Child sex case arrest leaves Leland church without leader

Details of abuse allegations scarce; pastor still in jail

Star News, North Carolina/November 5, 2009

When the members of The Olive Branch Church meet tonight for their regular Thursday night mid-week service at their Leland church, they will do so without the church's founder, James T. Johnson.

He was arrested Tuesday and charged with three counts of indecent liberties with a child, two counts of first-degree sex offense with a child and one count of attempted first-degree rape of a child, according to the Brunswick County Sheriff's office. Johnson, 46, will have a bond hearing Friday in Brunswick District Court. According to the Brunswick County District Attorney's office, the alleged victim was a seventh-grade girl, and the alleged abuse happened over a period of time.

Johnson's lawyer, Robert Epstein could not comment on the case Thursday.

The church's assistant pastor Bobby McKnight told the StarNews Wednesday the church is supporting its pastor and does not believe the child referenced in the arrest warrant was associated with the church. But he did not return calls Thursday to comment on the congregation's plans.

On Thursday, clergy in Brunswick County commented on the case and gave advice to McKnight and the congregation.

"Pray a lot, corporate prayer and individual prayer," was the advice from the pastor at Leland Church of God who would not give his name.

"Don't pick sides and listen for the truth," said Rev. Dwight Jenkins, pastor at First Baptist Church of Leland. "We as church leaders are held to a higher standard. The Bible tells us that. I want to tell the leadership there to be more vigilant in the future. . . Even if the allegations aren't true, it's still devastating to the church."

Alongside a criminal investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct, a ministry should do its own look at charges and work to protect the faith of its membership, said Rev. Dr. Aleese Moore-Orbih, the director of The FaithTrust Institute in Durham, a national group that trains clergy to prevent abuse and helps congregations after abuse has occurred.

"The problem is that church (in general) is still in denial about the humanness of their pastors and so churches are still not doing background checks and not requiring them every month to sign a statement that their behavior is becoming of their continued call to ministry. So there's no accountability," she said.

When allegations of clergy sexual misconduct with a minor arise in a ministry, individual members can begin to question their faith, Moore-Orbih added.

Key questions for the church's leadership to ask now are: "What are you learning from this? What are you doing to protect children now? How are you going to respond to that?"

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