October 27, 2014 12:00 PM

During four decades in an industry hardly short on scandal, Stephen Collins earned a reputation as one of Hollywood’s straight arrows. He volunteered at soup kitchens, served as a lay minister at a Beverly Hills church and declared his devotion to Faye Grant, his wife of 27 years, and their daughter Katherine, now 25. Friends saw his most famous role—Rev. Eric Camden, the patriarch on the ’90s drama 7th Heaven—as perfect casting. “He was the kind of guy that if you asked for something, he’d go out of his way,” says actress Jeanie Hackett, an old pal from his theater days. “You couldn’t not like him.”

Now many who knew Collins—and millions of fans—are wondering just who he really is. On Oct. 7 tapes purported to be from a 2012 counseling session between the actor, 67, and Grant, 57, were leaked to the media. The recordings—allegedly secretly recorded by Grant just before she separated from Collins—appear to show the TV star confessing to inappropriate sexual conduct with at least three underage girls since the 1970s. Among the details: In his own words, Collins seems to admit to exposing himself to an 11-year-old and trying to place her hand on his penis.

The revelations stunned Hollywood insiders and obliterated Collins’s long and lucrative career overnight. The actor was dropped by his agency and fired from Ted 2 and an already-filmed role in Scandal; syndicated reruns of 7th Heaven have been pulled from the air indefinitely. News that the beloved actor might be a pedophile shocked former castmates. “It absolutely blew me away,” says actor Kyle Searles, who worked with Collins for four years on 7th Heaven. “It’s not the Stephen I remember at all. He was just an overall friendly, good guy.” Adds David Burton Morris, who directed him in the 1996 Lifetime movie The Babysitter’s Seduction: “He was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever worked with. I’ve worked with a lot of actors with odd behavior. I wouldn’t have thought this in a million years.”

If the tapes themselves weren’t ugly enough, the scandal has exposed a toxic feud between Collins and his estranged wife, a former actress best known for her work in the 1980s sci-fi miniseries V (Collins was married once before, to writer Marjorie Weinman, until 1978). In legal documents filed in November 2013, Grant says she first learned of the incidents in 2012 and immediately went to the police in both Los Angeles and New York to file reports against her husband. (As of press time, the NYPD investigation had reportedly been reopened; the LAPD investigation was closed in 2012.) “I am sickened by Stephen’s actions,” she said in the papers, adding that in January 2012 she learned “that Stephen had been living a secret life. In the presence of his therapist, Stephen admitted that he has engaged in a long-term pattern of sexually abusing minor children.”

But Collins’s lawyer says Grant is after the actor’s estimated $12 million fortune and was using the tapes to extort money from him in their divorce. “Faye attempted, without success, to peddle the tape in numerous ways to numerous different people,” attorney Mark Vincent Kaplan said in a statement, while declining to comment on the specific allegations. (“We would like to address the tape itself, [but] circumstances dictate that we must regrettably refrain from doing so at this time,” he said.) For her part, Grant says she “had no involvement whatsoever” in leaking the tapes.

To complicate matters further, a report in the New York Daily News claims Grant was first alerted to the possibility of abuse as far back as 2000—when one of the victims allegedly sent her an anonymous e-mail tipping her off. Grant denied that she covered up for her husband. “I never witnessed anything firsthand that would give me any indication of what Stephen was doing,” she stated in documents filed in 2013, adding that upon learning of his actions she had urged him to seek treatment for pedophilia and he ignored her.

The divorce is expected to reach trial in Los Angeles in November; at press time Collins remained in hiding. But if the tape tells the truth, that is something he may be very good at. “Because pedophilia is illegal and unethical, it’s kept secret,” says Alla Branzburg, a psychotherapist and adjunct professor at the USC School of Social Work. Perpetrators “often compensate for that shame by becoming do-gooders.”

And what of his alleged victims? According to Robin Wilson, a family-law professor at Washington and Lee University, “based on what [Collins apparently] said, what he’s admitting to doesn’t permit the state to prosecute him after such a long passage of time,” she says. “What it comes down to is, the victims would have to come forward.”

For now, those who know the couple are still reeling from the news. “I used to look up to them and think, ‘Boy, I’d like my life to be like theirs,’ ” says friend Hackett. “What’s so hard about all of this is that we really like these people.”

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