SHARON, S.C. (AP) Faced with a shattering scandal the conviction of their pastor on sexual assault charges the congregation at St. John Baptist had a difficult choice: Throw out the Rev. John T. Brown or allow him to return after he finishes serving a four-year prison sentence.
The church voted recently to let Brown return, a move that some see as faithful to Jesus' message of forgiveness and redemption but which angered 10 of the roughly 100 congregants enough that they left.
''We're just trying to be the church that God has come back looking for,'' said Debra Wade, who's been a member of St. John for 33 years. ''He says, 'Don't judge and forgive others so that you won't be judged harshly.'''
Brown pleaded guilty Feb. 10 to criminal sexual conduct with a minor and committing a lewd act on a minor.
According to police, a 16-year-old girl said Brown sexually assaulted her in her home in 2002 while her mother was away. Also in 2002, a 13-year-old girl said Brown sexually touched her while in his home and in his car. The minister was arrested shortly after the girls told authorities about the abuse.
Brown's supporters point out the crimes didn't happen in this town 30 miles southwest of Charlotte, N.C.; they occurred 90 miles away in Bennettsville, where he formerly served as a pastor. And some members of the independent church say the judicial system cannot always be trusted to get things right.
But church member Dorothy Cobb, while still attending services at St. John, does not support keeping Brown around.
''As long as I'm living, a child molester will not be leading that church,'' Cobb said.
She made copies of the police reports in Brown's case, and tried to distribute them to members during one service but someone got rid of most of the papers.
''They thought, 'Well, he just touched,' but they didn't know the whole truth,'' she said.
The incident reports describe Brown's actions in detail. Cobb said the information was so explicit, she stapled the sheets of paper closed. She said the information should have been given to church members before the vote.
Prosecutor Jay Hodge and Brown's lawyer, Michael Stephens, said Brown pleaded guilty in February even though he didn't have a plea deal. They said he begged forgiveness from the victims' families and they responded by asking the judge to have mercy at sentencing.
In the end, Brown got a four-year sentence, though he could be released as soon as 2007.
On a recent Sunday, about half the St. John congregation gathered in their white-columned sanctuary on a wooded hill and listened as the interim pastor told them the case should be no one else's concern.
The Rev. Perry Oliver said the church was going through a time of tribulation. But just as Jesus faced Satan in private, the church must also, he said.
''Let all the newspaper articles come out. You can't fight the devil in public,'' he boomed. At the end of the two-hour service, church deacons and members refused to comment.
State prison officials don't allow media interviews with inmates. But a letter to the congregation from Brown that Sunday said he had joined the choir and Bible study in prison. It thanked the members for their unconditional love and his wife for support.
''The battle has been fought. Don't let anybody put you down,'' he wrote.
His wife, Tonya Brown, attends services at St. John. She said her husband is doing fine and she appreciates all the support and love from the church.
''We can't do anything without God,'' she said, holding her young daughter's hand. ''God is still in control.''
But Cobb said several members that read the reports regretted voting for Brown, who was hired last June. ''The man is mentally ill,'' she said. ''The man came up here knowing he had already admitted to this.''
It's unclear how much church officials knew about Brown's case when he was hired by St. John last June, although a letter from a deacon to Brown's lawyer indicates they were aware he was involved in a legal matter.
Donna Scott, a Protestant specialist with www.advocateweb.org, which counsels people who are sexually exploited by professionals in positions of power, said the church is taking a potentially dangerous stand now by accepting Brown back.
''They say, 'Oh, brother so-and-so is sorry', but it's not about him being sorry,'' she said. ''It's not being unloving to not let him back.''
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