Decades after they were sexually abused, new law helps three women fight back

Orange County Register [Anaheim, CA]

April 27, 2022

By Susan Christian Goulding

Cypress megachurch SeaCoast and former pastor pay $2.5 million to settle lawsuit.

Back in 1978, Julie Poole Lusk’s home life was, in her words, “kind of a disaster,” with bickering parents distracted by her rebellious older brother. Happily, the 11-year-old found a place to belong – a circle of friends she made at North Long Beach Brethren Church.

Five years later, that camaraderie was shattered. At age 16, Lusk accused the church’s charming youth pastor, Kenneth McCall, then 27, of engaging in a long-time sexual relationship with her.

[PHOTO: Ken McCall, at a 2011 fundraiser for Mustard Seed Ranch, a San Juan Capistrano equestrian center for at-risk children.]

The allegation led to McCall leaving the church. It also prompted anger among some parishioners – at Lusk.

Now 55, Lusk can still remember a woman telling her “You are the Devil.” And at a Lakewood High homecoming football game, during Lusk’s junior year, she was shunned by former friends who hung out in the bleachers with the 20-something man they felt she had wronged.

In 1987, North Long Beach Brethren consolidated with a Los Alamitos congregation, which soon became SeaCoast Grace in Cypress. Today the nondenominational megachurch boasts more than 1,000 members.

Now SeaCoast is paying for the actions of Brethren’s former youth pastor. In February, the church settled a lawsuit with Lusk and two other women for a total of $2,250,000. McCall owes another $250,000.

“There is some relief in just speaking my truth and having it heard,” said Lusk, a family and marriage counselor in Huntington Beach.

The suit was made possible by legislation passed in 2019 that temporarily pauses the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse claims. California Assembly Bill 218 opened a three-year window for victims of all ages to sue their abusers

“This settlement is the poster child for why AB 218 was created,” said Costa Mesa attorney Brian Williams, whose firm represented Lusk and the other women.

The attorney for SeaCoast did not return multiple requests for comment. Reached by phone, McCall’s attorney said that neither he nor his client would comment on this story.

[PHOTO: The Seacoast Grace Church on West Cerritos Avenue in Cypress on Friday, April 22, 2022, in Cypress. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)]

In a deposition taken last year, McCall, now 66, admitted to “inappropriate sexual contact” with at least half a dozen girls in his care.

“Yes, it was wrong,” McCall testified. “I would classify it as abuse … I was young. I made mistakes.”

Only a handful of North Long Beach Brethren employees are still associated with SeaCoast. Nevertheless, SeaCoast’s recent defense rekindled feelings of guilt and abandonment for Lusk, echoing the blame-the-victim response she’d endured as a teenager.

“Plaintiff knew of dangers and risks incident to her activity, but nevertheless freely and voluntarily exposed herself to all risks of harm,” attorneys for SeaCoast wrote, referencing Lusk, in a response filed August of 2020 with Orange County Superior Court.

Lusk, the SeaCoast attorneys added, “failed to use that degree of care and caution which a reasonably prudent person would have used under the same or similar circumstances.”

She was not yet a teenager when the abuse began.

“It was re-traumatizing to read that,” Lusk said. “I was 12, but I was the responsible party? I felt like nothing had changed and the church was still sticking its head in the sand.”

Lusk counts more than 100 times that McCall assaulted or fondled her. What started as cuddles expanded to stolen kisses, oral copulation and sexual acts without intercourse.

“If I told him ‘no,’ he would act like his feelings were hurt and stop talking to me,” Lusk said. “I’d go for a week and then give in. I couldn’t handle it.”

Despite disliking his physical advances, Lusk still craved McCall’s presence.

“I could talk to him about my personal problems,” she said. “So, did I like being around him? Yeah. I guess I felt special.

“He was a master manipulator,” Lusk added. “Looking back, my adult brain can see that. But my teenage brain couldn’t.”

[PHOTO: Julie Poole Lusk as a teen in the early 1980s, participates in the youth group at North Long Beach Brethren Church. Later, the church merged with SeaCoast Grace in Cypress. Lusk and two other women settled a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by a youth pastor.]

By 16, Lusk understood that she was not the sole focus of McCall’s flirtations. One Saturday, she said, she walked by McCall’s office to witness “a girl on her knees in front of him.”

“I went home with the intention of taking pills and killing myself,” Lusk said.

Her older brother, then in college, asked what was wrong. At long last, she revealed her secrets.

He wasted no time in sharing that information with higher ups at the church. They asked McCall to vacate his post, but told puzzled parishioners that he had done nothing wrong.

“I was flabbergasted that the staff members couldn’t see what was going on,” Lusk said.

But, in fact, they did. In depositions taken last year, several former North Long Beach Brethren employees testified that rumors of McCall’s inappropriate relationships with girls – and first-hand sightings – ran rampant.

One man, who worked at the church while attending college, dubbed McCall “the Pied Piper.”

“It was like he was running a harem,” he said.

After his abrupt departure from the church, McCall switched gears to a job in commercial real estate. Eventually, he became director of Mustard Seed Ranch, a faith-based equestrian program for children in foster care. He oversaw the nonprofit’s San Juan Capistrano site for more than a decade, leaving in 2020 in the wake of the lawsuit filed by Lusk and others.

Public records and court searches did not turn up any lawsuits alleging sexual abuse against Mustard Seed Ranch.

When McCall exited North Long Beach Brethren, his accusers say, he left behind a sea of pain that still reverberates through their lives.

Denise Dial, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, recalls having a naïve crush similar to Lusk’s.

“(McCall) gave me extra attention, and I liked that,” said Dial, 58, now a resident of Liberty Hill, Texas. “I was drawn to him. He was handsome and seemed younger than he was.”

That “extra attention” included disappearing together in group games of hide-and-seek.

Frequently, McCall drove Dial home. “The first time he crossed the line was in his car when he reached over and grabbed my breast,” she said. “I was 13.”

Such behavior accelerated.

“We were alone in his office and he took my clothes off and took his own clothes off,” Dial said. “Then he sat on top of me. I remember watching myself from the corner of the room, as if it wasn’t me. I felt like a doll.”

[PHOTO; As a teen in the late 1970s, Denise Dial participated in the youth group at North Long Beach Brethren Church. Later, the church merged with SeaCoast Grace in Cypress. Dial and two other women recently settled a lawsuit against SeaCoast alleging sexual abuse by a youth pastor. (Courtesy of Denise Dial)]

Dial said McCall repeatedly warned her not to tell others about their relationship because “they wouldn’t understand.”

“To me, that meant he was going to marry me when I turned 18,” Dial said. “I thought I was the special one, that I would be a pastor’s wife.”

But, like Lusk, Dial would come to deduce that other girls, too, considered McCall their “boyfriend.”

“I found myself verbalizing to younger girls, ‘Don’t wear that around him.’ ‘Don’t be alone with him,’” she said.

She never told her parents, who were juggling two older children with disabilities.

McCall’s abuse was omnipresent, Dial said: “All the time.”

The victims say the assaults took place not only in McCall’s office and car, but also in the chapel, on a church bus, at a swim party, in hallways, on a park swing, in restrooms and, when one girl’s parents were away, in her bedroom.

Lusk and Dial both say that, as adults, they found themselves fretting over their own children’s safety, sometimes, to the point of paranoia. Lusk and her husband chaperoned just about every activity their kids participated in. At one point, they purchased a boat as an excuse to attend church camp.

Not realizing its direct connection to the place where she was abused, Lusk decided to give SeaCoast a try when her kids were little. Then she recognized some faces.

“I flipped out,” Lusk said. “(I) couldn’t leave my children in the nursery. Even though it was Easter, we had to go home.”

[Photo: Julie Lusk in her home in Huntington Beach, CA, on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. For many of her teen years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Huntington Beach resident endured sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of a youth pastor at North Long Beach Brethren, which later merged into Seacoast Grace megachurch in Cypress. She was not alone. Several other women say they were also the victims of Kenneth McCall. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)]

Lusk taught art in public school before earning her counseling degree. Dial worked as a registered nurse. And while they’ve been successful in their careers, both women said they have yet to fully heal from McCall’s abuse.

In 2010, Lusk became addicted to the pain medication she took for a broken wrist. “It was the first time I’d slept well in years, and that felt good,” she said. Rehab helped her recover.

Dial believes that the childhood trauma she endured as a victim of McCall contributed to her failed relationships as an adult.

“He taught me to be coy; if you like someone, don’t show it,” she said. “When I figured out I wasn’t the special one, I felt rejected. I never matured much beyond that.

“I don’t make myself vulnerable,” she added. “That doesn’t work out well in a marriage.”

In the small world of youth sports, the two moms occasionally ran into each other at softball games. One day, Lusk told Dial she had discovered that McCall was working with children.

“About 10 years ago, his face popped on on Facebook and I saw that he had a job at Mustard Seed Ranch,” Lusk said. “I lost it.”

Lusk contacted law enforcement, but at that time the statute of limitations prevented an investigation of an alleged 30-year-old crime.

Both women were distraught. “We wanted him to be held accountable,” Dial said.

After the passage of AB-218 — and its suspension of statutes rules — they got their chance.

In depositions, witnesses expressed regret that they didn’t go to authorities when the abuse occurred. Instead, they let church elders handle the situation.

A former staff member testified that he walked in on McCall cradling a girl in his office. “I said, ‘Oops,’ and closed the door and left,” he said. “You know, everybody loved him. And you don’t want to start throwing rocks.”

One man said a senior pastor was “concerned for the reputation of the church” if word got out about McCall.

Another North Long Beach Brethren employee, himself a teen at the time, summed up the importance of the youth group to its members and why, perhaps, the girls did not just walk away.

“We didn’t have the Internet,” he said. “Church was kind of the thing to do. It was the social gathering spot.”

Before an opportunity emerged for long-delayed legal action, Dial assumed justice had passed her by.

“Nobody stood up for me when I was a kid,” Dial said. “Now, I am standing up for myself.”