ROCKVILLE, Md. (WJLA) - Nathaniel "Nate" Morales, a former youth group leader at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, was convicted Thursday of sexually abusing three young boys between 1983 and 1991.
A 12-member jury found Morales, 56, guilty on two counts of sexual offense in the second degree and three counts of sexual abuse of a minor. Tears of joy could be heard from victims and their family members as the verdict was read.
"I started crying. It was just, it was overwhelming to know that the struggle, the fight, the 25 years of trying to bring this forward, was worth it,” victim Jeremy Cook, now a married father of three, said.
Cook, who Morales abused roughly 50 times during his teenage years, was surprised to see his abuser’s reaction, or lack thereof.
"He just sat there. There was no emotion, no reaction, nothing, nothing at all,” Cook recollected.
Among the crowd of victims and their family members was a woman named Pam Palmer.
"We thought we were the only ones. We thought this was some unique tragedy that had happened to our family, and yet we found out it happened to many, many families,” Palmer stated.
While Palmer acknowledges Morales’ sadistic behavior, she believes Covenant Life Church is partly to blame. Palmer, who attended the megachurch for 23 years, says her daughter, now 24, was abused by a male teenage member during the 1990s. Only two-years-old at the time, Palmer claims the church’s pastoral team tried to cover-up her daughter’s abuse.
"One of the pastors told us, ‘don't go to the police,’” Palmer remarked. "They had a lot to protect. They had money, power and prestige."
Palmer, however, contacted investigators who pursued charges against her daughter’s teenage attacker.
"I just had to do something. I felt like I couldn’t live with myself if I didn't,” Palmer said. “How can you walk away from innocent children being abused and do nothing?"
Palmer says Covenant Life Church has a longstanding reputation of burying sex abuse allegations. In fact, during Morales’ trial this week, public defender Alan Drew drilled former pastor Grant Layman while on the stand.
Drew: “Did you have an obligation to report the alleged abuse?”
Layman: “I believe so.”
Drew: “And you didn’t?”
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy says his office cannot prosecute anyone unless crimes are reported to police.
"I think we've come to realize that's not the right way to deal with these matters,” McCarthy stated in response to how Covenant Life staff handled the Morales allegations.
“Certainly I think there are people in Covenant Life Church that have a bit to answer for. They left this predator on the street when they had knowledge, and ultimately they'll have to answer to that, whether it be to the courts, or whether it be to God,” Cook concluded.
Judge Terrance McGann will sentence Morales on Aug. 14 in Montgomery County Circuit Court. He faces up to 85 years in Maryland state prison. Morales' public defender, Alan Drew tells ABC7, he and his client plan to file an appeal following sentencing.