The African Methodist Episcopal Church has relieved a Los Angeles minister of his duties after concluding that he sexually molested two underage victims, according to a spokesman for the church, even though no criminal charges have been filed and the pastor denies the allegations.
The Rev. Sylvester Laudermill Jr., a prominent minister in the AME Church, assumed the pulpit of Ward AME Church in 2004 after pastoring a church in St. Louis for 10 years. He has maintained his innocence since allegations against him first surfaced in December 2005, when a 25-year-old man told St. Louis police that Laudermill began a sexual relationship with him when he was 14 that continued until he turned 21.
Another accuser then came forward in Los Angeles, but neither church officials nor police will elaborate on the nature of his allegations, except to say that he is a minor.
AME Bishop John Bryant, who heads the church's 5th Episcopal District that includes St. Louis and Los Angeles, held a closed-door session Monday evening and told the 200 congregants who filled the sanctuary of the accusations against Laudermill, the substantiation and the defrocking.
He also told them they would be getting a new pastor in a month.
The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating the more recent charges; Lt. Manny Hernandez said no conclusion had been reached. St. Louis officials investigating local allegations say they may soon make a determination.
"It is still under investigation and we may reach resolution early next week," said Ed Postawko, an attorney in the St. Louis circuit attorney's office.
Laudermill was suspended from Ward AME in March when church administrative committees in Los Angeles and St. Louis launched their investigations.
The St. Louis committee substantiated six of eight allegations brought by the 25-year-old accuser, and the Los Angeles committee sustained both of the allegations brought by the younger accuser, despite Laudermill's strong denials, according to an attorney for the district, J. Stanley Sanders.
Sanders said Bryant was unaware of complaints about Laudermill when he approved the pastor's transfer to Los Angeles.
"Bishop Bryant did what he was mandated to do," Sanders said. Church disciplinary bylaws read: "If the accused has been convicted of a crime or a complaint has been sustained for child sexual abuse, rape or sexual assault, the bishop must demand the immediate and permanent surrender of the accused pastor's ministerial assignment, responsibilities and credentials," he said.
Laudermill has 30 days to appeal the decision, something Los Angeles attorney Leonard Levine said he plans to do.
"He's just adamant that it did not occur," Levine said.
An appeal, however, would not delay enforcement of Bryant's order barring him from a pulpit.
"Effectively he is barred from any position within the AME Church," Sanders said. "If you are defrocked by the bishop of the 5th, the bishops of other districts will respect that decision."
Neither victim has filed suit against the AME Church, he said, and the church is paying for counseling for both, Sanders said. According to members present at the Monday meeting, Bryant also told the congregation that the alleged victims wanted the church to take action against Laudermill but did not want to sue.
Laudermill had come to Los Angeles with glowing recommendations from St. Louis church leaders and even elected officials, according to church members. Several of them asked Bryant how the church planned to do a more thorough investigation of pastors and whether the congregation would have any say in selecting its new minister.
According to AME rules, bishops have the sole authority to appoint or to remove pastors.
"Personally, I feel disappointed," said a church usher who was at the meeting. "I know he's a man and man will sin and man will do what he's not supposed to do, but I think when you're a pastor you are held up to a certain expectation; this feels like we all failed.
"It feels like what was I really going to church for? But I'm not the judge," she said. "I'm not anything other than a regular old person so I have to just pray and just forgive and just go on."