Elderly woman claiming assault by pastor seeks $25M from church

John Suayan, Galveston Bureau Dec. 8, 2009, 7:58am

GALVESTON - An elderly Texas City woman is suing a former pastor of her church for up to $25 million for alleged false imprisonment and sexual assault.

The lawsuit accuses the Rev. Morris Joseph "Skip" Ehrlich III of twice molesting the 80-year-old plaintiff, who is known only as Jane Doe, between May and August while he was pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Texas City.

It also accuses Presbytery of New Covenant Inc. and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which oversee the church, of failing to investigate Ehrlich's background, failing to report the clergyman's reported wrongdoing and misconduct and failing to take necessary preventative action.

Court papers show that the plaintiff joined the church in 1950 after she converted from Catholicism. The woman and her late husband were married there.

After her spouse's death from Alzheimer's disease in November 2007, the woman became a very active member within the church community.

She had contact with Ehrlich as pastor and through her involvement in various activities, the suit says.

According to the complaint, as early as May 29 Ehrlich began making a series of indecent propositions, making numerous sexual comments, and ultimately, sexually assaulting her on a more than one occasion.

"During this time, defendant Ehrlich began making repeated unwanted telephone calls, sexual comments, and sexual propositions to the plaintiff, comments she ignored and disregarded because of her faith, her upbringing, and her trust in the church," the original petition says.

The lawsuit states that Ehrlich drove the plaintiff home from the hospital after she visited an ill parishioner. She claims the pastor talked about other women, unzipped his pants, and placed his hand on her leg.

"Shocked, the plaintiff pushed his hand away, closed her eyes and began praying, when he said, 'What? Are you visualizing this?'" the suit says.

The plaintiff says the incident made her feel ashamed, prompting her to talk to the church secretary and the secretary's husband. The couple then referred the woman to a Presbytery of New Convenant official.

During a meeting with the church official at her house on July 1, the plaintiff discussed the incident as well as played recorded voice mails from Ehrlich.

The plaintiff claims no action was taken against Ehrlich following the meeting, and he continued to preach at the church.

Shortly afterwards, Ehrlich drove the woman again to the hospital to see another parishioner.

The suit alleges that Ehrlich took the plaintiff home, entered her residence uninvited and assaulted her.

"The plaintiff cried out, begging him to stop... to which he replied, 'You need to get out of your little world,'" the suit states.

Following the alleged assault, the suit states the plaintiff stopped attending church for the first time in 58 years. Disturbed by the plaintiff's lengthy absence, the church president on Aug. 4 told Ehrlich that he was going to visit the woman to see if there were any problems.

Prior to the church president's visit, the plaintiff claims Ehrlich came to her house in an attempt to hush her, the suit says.

"Defendant Ehrlich returned to the plaintiff's residence... making threats and representing that she could not hurt him, and that others before her were unsuccessful," the suit states.

The plaintiff says the pastor subsequently grabbed her, forced her into the bedroom, and attacked her again and forced her to perform certain sexual acts.

"Again, the plaintiff cried out, begging him to stop, to no avail," the suit says.

The next day, the plaintiff contacted church officials and requested a formal complaint.

The defendants are faulted for numerous acts including, but not limited to violating the woman's constitutional rights, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and sexual exploitation.

The plaintiff is seeking damages for pain and suffering, mental anguish, medical expenses, and has requested a jury trial.

Ehrlich, who reportedly lives in La Junta, Colo., is the subject of a criminal probe by the Galveston County District Attorney's Office.

Galveston attorney Darrell A. Apffel is representing the plaintiff.

The case has been assigned to Galveston County 122nd District Court Judge John Ellisor.

Case No. 09CV2229

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