A deacon at New Mickle Baptist Church on South 4th Street has been charged with sexually assaulting two children over the weekend, authorities said.
Lawrence Johnson Jr., 29, also admitted fondling other youngsters, Camden County Prosecutor Vincent P. Sarubbi said. It's unclear how many other victims there may be, but police are continuing to investigate.
Johnson was charged with two counts of sexual assault, two counts of endangering the welfare of a child and one count of attempted sexual assault, Sarubbi said.
He was sent to the Camden County Jail on $100,000 bail.
Johnson, who lives in Camden, was serving as a chaperone for a church-sponsored sleepover Friday night when he fondled two boys, ages 10 and 12, Sarubbi said. The assaults happened in the church, Sarubbi said.
The boys told church staff about the incident, said the Rev. Melvin N. Allen, the church's pastor.
Allen spoke with Johnson privately after hearing of the allegations, and Johnson confessed, Allen said.
The pastor said he was stunned by the confession.
"We used to point to him as a model person," Allen said of Johnson. "This isn't someone we were questioning or that the parents were questioning."
Allen said he called police after speaking with Johnson.
When police confronted Johnson, he admitted to the assaults over the weekend, as well as to fondling other children in the past, authorities said.
Johnson has been a member of New Mickle Baptist Church since he was 7 years old, Allen said.
He was well known as someone who didn't drink, smoke or do drugs, and as someone who never had run-ins with the law, Allen added.
Johnson became a deacon last year and, as he studied at Camden County College, he nurtured aspirations of becoming a reverend himself.
"His biggest thing is he wanted to make sure everyone knew he said, `I'm sorry. I need help,' " Allen said of Johnson.
The parents of the two boys involved in the weekend incident were relieved to learn Johnson was in jail, Allen said.
Allen met Sunday with the parents and guardians of all 16 children who attended Friday's sleepover, he said. He also told his 280-member congregation about Johnson's arrest during Sunday services.
The church does background checks on all staff, said Allen, noting Johnson did not have a criminal record. Allen said he would look into other ways to ensure abuse doesn't happen there again.
As deacon, Johnson was responsible for the well-being of the congregation, Allen said. He also was assistant superintendent of the Sunday school.
The church plans to have a prayer meeting Wednesday as a result of the incident, Allen said.
With 40 young people in the congregation, Allen said he was grateful the two children involved in the incident came forward when they did.
"This is something that was a protection of God because it wasn't any worse," he said.