MCC pastor arrested on child sex charges
by Seth Hemmelgarn
South San Francisco police have arrested a gay Peninsula volunteer pastor on multiple charges stemming from what authorities call "an ongoing inappropriate sexual relationship with a minor" that took place from 2009 to 2012.
Brandon Lee Hamm, 37, of San Francisco, was initially arrested June 22 on charges related to child pornography and other allegations.
On Tuesday, June 26, South San Francisco Police Department detectives contacted Hamm at the San Mateo County main jail, where he's currently being held on $400,000 bail, and arrested him on additional charges. A department news release issued Monday, July 2 says the case involves "solicitation practices involving social media."
Prior to his arrest Hamm had served as a volunteer pastor at Peninsula MCC church in San Mateo. The Metropolitan Community Churches-affiliated congregation primarily serves the LGBT community.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said in an interview Monday that the "very serious" charges against Hamm include 41 felony counts stemming from the June 26 arrest. More than half of those are for engaging in a lewd act with a minor. He said some of the charges are related to someone under the age of 16, while others are for a minor under the age of 18. That indicates the charges involved contact with the same person over a period of time, he said.
Wagstaffe said the charges for the June 22 arrest include felony counts of possession of child pornography, arranging for a meeting for the purpose of committing a lewd act with a minor, communicating with a minor for commission of a lewd act, sending pornography to a minor by email, and a misdemeanor charge of arranging a meeting with a minor for a lewd act.
Ryan McHugh, Hamm's attorney, declined to comment on the case.
A preliminary hearing is set for August 6.
Hamm's duties at Peninsula MCC were suspended after church officials learned of his arrest. A church official told the Bay Area Reporter that his MCC license is now inactive.
According to Hamm's Facebook page, Hamm was in a relationship with another man. That page appears to be inactive as of Monday morning.
Sergeant Bruce McPhillips, a South San Francisco police spokesman, said that Hamm's initial arrest was in a South San Francisco park. He wouldn't say which one.
Asked if Hamm had been going to the park to meet the youth, McPhillips said, "I can't go that far. I think you can probably put two and two together." He declined to state the youth's gender.
McPhillips couldn't comment on what tip police had received leading to Hamm's arrest. It's "part of a larger investigation," he said. He said there aren't necessarily other arrests planned, but there may be more victims.
MCC moderator the Reverend Dr. Nancy Wilson said the case was "a complete shock" and "heartbreaking for the church." She said she and others with the church don't believe Hamm's alleged actions are related to his work at Peninsula MCC.
Wilson didn't know the details of what Hamm has been accused of. She said she hadn't heard directly from police or other law enforcement agencies.
Hamm had only recently been ordained but had been a member of the church for "several years," Wilson said. He'd become volunteer clergy in the last six months. Hamm graduated from the master of divinity program at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in May. Delphine Hwang, the school's registrar, said he'd started that program in 2009.
As far as Hamm's duties, Wilson said, "The only thing I know for certain is that he was helping to begin planning for new church outreach in Hayward." She said volunteers on staff help with worship and sometimes teach at the church.
Two adults are always supposed to be present with children and the church also would have done a background check on Hamm, Wilson said.
Peninsula MCC is "a small church" with less than 50 people and only "about a handful of children," she said. The church has "zero tolerance" for sexual contact between adults and children, Wilson said.
She didn't know whether Hamm had had access to church computers.
"I don't know if the church even has a computer," Wilson said, although the pastor may have one. She said she's met Hamm once, "maybe twice."
"I wouldn't say that I know him," she said.
The Revered Terri Echelbarger, senior pastor at Peninsula MCC, declined to say much in a phone interview Monday.
"I don't think I have anything that [Wilson] hasn't told you," she said.
However, she said, "We were very surprised" by the accusations against Hamm. "He's a great guy."
In an email before the interview, she said all clergy sign the church's ministry leaders code of conduct annually.
"MCC does not tolerate abuse or exploitation of minors," Echelbarger said in the message. She added that Hamm's MCC clergy license "is now inactive, pending the outcome of an investigation. We will depend on the legal process now unfolding to determine the degree of truth of these charges."
She added that church officials will cooperate fully with the investigation
Anyone with information related to this case is asked to contact the South San Francisco Police Department's Criminal Investigations Unit at (650) 877-8900.