An Arizona pastor has been placed on leave following allegations that he sexually abused teenage girls under his supervision at a California church 40 years ago.
The allegations surfaced after multiple women told the Modesto Bee that Les Hughey—who founded Highlands Community Church in north Scottsdale—victimized them while he was working as a youth pastor at First Baptist Church in Modesto, California, in the 1970s.
Last week, Hughey issued a written statement in response to the Bee’s report, saying he “sinned and harmed the most important relationships in my life” during his time in Modesto.
“I was unfaithful to my God, my wife and the ministry, and was rightly removed from that church,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, it’s impossible to undo what happened, so I instead accept and live with the consequences, even now so many years later.”
Hughey added that both his wife and church leaders were now aware of “his history.”
In the statement, Hughey also said he only had “consensual relations with fellow college-aged staff,” a point that is denied by the women interviewed in the Bee’s report.
The four women all said Hughey and his wife would host youth staff meetings in their Modesto home to plan activities. As attendees left, his wife would go to bed and Hughey would encourage shoulder rubs with remaining girls.
“It was very subtle. It would become full back rubs, then closer to private parts,” said one of the women, now 62.
For two years in the 1970s, from age 17 to 19, Tracy Epler said she was coerced into having sex with Hughey. When she finally informed First Baptist leadership, she said, she was told to bury the secret.
Epler said the leader in charge of all youth pastors, Bill Stewart, instructed her not to tell her parents or anyone else.
“Then I was dismissed,” she said. “He said, ‘Thank you very much for coming and telling me,’ and that was the last and only time it was ever talked about. He didn’t send a female staff person to check on me. So instead of protecting me, he protected Les. I’m still shocked by that today.”
Years later, a counselor helped Epler unpack the memories. “He said, ‘Tracy, they left you (figuratively) bleeding in the middle of the street,'” she said. “I remember being shocked. ‘What?’ I had no idea. I really thought it was all my fault.”
Hughey was removed from First Baptist in 1978, though church officials did not publicly cite a reason for his departure.
“Because the allegations are from more than 40 years ago, it will take some time to get a clear picture,” Doug Milligan, a Highlands Community Church official, said in a statement Sunday. “We are concerned about the well-being of all people affected by these events.”
Milligan said the church would “apply biblical standards and principles” and “show compassion to all involved” during its investigation.
Epler and the other women 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 is accused of sexually abusing a girl in the 1980s. Earlier this month, Tebbutt was placed on leave while an independent firm led by Billy Graham’s grandson investigates Tebbutt’s past for his current employer, the International House of Prayer of Kansas City.