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Rev. Rossi again in trouble

Calif. congregation told of ex-Cranberry pastor's jail time

Friday, November 19, 1999

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Richard Rossi was giving $10 guitar lessons in a Carson, Calif., music store two years ago when the chance to run another church fell into his lap.

His new employer was Immanuel Baptist Community Church of nearby Long Beach. As the Rev. Richard Rossi, he began as pastor there in August 1997.

No job application was required, so his controversial and criminal past in Cranberry, where he ran the First Love Church, never came up. Neither did the bizarre circumstances surrounding the savage beating of his wife, Sherrie, who after awakening from a coma named her husband as the assailant. She later recanted and in 1995 Rossi pleaded no contest to a charge of aggravated assault.

Now, following several months of recriminations between two factions in his California church, that information is at the forefront of an effort to oust Rossi from the pulpit. Several members filed a civil complaint Wednesday in Long Beach Superior Court alleging that Rossi illegally changed the church's constitution and diverted church funds for his personal use.

Kay Wiser, a former member of the church's executive council, said yesterday that officials at Washington Mutual Bank in Long Beach confirmed that a $15,000 church account, which formerly required the approval of three signatories for withdrawals, had been changed in early October to allow the pastor and associate to make withdrawals.

As of yesterday afternoon, the account contained $18.16. Wiser said the status of the church's $40,000 annuities account had not yet been determined.

Because individual American Baptist churches make their own policies, an official with the American Baptist Church's regional office in southern California said yesterday that Rossi's changing the bylaws was not improper.

"Everything I know to this point would indicate that everything Richard did was done by the existing bylaws at that time," said Ross Chenot, church resource minister for the American Baptist Conference of the Pacific Southwest. The region includes about 280 churches in southern California, Arizona and southern Nevada.

Chenot said he has monitored the church's internal debate since August and has tried to mediate between the two factions.

"It's a disagreement about philosophy of ministry and direction in general," he said. "You just have a difference in the direction they see the church moving."

As a member of the church's pulpit committee, which was charged in 1997 with finding a new minister, Wiser was one of Rossi's biggest boosters. He'd been suggested to her by Lola Wilson, a church member who ran the music store where Rossi gave lessons.

Wilson said that one day she happened to mention to Rossi that her church was searching for a new pastor.

"He said, 'I was a pastor in my hometown,' " Wilson said. "I said, 'Well, I don't know, but if you're interested you might go talk to somebody [at the church] and see if it would suit you.'"

He was hired in August on a part-time basis at an annual salary of $20,000.

"I'm the one who waved the banner the highest to get him," said Wiser, 80.

What upsets Wiser and other members most is that they feel Rossi, 37, lied to them. Although there was no formal job application, he told members he'd been a pastor in Pennsylvania and had come to California to recover from a nervous breakdown after building a 2,000-member church.

He succeeded a pastor who the congregation felt had been too fundamental for members. With his guitar and more relaxed ways, Rossi initially settled comfortably into leading the church.

But in late September, he sent a letter to selected church members, advising them of an Oct. 10 meeting to change the bylaws and articles of incorporation. At the meeting, Rossi's proposed changes were passed 28-10.

Rossi then fired the church's executive council and replaced it with five members known as the Servants Council. Some church members who felt they'd been deceived began searching the Internet for information about their pastor.

Aside from discovering that Rossi had filed for bankruptcy in 1996 and that his personal credit report showed a number of outstanding bills, they also found the case involving the pastor and his wife.

On June 24, 1994, his wife, now 39, was beaten nearly to death in an attack along a rural road outside her car in Connoquenessing Township. When she awoke in Allegheny General Hospital from her three-day coma, she accused her husband of the attack and asked Butler County courts for a protection-from-abuse order to keep him away.

But after the order was granted and Rossi was forbidden to have contact with his wife, she recanted. Sherrie Rossi then backed up her husband's story: that someone who looked like him and drove a similar car was responsible for the attack.

Rossi was charged with attempted murder. A mistrial was declared after the jury deadlocked 9-3 in favor of conviction. After the mistrial, prosecutors agreed to allow him to plead no contest to a reduced charge of aggravated assault. He was sentenced to four to eight months in prison and served 96 days. He also served four years of probation.

Since Wednesday's civil suit was filed, four of the five members of the church's Servants Council have resigned. The former executive council plans to meet tomorrow to vote on whether to recommend Rossi's termination as pastor. The church membership would then have to vote on Rossi's future.

Rossi, his wife and their two children live in Long Beach. He could not be reached for comment. His attorney, James M. Ecker of Pittsburgh, said that as far as Rossi is concerned, the church dissension is an internal problem. His plans are to continue as pastor, according to Ecker.

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