Civic leader Accused of Sex Abuse
1990s Ex-PDC chairman Matt Hennessee paid for a teen relative’s counseling after others heard her allegations
Friday, November 04, 2005 | The Oregonian
Matt Hennessee, a pastor, civic leader and recently departed chairman
of the Portland Development Commission, was accused of sexually
abusing an underaged female relative more than a decade ago,
according to interviews, documents and law enforcement records.
Prosecutors declined to press charges in 1993 because Hennessee, the
teenager and her mother refused to cooperate. But in recent
interviews and a signed statement to The Oregonian, the woman, now
29, says Hennessee abused her “several times per week” from age 12
or 13 to 16.
Documents obtained by the newspaper include e-mails Hennessee sent
to the woman in 2003 admitting sexual abuse, a police report on the
investigation and an attorney case file that documents a settlement in
which Hennessee paid for the girl’s counseling.
Hennessee left the city’s urban renewal agency on July 27 at the end
of his three-year term. A former Nike executive, he now leads
Quiktrak, a Beaverton technology firm, and serves as pastor at a North
Portland church. He came to Oregon in 1988 at the request of future
Gov. Ted Kulongoski to oversee the state workers’ compensation
He considered running for mayor in 2004. More recently, friends and
supporters have suggested he challenge U.S. Rep. David Wu, D-Ore.,
In a July 26 interview, Hennessee, 46, said describing his conduct with
the girl as sexual would be “very, very mischaracterized.” He declined
to answer direct questions about whether he had sex with her.
In a written statement to The Oregonian late last month, Hennessee
apologized for what he called “my inappropriate exposure and poor
judgment,” without explaining what that meant. He also said former
relatives were out to destroy his reputation.
The woman said she declined to cooperate with authorities as a
teenager because she cared for Hennessee and hoped to protect him.
She said she agreed to come forward now because Hennessee remains
in trustworthy positions, and his recent statements suggest he hasn’t
accepted responsibility for his actions or their impact.
“Mr. Hennessee was a trusted and important figure in my life,” her
statement says, “and he violated the trust I placed in him.”
The Oregonian began researching Hennessee’s background this
summer for a story about his life and career, his tenure atop the
Development Commission and his future plans.
Reporters learned of the sexual abuse allegations in late July from a
source outside the family. Public records from the Multnomah County
district attorney and the Portland Police Bureau indicate there was a
On July 26, Hennessee said he had not heard of that investigation.
“What happened was a private family issue, period,” Hennessee said
The woman initially declined to talk to reporters about Hennessee.
When told of Hennessee’s responses, she changed her mind. She also
provided records on the case.
The Oregonian does not publish the names of sex abuse victims
without their consent, and is not publishing the name of the woman or
her exact relationship to Hennessee to protect her identity. The
woman, who lives in the Portland area and is married with young
children, said she is willing to testify in court to the truth of her
The police report, obtained in late September, and a letter
Hennessee’s lawyer sent to police indicate that Hennessee knew about
the allegations. He spoke with a state child abuse investigator, the
report says, and had a lawyer talk to police on his behalf.
In his October statement, Hennessee did not address why he originally
told reporters he had not heard of the investigation.
The woman also provided two emails that she says Hennessee sent in
January 2003, after she decided to break off contact with him. In the
long missives, Hennessee apologized twice for sexually abusing her,
adding that he “never sexually abused anyone before you and never
have since then.”
“I would give my life to re-live and do it differently where you’re
concerned,” he said in the first email. “I apologize for abusing you
He later added: “While I respect and appreciate your protection of me,
I hope you know it makes me feel no less guilty about what I did to
you and has been the catalyst for me to make sure (to) leave this life
never, ever doing something so horrible again.”
Hennessee, who was about 29 to 33 at the time of the alleged abuse,
did not dispute the emails. In his statement, he said he does not
“begrudge anyone for sharing with you private and privileged emails.”
He said they were written “with the intent of aiding our healing
After the July interview, Hennessee refused repeated requests to talk
further with reporters.
In his recent statement, Hennessee did not elaborate on either the
events of 12 years ago or why relatives would be out to get him,
saying that doing so would “open a gate of mutually resolved
disagreements and counter accusations.”
“With God’s help, I sought forgiveness, reconciliation and healing
many years ago for the issues within my ex-family which stemmed
from my childhood and other trauma . . . ,” he wrote. “I refuse to be a
part of rehashing the details of this issue or my version of this matter
in the media.”
State, police investigate
The report Portland police compiled gives the following account from
investigators and the people they interviewed:
Hennessee’s relative, then 16, went to a school counselor in 1992 to
report that she was being sexually abused and feared the abuse was
about to escalate.
The counselor called Child Protective Services, which launched an
investigation. In March 1993, someone sent authorities a separate,
anonymous note accusing Hennessee of abuse. That triggered a
separate police investigation.
The lead detective on the case called the teenager and her mother,
who both would not talk. The report says he also left a message on
Hennessee’s work phone at Nike.
Portland lawyer Philip Lewis called back on Hennessee’s behalf several
days later. The attorney said Hennessee “was unwilling to discuss the
situation with the police,” the report says. Lewis also sent a letter to
police saying Hennessee was exercising his constitutional right to
remain silent and to not provide evidence against himself — the
standard approach he recommends for clients accused of sex abuse,
according to Lewis’ Web site.
The Police Bureau forwarded its file to the Multnomah County
prosecutor. But records say the district attorney’s office declined to
charge Hennessee because the girl “did not wish to prosecute.”
According to the police detective, the teenager told the state
investigator that the abuse lasted 18 months, from age 14_1/2 to 16.
She said Hennessee fondled her breasts and genitals and had her
touch his genitals through his pants, the report says.
Today, the woman says the abuse also included oral sex and genital
contact short of penetration, and began when she was 12 or 13, not
She says she was trying to protect Hennessee by downplaying the
severity of the abuse to the school counselor and the state
investigator. She didn’t realize the school counselor would report the
abuse allegation to the state.
“I just needed to talk about it with someone,” she said recently. “I felt
afraid and alone, and I knew I needed help.“
File Documents Payment
The woman says the abuse stopped after she first spoke with her
school counselor and a state child abuse worker became involved.
Soon after, lawyers for the girl and Hennessee began negotiating a
private settlement, she said.
Mark Austin Cross, the teenager’s attorney at the time, told The
Oregonian that Hennessee promised to distance himself from the girl,
pay her therapy and legal bills, and attend counseling himself. She
promised not to sue him or seek criminal prosecution.
Cross’ file on the case includes several letters he wrote to Lewis
requesting Hennessee’s payment for the woman’s counseling and
letters from Lewis transmitting the payments.
The woman gave Cross permission to speak with reporters. Lewis,
Hennessee’s attorney then, declined to discuss the case.
Hennessee remained a part of the woman’s life for another decade. He
interacted with her, her husband and children, she said, and gave
them up to $8,000 for a down payment on a house.
She decided to break off contact with Hennessee in 2003. In e-mails to
him, she wrote that she was wary of him spending time alone with her
children. She said recently that she finally had realized she did not
have to maintain contact with him.
Hennessee paid for her to attend counseling for three years, she said,
starting when she was 16. Since then, she says she has been in
therapy off and on.
The woman said she still lives with psychological pain from the abuse,
but has a happy marriage and happy children. The statute of
limitations on the charge prosecutors were considering has expired,
and the woman and her mother both said they will not sue Hennessee.
“I am aware that Mr. Hennessee has also suffered in life, and I feel
compassion for him,” the woman wrote in her statement. “However, if
Mr. Hennessee is not willing to speak truthfully about what happened
to me, then I am concerned that he has not profited from his
counseling or realized how damaging sexual abuse is for children.“
Rise to public service
In his written statement, Hennessee mentions the difficulty of his
childhood. Before the abuse allegations surfaced, he told The
Oregonian that his early struggles shaped his commitment to public
Hennessee’s 16-year-old mother gave him to an orphanage just after
he was born in 1959 in Columbus, Ohio. He spent his first three years
in braces to correct deformities in his hands and feet.
At age 7, his foster mother died in a car accident, sending him back to
the orphanage and then to a second foster home, a period he
described in earlier interviews as “the hardest time of my life.”
Hennessee was 9, he says, when he memorized Martin Luther King
Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In the sixth grade, he told his teacher
he wanted to be president someday. Classmates elected him student
body president at Oberlin College in Ohio, then he took a series of
government leadership jobs.
In 1988, he came to Oregon under then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt and
insurance commissioner Kulongoski to run the state Workers’
He moved on in 1990 to become a Nike executive, and in 1999 he left
to run Quiktrak, where the company’s owners credit him with tripling
revenues and creating an open and warm culture. Today his friends
include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Coretta Scott King and
her eldest daughter, Yolanda.
This spring, Hennessee was chosen to head the Vancouver Avenue
First Baptist Church in North Portland after 16 years as an assistant
pastor at a nearby church. Congregation members say he has
revitalized the church and increased attendance with his inspirational
and energetic preaching style. He married for the second time in May.
His time leading the Portland Development Commission featured some
dramatic successes — including helping to shepherd through the South
Waterfront development. But he also drew criticism that he allowed a
culture of free-spending and insufficient public involvement on
controversial projects such as the renewal of the Burnside Bridgehead
In November 2004, Kulongoski appointed Hennessee to a four-year
term as a policyholder representative on the board of Saif Corp., the
state workers’ compensation insurer. He resigned on Aug. 19, telling
the agency that his company had switched to a different workers’
Hennessee’s friends and colleagues say he has an uncanny ability to
inspire people, connect across races and look on the bright side of any
situation. They compare his political potential to that of U.S. Sen.
Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Hennessee, who like Obama is African American, has said that many
blacks think their leaders are targeted by the news media and the
powers-that-be: “There’s a feeling that every time one emerges, he’s
always going to get hit hard.”
In an earlier interview, he said his worst mistake in life was fathering a
son out of wedlock when he was 26. He said his strong faith also
stemmed from his difficult childhood.
Religion “recognizes that a lot of people are hunkered down, stalled in
their lives, because of the things they have done,” Hennessee said,
describing the appeal of church.
“Christ forgave Saul. Even when the disciples asked, ‘How many times
must I forgive?’ he says you’ve got to keep on forgiving people, giving
them a chance.”