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Pastor threatens slander lawsuit

Rossi berates 'spies' in California church

Monday, November 22, 1999

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Richard Rossi was in the pulpit yesterday at Immanuel Baptist Community Church in Long Beach, Calif., his first time before the congregation since members discovered that he had been accused of attempted homicide in the beating of his wife in Butler County in 1995.

While Rossi eventually pleaded no contest to aggravated assault -- part of a plea bargain agreement after a hung jury -- yesterday's service dealt with none of that.

Instead, according to a church member who attended the service, Rossi lashed out at "spies" and others who he said were "slandering" him because of his recent dismantling of several church boards and installation of himself as president and chief executive officer of the church corporation.

Everado Aro of Long Beach, a member at the church for the past 18 months, said Rossi threatened to file a slander suit for "a seven-digit figure" against some church members because of their comments about his past.

Aro, 48, a semi-retired Long Beach resident who voluntarily used to clean the church twice a week, quit that job in October after Rossi changed all the locks at the 77-year-old church. He quoted Rossi, 37, as saying during his talk yesterday: "I'm talking to all you spies out there."

According to Aro, Rossi, who became pastor of the church in August 1997, brought his wife, Sherrie, in front of the slightly more than two dozen people in the church sanctuary yesterday.

"Did I ever hit you in 15 years?" Aro said the pastor asked his wife.

"All he did was help battered women, to keep them away from their husbands," Sherrie, 39, told the congregation. "But he never hit me."

In 1994, when Sherrie Rossi awoke in Allegheny General Hospital from a three-day coma following her beating in Connoquenessing Township, she accused her husband of the attack and asked Butler County courts for a protection-from-abuse order to keep him away.

Several months later, however, she recanted, and adopted her husband's story that it was a man who looked very similar to him and drove a like-model car.

Rossi was sentenced to four to eight months in prison and served 96 days. He also served four years of probation.

His wife later filed a lawsuit against Butler County officials and state police in federal court, contending that they had deprived her of her civil rights by keeping her separated from her husband.

In 1996, she wrote a self-published 154-page paperback titled "Assault of Justice: The Rev. Rossi Mystery."

An attorney representing some of the Long Beach church members opposed to Rossi's changes filed an amended civil lawsuit Friday in Long Beach Superior Court, accusing their pastor of illegally changing the church's constitution and diverting church funds for his personal use.

But an attempt Saturday to oust him as pastor failed. Church members are upset that Rossi did not reveal his criminal past to them, and they allege that he has spent $15,000 from a church account for his personal use.

According to a spokesman for the American Baptist Conference of the Pacific Southwest, the regional office that includes about 280 churches in southern California, Arizona and southern Nevada, Rossi was not required to tell church members about his past. There is a self-disclosure form that pastors fill out if they ask the regional group to help find them jobs, Ross Chenot said.

"Today, the bulk of the pastors that come into the [Pacific Southwest conference] do go through that process," he said. "But a church that small, like [Immanuel Baptist Community Church] that finds its own pastors wouldn't fill that out."

It is not the first time in Rossi's career that his churches have become embroiled in controversy. In 1988, he changed the name of his church from The Church of the Three Rivers to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Pittsburgh and said it belonged to the Association of Vineyard Churches.

But officials of the Vineyard association, based in Anaheim, Calif., said Rossi never completed its affiliation process.

In 1989, Rossi joined the Assemblies of God after being offered a building and a congregation. He built Cranberry Assembly of God from 50 members to 250, but in 1991 bolted from the Assemblies of God, saying that he was being guided by God into a ministry too radical for the Assemblies to support.

Assemblies officials, however, said that Rossi did not follow correct procedures and left owing several thousand dollars for the church building.

Rossi could not be reached for comment. He, his wife, and their two children are expected to be in the Pittsburgh area for the Thanksgiving holiday, according to his attorney, James M. Ecker.

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