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Allegations that a Burnsville pastor had inappropriate sexual relationships with two 18-year-old women 17 years ago in Indiana have shaken the congregation at his south metro megachurch, resulting in a leave of absence for him and his removal from consideration for hire by a church in Tennessee.

"We understand the nature of these claims and we take them very seriously," Berean Baptist Church elders said in a statement released on Twitter and given Sunday at the church. Berean Baptist has been noted in recent years as among the nation's fastest-growing Protestant congregations. A neutral party has been enlisted to investigate, the statement said.

The Rev. Wes Feltner, now 41, is being accused of simultaneously dating the congregants in 2002 when he was a youth pastor in southern Indiana. The accusations have been deemed credible by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, where Feltner taught and has been suspended, and came to light after he applied for a position this fall at a church in Clarksville, Tenn.

In an e-mail to the Star Tribune, Feltner said he had permission from their parents to date both women but that he deeply regretted the hurt he caused. He said that he's offered to speak to the women multiple times, including with a mediator, which he said was how the Bible says such accusations should be addressed.

He said that he and his family are facing "a withering barrage of online attacks," some of them threatening.

Some sexual abuse advocates and the women making the charges — both now 35 — say this is another instance of pastoral abuse.

"After 17 years of guilt, shame, blaming myself and questioning every authority, I can see that I did not ask for it," wrote Megan Frey, one of the alleged victims, on the pair's website. "I was a youth asking for help. I was manipulated. I was sexually abused."

"The proliferation of accounts similar to ours would suggest that this is a broader issue as a whole," said JoAnna Hendrickson, the other woman who said Feltner abused her, in an e-mail.

Feltner, who would have been 23 or 24 at the time of the alleged incidents, has said that some of the accusations were true while others were not, and that his accusers have "organized to destroy my reputation and my career."

A 'secret couple'

The women's stories, which they relate on their website, begin in 2002 when both were active in their youth group at First Southern Baptist Church in Evansville, Ind.

Frey, a high school senior at the time, initially sought counseling from Feltner, then a relatively new youth pastor. The two began talking at coffee shops before the meetings moved to his home, though Feltner told her to park in a nearby lot to avoid suspicion. She said he soon was drawing bubble baths for her after school.

"Wes quickly told me that he wanted to be with me, loved me and wanted to marry me, but had lists of reasons why we had to remain a 'secret couple,' " Frey wrote. Chief among the reasons was that he had a steady girlfriend, of whom Frey was aware.

Even so, Frey and Feltner met with Frey's parents to talk about marriage. Frey accompanied Feltner on out-of-state youth group trips, and the two went alone to Las Vegas, she said. She also said they weathered a pregnancy scare.

But toward the end of their nine months together, Frey said she started finding other women's belongings in his bedroom. Feltner became distant and aggressive, she said.

Hendrickson's relationship with Feltner began in fall 2002, when Feltner sent her an e-mail saying he missed her. "He explained to me that he felt God leading him to pursue me," she said.

Hendrickson, who was enrolled in beauty school, said both her mother and best friend knew about the relationship and trusted Feltner. They began meeting late at night and went on a church trip together, though she said they didn't have sex.

Things culminated for both women at a winter church retreat, when the wife of another youth pastor asked each of them if they were dating anyone. Both confided that they were dating Feltner. Weeks later, they wrote, he got engaged to his longtime girlfriend and then married her.

The women said that former youth group members contacted Berean Baptist Church officials when Feltner was hired as lead pastor in 2014, but that they don't know whether church officials ever investigated.

In Minnesota, though not in Indiana, a clergy member who has sex with someone they are counseling is guilty of criminal sexual conduct, regardless of the other person's age. Consent is not a defense under Minnesota statutes.

The Rev. Ashley Easter, a North Carolina-based advocate for survivors of church abuse, said the women's story is believable. "Even though the women were 18, there's still a distinct power differentiation between clergy and lay people," she said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781