By Gosia Wozniacka

The Associated Press

PORTLAND — The pastor of a small Oregon church community described as cultlike by prosecutors was convicted Thursday of molesting the daughter of a church member in the 1990s and was immediately sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Michael George Sperou, 64, pastor of the North Clackamas Bible Community, was found guilty by a Portland jury on three counts of unlawful sexual penetration.

Sperou was investigated in 1997 after seven girls said he had sexually molested them, but prosecutors never brought charges because of inconsistent statements by the girls.

Two years ago, they again brought their complaints to police. Prosecutors determined the statute of limitations had expired on complaints by all but one of them. But the other six were allowed to testify so jurors could decide whether the pastor’s behavior was intentional and part of an ongoing pattern.

Sperou denied the allegations during the three-week trial.

Prosecutors said Sperou invited the girls to the movies and on camping trips and gave them gifts, money, alcohol and candy. The girls and their parents lived communally with Sperou and worshipped together in rental homes in Portland.

The girls “didn’t know it’s wrong. It was their daily life. They thought they were loved by this man, that’s what he told them,” Deputy District Attorney Christine Mascal said in closing arguments Thursday.

Mascal described Sperou as narcissistic and manipulative, saying he pressured and reprimanded adults and children and created a following from which it was difficult to break free.

Sperou’s attorney, Steven Sherlag, argued the memories of Sperou’s accusers could not be trusted because of the passage of time.

“The stories continue to evolve,” Sherlag told the jurors Thursday. “False memories can cause trauma. Just because someone has a vivid memory, it doesn’t mean it’s a true memory.”

The seven women who brought the original allegations — now in their 20s and 30s — testified in court that when they were girls the pastor would spend time with them alone in his basement bedroom and during trips out of town. They said Sperou invited them to watch movies with him in his bed while he wore only boxers.

Allegations against Sperou created turmoil within the church when they surfaced two decades ago, causing about two dozen people to leave and leading several families to break up. Some parents remained loyal to Sperou at the price of cutting off contact with their own children over the abuse claims.

At the trial, a few parents who remain Sperou’s followers testified that their daughters had made up the abuse. They include Sperou’s wife, who told jurors she chose to remain with the pastor even after her then-husband left the church with their daughter.

According to court records, Sperou became pastor of the church in 1980. Its followers live in Happy Valley, a Portland suburb.

At the trial, current and former members said they admired the pastor and considered him a great Bible teacher.

But those who left the church said Sperou reprimanded, belittled and shamed those who questioned him.

Current members of the church sat on one side of the packed courtroom and former followers of Sperou sat on the other. After Sperou was led out in handcuffs, the former followers erupted in applause and hugged each other.

“I’m very happy the girls got justice,” said Carole Green, Sperou’s former wife who has left the church. “Many of us are praying God will bring Michael to complete repentance while he’s in prison.”