Church and school roiled over visits by man accused in child pornography case

The charges against Clews stem from a two-year investigation by the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Parents and parishioners at a local Catholic church and adjacent school are up in arms about regular weekly visits to the church by horse ranch owner Christian Clews, who faces federal charges of possessing and distributing child pornography.

According to a court document, Clews, owner and operator of Clews Horse Ranch, has been attending services at St. Therese of Carmel Catholic Church for about 25 years, a practice that has continued since he was charged in the child pornography case in December. Typically, said the order filed by Magistrate Judge Andrew Schopler, Clews attends services on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings.

A hearing to discuss Clews’ church attendance was held in Schopler’s courtroom on Monday, June 12.

“Many members of both the church and Notre Dame Academy communities are concerned about Clews’ proximity to children on campus during his religious observances,” Schopler wrote in an order issued after the hearing, in which the judge allowed Clews to continue his church visits for the time being, under a set of restrictions. Those restrictions dictate what time Clews must arrive at the church before services, and mandate that he must be accompanied by a church staff member at all times.

A hearing to further discuss Clews’ attendance at the church, and other potential changes to the conditions set by the court that allow him to remain out of custody while awaiting trial, is set for Thursday, June 22.

Court documents reveal that Clews’ presence at the church, which shares a parking lot with the school, has roiled the community at St. Therese and Notre Dame Academy.

According to Schopler’s order, an attorney for the school testified June 12 there has been a “significant drop-off in attendance” at the school, which the attorney attributed to Clews’ presence.

“A number of parents chose to keep their children home or drop them off at school much later, to avoid any possible overlap with Clews when he is worshiping. The attorney feared Clews’ continued attendance at religious services may drive attendance down in the coming school year and cause some families to remove their children from Notre Dame Academy,” the judge wrote.

The judge wrote that Clews and the church staff have already agreed to a new security procedure, under which a church staff member meets Clews in the parking lot and escorts him to and from services.

“A priest at the church testified that he felt this procedure was necessary mostly to protect Clews, who he said faced harassment,” the judge wrote. “The priest testified that he was willing to continue this practice, at whatever times the Court ordered, to assist Clews in attending services there.”

Clews is under house arrest and must remain in his home or on the property of the horse ranch much of the time, although he is allowed off the property for certain specific reasons. The judge noted in his order that electronic monitoring and “unannounced covert physical surveillance” have shown that so far, when he has visited St. Therese, Clews has traveled directly from the parking lot to the church and chapel grounds, without straying into the school area.

Schopler gave both sides until Monday, June 19, to submit written arguments as to whether the court should consider prohibiting Clews from attending religious services near a school, and whether such a restriction would be consistent with Clews’ First Amendment right to free exercise of his religion.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Renee Green, who is prosecuting Clews, declined to say what position her office will take on whether Clews should be allowed to attend church services at St. Therese while awaiting trial, except to say, “We are doing our best to make sure the community is safe while he is out on bond.”

Clews’ defense attorney, Gina Tennen, did not respond immediately to a request for comment by a reporter. Nor did church and school officials.

At the hearing set for Thursday, June 22, the judge will consider both the church visits and a motion by Clews’ attorney, requesting that Clews be allowed to access the internet for business, medical and religious reasons. The motion also requests that Clews be allowed to travel to certain businesses, including Mary’s Tack & Feed on Via De La Valle, Home Depot on Westview Parkway in San Diego, Hawthorne Country Store in Escondido and California Bank and Trust on El Camino Real.

The motion also asks the court to allow Clews to stop seeing a therapist out of concern for self-incrimination.

Tennen said she contacted Green, the prosecutor, who opposed both discontinuing the mental health treatment and allowing Clews to have internet access.

A trial date has not been set. Clews faces one count each of possessing and distributing child pornography. The charges against Clews stem from a two-year investigation by the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.