This story was updated at 6:25 p.m. on May 20, 2014.
A former youth leader with Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg was convicted Thursday of sexually abusing three boys in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Nathaniel Morales, 56, who lived in Germantown and Rockville at the time of the abuse, was a man the victims described in court as a “big brother.” He was also their teacher at Montgomery County Covenant Academy, according to court testimony and police records. The school closed in 1991 and was not affiliated with Covenant Life Church.
In a separate trial that began Monday, a jury found Morales guilty of sexual abuse and third-degree sex offense. A jury returned the verdict Tuesday afternoon.
In the case involving the three boys, prosecutors said Morales used his position at the church and school to build trust with the victims’ parents, his fellow parishioners, to gain access. At one point, he was invited to live in the Rockville home of one victim’s family.
The victims, who are now adults, testified that Morales preyed on them at group sleepovers and in their homes. Morales awakened them out of their sleep by rubbing on their chests. He would then fondle and molest the teens, according to the men’s testimony. The youngest victim was 11 at the time of the abuse.
“I was ashamed,” one of the victims said during the trial.
The Gazette generally does not name victims of sex crimes.
“I had let this happen so many times,” the man said. “I just couldn’t bear being embarrassed by telling anybody — my parents, nobody.”
But eventually, those feelings changed. According to accounts given to police and testimony provided during the trial, the abuse was reported to church clergy in the 1990s. A father of one victim even confronted Morales about the abuse.
But the church failed to report the incidents to authorities.
In 2009, one of the victims decided it was time take his story to police. By that time, Morales was leading his own church in Las Vegas.
Morales was charged for the crimes in 2012.
On Thursday, Morales was convicted on three counts of sexual abuse of a minor and two counts of second-degree sexual offense. Montgomery County Circuit Judge Terrence McGann scheduled sentencing for Aug. 14.
Attorneys’ arguments hinged on the testimony of the accusers.
“Should we fail to hold the defendant accountable for his actions because they [the victims] came forward 30 years later?” Assistant State’s Attorney Amanda Michalski rhetorically asked the jury during her closing arguments on May 14. Assistant State’s Attorney Jessica Hall also prosecuted the case.
Assistant Public Defender Alan Drew, who represented Morales, questioned why so much time had passed before any of the incidents were reported to police. He said there was not sufficient evidence to corroborate the victims’ claims; relying on their testimony alone was akin to the state saying “believe it because we say so.”
Drew could not be immediately reached after Thursday’s verdict and again on Tuesday.
While there was some uncertainty among jurors over the time frame of the incidents, juror Susan Westenbarger said the victims’ accounts of what happened is what ultimately swayed their decision.
“It was all about the victims’ testimony,” Westenbarger said.
Morales faces a maximum of 85 years of imprisonment, according to Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the state’s attorney’s office.
According to testimony from this week’s case, another man said Morales sexually assaulted him when he was 11, when he and Morales belonged to a church based in Washington, DC. The abuse occurred inside the bathroom of a DC-based “faith house” and during a retreat at a Montgomery County campsite in 1980, the man said during the trial.
Morales was ex-communicated from that church as a result of the abuse, according to court testimony.
Meanwhile, Covenant Life Church was named in a civil lawsuit filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court tied to other allegations of sexual abuse. A circuit judge dismissed the case in 2013. That civil case is scheduled to be heard in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals on June 9.