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Republic pastor faces prison time in Kansas
Minister pleads no contest to sexual abuse charges that date back to 1979.
By Linda Leicht
The pastor of a Republic church faces three to 10 years in prison in Kansas on six sexual abuse charges that date back to 1979.
Russell Winkler, pastor at Republic’s First Christian Church for the past eight years, pleaded no contest to the charges Friday in an Atchison, Kan., courthouse. The judge found him guilty of six counts of aggravated enticement of a child.
The abuse occurred between 1979 and 1981 while Winkler was associate pastor and youth director of the First Christian Church in Atchison. The victims were all boys, ages 12-13.
This is the second case in the past week when an authority figure in the 8,438-person town of Republic has been charged with sexual misconduct. Jerry Davis, a six-year veteran of the Republic Police Department, was charged with sodomy, attempted child molestation and sexual misconduct in connection with incidents that date back to the late 1980s. He pleaded not guilty when arraigned Monday.
Winkler, 57, was arrested Dec. 7 in Republic, where he was released on bond. He returned Friday to Atchison to appear before District Court Judge Martin Asher, Atchison County Attorney Gerald Kuckelman said.
Sentencing has been set for Feb. 8. The Class D felonies carry a possible prison term of three to 10 years, Kuckelman said.
The charges surfaced in September when a victim reported the abuse to the regional office of the church in Topeka, Kan. The report was then turned over to law enforcement officials in Atchison County.
Jim Burks, chairman of the board at the Republic church, said he first learned of the charges in October when he and Winkler were called into the regional office in Springfield, but Burks took no action.
“At that time it was just accusations and (Winkler) was saying he had no idea what surrounded this,” Burks said.
Winkler has since admitted his guilt to Burks, the elder said.
“I had to ask for his resignation at that time,” he said.
Winkler is expected to turn in his resignation at the board’s meeting on Sunday. Messages left at Winkler’s home and the church were not immediately answered.
Winkler’s credentials with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have been stripped, said the Rev. Patsie Sweeden, regional minister and president, Christian Church in Kansas.
“I have received a letter … and his standing has been removed,” she said. “It means he has no authority, no ability to function within our system.”
Burks said the pastor has not been in the pulpit, except for one Sunday, since the allegations surfaced, but said that was due to health problems. Winkler underwent surgery in late October, Burks said.
The person who originally reported the incidents in Kansas had been undergoing psychiatric treatment for several years as a result of the abuse, Kuckelman said.
Reporting the abuse was part of that treatment, he added.
An investigation turned up another five men who said they had been abused as adolescents.
“We believe that there were more young men involved,” Kuckelman said. “Several of these victims were very reluctant (to give statements). They are now adults. Some own businesses in the area.”
Burks said the Republic church has not investigated to determine if there are any additional victims in the eight years that Winkler has served as pastor there.
“This is not the same man that committed these things 21 years ago. This is a different man,” Burks said.
Marion Erit, a deacon in the Atchison church, said she doesn’t believe Winkler has any more victims.
“I feel like whatever happened to Russ 20 years ago, he has since married, has a teen-age son. I don’t feel like he is a sexual predator,” she said. “It’s very unlikely anything happened of this nature since it happened 20 years ago.”
Winkler also served in churches in Rocky Ford, Colo., and Hebron, Neb., before coming to Republic.
Theresa Schulz, a Springfield psychologist who specializes in sexual abuse cases, said it is possible for any abuser to stop, “but it’s fairly rare.”
She is not surprised by the support Winkler has received. People are more likely to accept the guilt of a person they don’t know, she said.
“If they know the person, it’s a different story.”
Covering up for a sexual abuser has its biggest impact on the victims, she said.
“It makes it very difficult for them to acknowledge what has happened and feel that the bad guy is caught and due punishment is rendered. I think it’s a terrible message to the community,” she said.
The best outcome from this incident is heightened awareness, Schulz said.
Darrell Crick, interim police chief in Republic, agrees.
“This raises awareness, raises concern. There’s a renewed vigilance on things like that,” he said. “Even though it’s a sad thing, it’s sometimes a positive impact on us to know that we are not without crime.
“We need to be mindful and recognize those things.”
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