Pastor denies misconduct allegations

April 26, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

A Lutheran minister from Fulton denies allegations by a former parishioner who is seeking $208 million in damages in a civil lawsuit that claims he manipulated her into having a sexual relationship.

The Rev. Rodney Ronneberg, pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, filed papers in Howard Circuit Court on April 15 asking the court to dismiss the woman's case.

In the suit, the woman contends that she and Mr. Ronneberg had several sexual encounters between May 1992 and February 1993. She said they never had intercourse.

She also charges that Mr. Ronneberg, who is married, threatened to excommunicate her if she attended the church again after their affair ended.

The woman said in a recent interview that the relationship developed while her marriage was unraveling and she was seeking Mr. Ronneberg's guidance to become a minister.

"He had a lot of influence over me," the 31-year-old Columbia woman said. "I felt bad that I didn't stop [the relationship], but I didn't know how."

Alan Fishbein, who is Mr. Ronneberg's attorney, said the minister and church officials have been advised against commenting on the lawsuit.

"We categorically deny all of these allegations," said Mr. Fishbein, of Ellicott City. "There was not [a relationship] in any sense."

The woman, listed in the lawsuit as Jane Doe, filed her complaint March 7, naming the defendants as Mr. Ronneberg, St. Paul's, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church's Delaware-Maryland Synod.

She is seeking $13 million in damages for each of the 16 counts in the lawsuit.

Judge grants request

Judge Raymond Kane Jr. granted the plaintiff's request to pursue the case without court papers listing her name after her attorneys said her identity should be withheld so she can avoid emotional distress, humiliation and embarrassment.

But Mr. Fishbein charges that the woman's attorneys -- John Condliffe of Hyattsville and Judith Shub-Condliffe of Baltimore -- violated the state's court procedures by seeking the order without notifying defense lawyers, Mr. Ronneberg and the church.

Attorneys for the minister and the church have requested a hearing, where they will ask the court to vacate the order permitting the woman to pursue the case anonymously.

The woman said she hopes her lawsuit will prompt Lutheran officials to change policies so other cases like hers can be avoided. "I don't hate [Mr. Ronneberg]," she said.

"I'm not out to get him. What I want is to make sure that no one else is hurt by him."

During an interview, the woman said she met Mr. Ronneberg at a Christmas Eve midnight mass in 1989 at St. Paul's, in the 11700 block of Route 216.

Over the next several months, the woman said she became active in the church, working as a lay minister and Sunday school teacher. At Mr. Ronneberg's advice, she started classes to become a deacon in November 1990, with the hope of eventually entering the seminary, she said.

The woman said she considered Mr. Ronneberg to be her mentor, often seeking his help with her religious classes. She also said she revealed to the minister that she and her husband were having marital problems.

She said the minister first kissed and touched her at a meeting at his church office in May 1992.

Promise is alleged

The woman said she called Mr. Ronneberg the next day, saying she regretted what happened. She said he promised that nothing would happen between them again.

But over the next several months, she said, other encounters occurred at St. Paul's facilities, her home and after Mr. Ronneberg instructed her to meet him at another church in Highland. The relationship was sexual but did not include intercourse, she said.

The woman said Mr. Ronneberg broke off the relationship in February 1993, when he came to bless her new apartment.

"He told me his call as a minister meant more than his relationship with me," said the woman, who is now separated from her husband. "I cried, I told him I loved him, and then he walked out the door."

Mr. Ronneberg ceased scheduling the woman as an assistant during services, causing parishioners to question why she no longer participated, she said.

The woman said she later learned that Mr. Ronneberg told church officials she was pursuing a relationship with him and she was too emotionally unstable to help at services. She then told officials about his role in the relationship.

Attends Baltimore church

Mr. Ronneberg was furious with her for reporting the affair, she said. He threatened to excommunicate her and later sent her a letter telling her to find another parish, she said.

The woman said she maintains her faith in the Lutheran church and her dream of becoming a minister. She now attends a Lutheran church in Baltimore.

"I do care a lot about my church, and I think they can do better," she said. "They need to do better."

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