Then, according to the lawsuit, his brother instigated a "coup d'etat." George Sabolick circulated a seven-page memo that claimed Joe had a "fixation" on the teenage daughter of Associate Pastor Jim Sisco, bestowing her with gifts, massaging her feet and obsessively tracking her whereabouts.

The memo also said Joe lavished church money on Sisco's wife and strayed from Calvary theology by promoting "positive confession," a prayer method that purportedly causes God to grant personal requests.

After Joe recovered from surgery, the church board convened a series of meetings to confront him with accusations made by George and other staffers.

In response, Joe could have fired the entire board. Instead, he resigned and agreed to a monthlong sabbatical in Idaho. His lawsuit claims the resignation was temporary, so he could get administrative training. Church officials contend he went to Idaho for counseling.

Joe said he wanted to "take the high road" but, in hindsight, "it was the stupid road."

During the Idaho trip, stories spread that he carried a pistol in his boots and spent church money on breast-enlargement surgery for his wife, the lawsuit says.

When Sabolick came home in mid-August, the board refused to reinstate him. It changed the locks and wouldn't let him retrieve his sermon notes, guitars or Bible, according to the lawsuit.

"My whole life was just ripped out from under me," Sabolick said. Banished from the pulpit, he ran a Bible class until Chuck Smith recommended him for a job at Calvary Chapel Marin, a 160-member church that meets in a former Pinky's Pizza parlor and Caltrans office in Novato in Marin County.

Associate Pastor Sisco, a former fashion photographer, joined Sabolick there after losing his Calvary Laguna job.

In September, Betty Burnett, a Laguna congregation member who works as an attorney for the South Coast Water District, sent a 37-page report to police, alleging Sabolick was a pedophile, had "a thing" for women's underwear, "murdered people's souls" and used church funds to buy a yellow jeep for his alleged mistress and a house for himself, according to the lawsuit.

Burnett has since declined to comment on the case.

Police were baffled, especially by the child molestation claims. "There was an awful lot of smoke, but not one little flicker of flame," said Capt. Danell Adams of the Laguna Beach force. Although attempts were made to find victims, nobody came forward, she said. "My attitude is: No victims, no case."

Smith agreed. "We've talked to everyone involved and found no evidence to substantiate any [sexual misconduct]," he said.

Still, Smith didn't let his protege entirely off the hook.

Sabolick showed "perhaps a carelessness in finances," Smith said. He cited two examples: In one, Sabolick used a church credit card to buy boots and clothes for a visiting Australian singer whose shoes were held together with duct tape.

In another, while trying to help a young girl, he "gave her things and it was misinterpreted as a romantic gesture. Joe is a very giving person, but you've got to keep better records on spending."

Sabolick's touchy-feely manner didn't help, Smith said. When asked if he advised Sabolick to curb displays of physical affection, Smith replied: "Oh my, yes. Billy Graham says don't touch the money and don't touch the girls."

But Smith saw no reason to bar Sabolick from the ministry.

In recent weeks, the Calvary patriarch has tried to broker a settlement of the lawsuit. The only sticking point Smith sees is calculating how much the Laguna church owes Sabolick for severance pay and unreturned personal items versus how much Joe owes the church for funds borrowed for "some projects," Smith said.

But hammering out a compromise might not be so simple, despite Smith's hopes.

For starters, Joe wants his old job back. "If someone steals your car and drives it around for a year, you don't say, 'Oh, go ahead and keep it,' " he said.

Calvary Laguna officials adamantly reject the idea of Joe resuming his $72,000-a-year post.

Sabolick also wants a public apology, but church officials say there's nothing to recant. George and other board members stressed that they never accused Joe of adultery or child molestation, only of creating "appearances" that could be misconstrued.

The Sabolick brothers can't even agree on their ancestry. Joe tells people his Slovakian grandfather had Jewish roots; his two older brothers say the family was "pure Catholic."

As the dispute drags on, both sides are trying to move forward. In Marin, Sabolick and Sisco redecorated their storefront church and started going door to door seeking new members.

Meanwhile, Calvary Laguna's crowds have dwindled. On a recent Sunday, the 900-seat hall was barely half full. Supporters of Joe Sabolick have picketed several services and some have moved up north to join his new church.

Sabolick said he spent nearly a year trying to end the feud "biblically," without going to court, but the other side wouldn't budge.

In July, he and Sisco filed their lawsuit, which also named as defendants a handful of current and former church employees, including the new pastor, Don McClure, and congregation members.

"Walking away from this mess is very tempting," said Sabolick's wife in an e-mail to The Times. "But if we don't face it head on and do what we legally can to clear our names, then our daughters will grow up with parents who have clouds over their heads."

But winning the lawsuit appears to be a longshot. Similar cases have consistently been rejected on 1st Amendment grounds. As one appellate court has said: "Civil courts may not involve themselves in reviewing the termination of clergy for theological or disciplinary reasons." Even untrue accusations are protected by the 1st Amendment, the judges said.

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Times staff writer Rivenburg reported from Orange County, and special correspondent Horowitz reported from Marin County.

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