On eve of trial, former pastor considers pleading guilty to sexually abuse of three boys

The Salem News [Salem, NH]

February 22, 2023

By Julie Manganis

A former Methodist pastor, scheduled to stand trial next week on charges that he sexually abused three boys, is considering a judge’s offer of three to four years in state prison if he pleads guilty by Thursday.

Russell W. Davis, 70, of Seabrook, New Hampshire, who until 2015 was a church-licensed but not ordained pastor for the United Methodist Church, was first charged in 2018 after one of the boys went to Newbury police with an account of years of sexual abuse.

But eight years earlier, in 2010, another boy had also reported that Davis had been abusing him since he was 11. Due to the boy’s emotional state, police did not pursue that case at the time, prosecutor Kate MacDougall said in court Tuesday.

Both boys came from what a prosecutor said on Tuesday were unstable and difficult living situations that “made them vulnerable.” Both were brought to the church by guardians who had taken custody of them — one whose parent had died.

A third boy, who was an older teenager, also went to police in 2018 to disclose sexual abuse by Davis. That abuse ended only when he enlisted in the military and left the area — and after he had tried to end it, only to have Davis threaten to humiliate him to his family and friends.

Davis has pleaded not guilty to six counts of rape and two counts of attempted rape.

During Tuesday’s hearing in Salem Superior Court, Judge Thomas Drechsler said that while the court is ready to try the case — the oldest child sexual abuse case still pending on the court’s docket — next week, he’d impose a three- to four-year prison term on Davis if Davis spared the three victims from having to testify.

Drechsler said he was troubled by a number of factors, including “the fact that he was serving as a minister, in a position of trust,” at the time the crimes occurred, in the 2000s and 2010s, and the particular vulnerability of the boys involved.

“You have multiple, vulnerable victims,” Drechsler told Davis Tuesday afternoon.

He also said he was moved by an “extraordinarily heartfelt” victim impact statement read in court Tuesday by the prosecutor, as the now-adult victim sat in the court’s gallery.

That man recounted how he was forced to attend church while in foster care in the Newbury area, and how Davis exploited his position to get him alone to do tasks like fix computers or used the pretext of a sporting event or concert to get him away from home.

He still suffers flashbacks, struggles to have relationships, and has difficulty trusting others.

Yet throughout the five years the case has been pending, he’s heard more concern for Davis’ well-being than that of the victims.

At one point, a prior prosecutor on the case had proposed a sentence that would have spared Davis from any jail time, due to his suffering from prostate cancer and depression — a plea agreement rejected by another judge in 2021.

“Why does the rapist’s health and mental health get consideration?” the victim asked the judge in his statement.

Drechsler said later in the hearing that the statement “reminds us of the impact these crimes have on people” and the profound effect on a life.

MacDougall, who took over the case, told the judge that her predecessor had been led to believe Davis was dying of cancer — but noted that two years later, Davis is still alive. And as for concerns about Davis’ depression, she pointed to the long-lasting trauma the victims have suffered.

She asked for a prison term of five to seven years for Davis.

Davis and his lawyers, Edward McNaught and Charles Henry Fasoldt, urged the judge to impose no more than two years in prison, in part due to Davis’ medical condition.

“We don’t want him to die in prison,” McNaught told the judge.

McNaught said his client’s cancer was serious enough to have required radiation.

Drechsler, after reading a sentencing memo submitted by the defense lawyers, noted that one of Davis’ cancers appears to be in remission and the prostate cancer is stable and being watched.

With jury selection scheduled for next Monday, the judge said he would make time on Thursday morning to conduct a change of plea hearing if Davis wants to accept the offer. That hearing is tentatively scheduled for 10 a.m.

In a statement following his 2018 arrest, the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church said Davis’s church license to serve as a pastor was revoked by the church in 2015 for reasons unrelated to the accusations.