When the Rev. Donn Moomaw abruptly resigned in 1993 from his celebrity pulpit at Bel Air Presbyterian Church, with a mysterious statement that he had "stepped over the line," it was because regional church officials were looking into rumors of sexual misconduct with women he had counseled.
They eventually found that the minister--who was already under a little-known probation for earlier misconduct--had repeated sexual contact with five women, and sexual intercourse with at least one of them, a church official involved in the proceedings recently revealed.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 15, 1995 Home Edition Westside Part J Page 3 Zones Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Suspended minister--Formal church findings against the Rev. Donn Moomaw were mischaracterized in an April 16 story. Sexual intercourse was alleged in charges originally brought against the minister, but the charges to which Moomaw admitted spoke only of sexual misconduct, Presbyterian Church officials said.
Moomaw--who did not return calls seeking comment--is now submitting quietly to church discipline announced last month that includes a suspension from the ministry. But he could have escaped any penalty at all, and there are those who think he should get credit for that.
The women did not sue and at the time he resigned his 29-year pastorate, Moomaw, with one word, could have renounced Presbyterian authority to investigate and censure him. Plenty of accused clergy have done just that and moved on.
Those as prominent as Moomaw--a former UCLA football star best known as President Ronald Reagan's pastor--are sometimes snapped up by nondenominational or other churches seeking a celebrity pastor or use their connections to land comfortable secular jobs.
Because he passed up such an easy out, Moomaw is being praised by some Presbyterians for admitting his guilt and submitting to a closely monitored rehabilitation program, including suspension of his status as a clergyman until 1997.
"I really admire Donn's sense of courage in facing the discipline of the church rather than take the cowardly way out," said the Rev. Robert Henley, who was an associate pastor on the Bel Air staff until late 1993, when he became senior pastor of a Presbyterian church in Wichita, Kan. Nevertheless, he expressed "deep regret for the hurt and damage caused to the victims."
Coincidentally, a few months after Moomaw resigned from his church on Mulholland Drive, another Presbyterian pastor down the hill in the San Fernando Valley, the Rev. Robert T. McDill, quit the denomination after being convicted by the Presbytery of San Fernando of "the offense of unsolicited, inappropriate touching with sexual implications."
Although church officials said McDill appealed an initial ruling, he ultimately resigned as pastor of Encino Presbyterian Church and left the denomination. McDill is now pastor of Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley, a North Hollywood congregation with a predominantly gay and lesbian membership.
As in Moomaw's case, church officials would not disclose details of McDill's alleged offenses to reporters because, they said, the affected congregations are trying to heal the scars left by the incidents.
McDill did not return calls asking for comment.
However, one point that had been left vague in the Moomaw ruling was recently clarified by Ronald Berges, a North Hollywood attorney who chaired the four-man, two-woman Permanent Judicial Commission that acted as a church court in the case.
A couple close to Moomaw and his wife had claimed in an interview that Moomaw's "sexual contact" with women--the wording in the ruling made public March 14 at the Bel Air church--was not intercourse but only "sexual intimacy," a phrase the couple did not explain.
Berges disputed the couple's claim, saying the commission concluded that Moomaw had intercourse with at least one of the women.
"Allegations which formed the basis of charges against Moomaw did allege sexual intercourse, among other things," he said in an interview. "There were not allegations of sexual intercourse in every instance, but to say none involved sexual intercourse was inaccurate."
Berges also said that none of the women, all adults, brought charges before the 52-congregation Presbytery of the Pacific, a jurisdiction covering most of western Los Angeles County and Hawaii.
"Somehow, rumors or allegations came to the attention of the presbytery," Berges said. Once the charges were investigated and deemed to be true, a committee was formed to "speak with victims and different people involved," said Berges, an elder at Hollywood Presbyterian Church.
Moomaw, then 61, announced on Feb. 4, 1993, that he was resigning, writing in vague terms to church members a few days later that "compelling personal reasons" caused him to leave.
Admitting to "years of denial and faulty coping techniques," Moomaw said: "I have stepped over the line of acceptable behavior with some members of the congregation."
The church court decision, read last month before congregants and presbytery delegates inside the church, outlined publicly for the first time the offenses Moomaw had committed.