An Alabama candidate for the US Senate is strongly denying allegations that he sexually abused a 14-year-old girl.
Roy Moore, a Republican firebrand, said claims that he preyed on a teenager while he was a 32-year-old prosecutor were “completely false”.
Leigh Corfman and three other women say Mr Moore made sexual advances on them when they were between the ages of 14 and 18, the Washington Post reports.
The top Senate Republican said Mr Moore must step aside if the claims are true.
Mr Moore, who is now 70, said in a statement to the Post: “These allegations are completely false and are a desperate political attack by the National Democrat Party and the Washington Post on this campaign.”
The Christian conservative’s team said in another statement about the allegations, “this garbage is the very definition of fake news and intentional defamation”.
“Judge Roy Moore has endured the most outlandish attacks on any candidate in the modern political arena, but this story in today’s Washington Post alleging sexual impropriety takes the cake,” its statement added.
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Mr Moore, a populist former chief justice in the state, has been widely expected to defeat a Democratic rival, Doug Jones, in a December election for the open seat left by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The Washington Post article alleges that Mr Moore, who was then an assistant district attorney, struck up a conversation with Ms Corfman when she was 14.
She was sitting with her mother on a park bench outside a courthouse in Etowah County, Alabama, ahead of a child custody hearing in her parents’ divorce case.
“He said, ‘Oh, you don’t want her to go in there and hear all that. I’ll stay out here with her,'” the accuser’s mother, Nancy Wells, claims.
“I thought, ‘how nice for him to want to take care of my little girl,'” she told the Post.
In the coming days, Mr Moore allegedly picked up Ms Corfman around the corner from her home, and drove her to his house in the woods where he sexually assaulted her, the newspaper claims.
The age of consent in Alabama is 16.
Reacting to the report, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters “if these allegations are true, he must step aside”.
Other Republican senators swiftly echoed that sentiment.
- Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski called the allegations “horrifying” and said she had spoken to Mr Moore’s defeated primary opponent, Luther Strange, to suggest he mount a write-in challenge
- Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said: “If there is any shred of truth to the allegations against Roy Moore, he should step aside immediately”
- Texas Senator John Cornyn, who has previously endorsed Mr Moore, called the claims “deeply disturbing”
- Arizona Senator John McCain went further and called on Mr Moore to “immediately step aside”
- Colorado Senator Cory Gardner and Alabama Senator Richard Shelby also expressed concern
Roy Moore won a September primary election against a mainstream Republican who was backed by US President Donald Trump.
Mr Moore lost his position as the state’s top judge twice. The first time, he had flouted a court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse.
When the people of Alabama elected him to the court again, he was suspended a second time for defying the US Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling legalising gay marriage.
A political cliff
Analysis by Anthony Zurcher, BBC News
An Alabama Senate race that was uncomfortable for many Republicans just became downright painful. Roy Moore was never the choice of the party’s leadership – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others talked President Donald Trump into supporting the incumbent, Senator Luther Strange – but they grudgingly fell in line behind the controversial former judge. Now they’re on the verge of falling off a political cliff and losing a safe seat in the closely divided US Senate.
The problem for Republicans is, by law, it’s too late to take Mr Moore’s name off the ballot even if he decides to quit the race, which – given his history of bucking authority, judicial and otherwise – is no sure bet.
A conservative could try a write-in campaign, but those are notoriously difficult to pull off even when there’s more than a month until election day.
Polls had already shown a close race between the Republican and Democrat Doug Jones, in part because Mr Moore, who rails against Muslims and homosexuals, has alienated many moderate conservatives in the state.
The 12 December vote could be a good test of whether there is ever a scenario in which deep-red Alabama could elect a Democrat to statewide office.