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Fired Pastor Sues for $15 Million

Orange County church's former leader says false rumors of infidelity, molestation were spread about him. Officials deny claims.

August 21, 2005|Roy Rivenburg and Donna Horowitz | 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.

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