ROCKVILLE, Md. (WJLA) - A 12-member jury holds the fate of a former spiritual leader, accused of repeatedly molesting three teenage boys, in its hands.
On Monday, testimony began in the child sex abuse trial of Nathaniel Morales, 56. The self-professed man of God was most recently preaching in Las Vegas. However back in the late 1980s and early 90s, Morales was a well-respected member of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg. Then in his mid-20s, Morales led youth bible studies, directed worship teams, and even attended sleepovers with the male teens he mentored. It's alleged, Morales' abuse went undetected for years because he exhumed trustworthiness and charm.
"He was charismatic, affable, the life of the party," the father of Victim #1 testified. "Just one of those guys who walked in the room and people were surrounding him."
Morales joined Covenant Life Church in the mid-1980s. Although his spiritual life was growing, his professional worth was taking a downward spiral. Morales was soon out-of-work, and terribly low on cash. A fellow parishioner offered-up a room in his home along Sunflower Drive in Rockville. In Oct. 1989, Morales accepted the offer, settling into the basement recreation room. The family's 15-year-old son also slept in the basement, in an adjacent bedroom.
"I recall a number of times, while I was sleeping in the basement, when I woke-up to him kneeling by my side touching me," Victim #1, now 39-years-old, told the court. "I would tell him, 'What's going on? Why are you doing this?'"
Victim #1 claimed Morales would creep into his bedroom in the middle-of-the-night, groping and performing oral sex on the then teenager as he slept.
"He mentioned to me, he had these urges that he had to satisfy one way or another," Victim #1 added. "He'd threaten he'd have random acts of sex and get AIDS otherwise."
While Victim #1's overarching memories were clear, the fine details were a bit... hazy. When asked about the number of sexual encounters he had with Morales, Victim #1 said, "about a dozen." When asked when the abuse began, Victim #1 couldn't identify a month, or even a season. Morales' public defender, Alan Drew, used that poor memory recall to try and derail the prosecution's credibility.
"The only evidence the state has in this case is their [victims] testimony; their 30-year-old recollections," Drew stated to the court.
"Kids don't carry around calendars when they're being abused," Assistant Montgomery County State's Attorney Amanda Michalski rebutted.
Prosecutors say Morales became more confident, soon molesting Victim #1's friends during sleepovers. Jeremy Cook tells ABC7, he was one of those boys.
"This man was a predator. He found every way to get inside, to be trusted, to be respected, to be in a position of authority. He then used that authority to abuse each of us individually, alone, in the middle-of-the-night, for his own pleasure," Cook remarked.
Cook, who now lives in Raleigh, N.C. with his wife and three children, estimates Morales molested him around 50 times. Fearing public shame and scrutiny from church elders, Cook kept silent until Victim #2 reported the abuse to police in 2009.
"You have to realize, Nate was a powerful man, and I was a young boy. Who were they going to believe," Cook explained. "There was also a fear if this came out, I would lose all of my friends. I didn't want the stigma and shame."
In 1992, Victim #1 garnered the courage to tell his parents about the abuse. Cook followed-suit in 1994, but by that time, Morales had vanished.
"I fell to the floor," Ann Cook recalled. "I was devastated; devastated that he felt he had to keep a secret like that; devastated that it cost him so much during such an important time in his life."
The Cooks and Victim #1's parents reported the allegations to the pastoral team at Covenant Life Church. However, it never contacted law enforcement.
"Did you have an obligation to report the alleged abuse," public defender Drew asked former pastor Grant Layman during cross-examination. "I believe so," Layman replied. "And you didn't," Drew followed-up. "No," Layman added.
"If you're not going to be the guy in the van saying, 'here little girl do you want candy,' than get into a church that's an isolated cult where it will never get to the police because it will all be handled in the church," Cook said.
On Thursday, the jury, made-up of five men and seven women, will continue its deliberations. Morales, who's currently incarcerated, faces five felony counts of Sex Abuse Minor and Sex Offense Second Degree.
"He was a duplicitous monster... Still it's not about revenge, it's not even necessarily about justice, it's about preventing him from ever harming anyone else again," Cook concluded.