Sex charges against Crossville minister going to grand jury

WATE 6 TV, Tennessee/July 26, 2006
By Erica Estep

Crossville -- Cumberland County Minister Benji Persinger was in court Wednesday answering to charges he fondled a 14-year-old child while members of his church youth group were at his house.

Before the hearing, Persinger sat in silence with his arm around his wife for support. Just a few feet away sat his accuser, a 14-year-old girl, with her Mom and a friend.

The court room was so quiet you could hear the floor creaking and the sniffles of the accuser. When the girl took the witness stand, she described through her tears what happened at Persinger's home on February 26.

"He was talking about how nice our bodies were and what a cute butt I had," she said.

The accuser said Benji Persinger touched her inappropriately at least two times. She cried throughout the hearing while describing what happened.

"He kind of put his arm around me and he touched like my leg, my inner thigh, and, like, my butt and stuff," she said. "I kind of moved a little bit and he kind of moved his hand."

Persinger, the girl's former pastor, didn't take his eyes off his accuser while she spoke. He is charged with sexual battery by an authority figure.

On the stand the accuser took a deep breath and sighed. "I was standing beside his chair and he was rubbing my shoulder like this (she demonstrates) and he was also rubbing the side and touched the underside, uh."

"Of your breast?" Assistant District Attorney Gary McKenzie asked. "Yes," the teen answered.

The judge ruled there was enough evidence presented Wednesday to send the case on to a grand jury that will decide whether Persinger should stand trial.

"We want to make sure justice is served and at the same time, we want to make sure we protect these children," McKenzie explained.

The sex scandal doesn't stop in Cumberland County. Persinger has been indicted on charges in Fentress County as well. The most serious charge there is rape. The case in Fentress County involves a 15-year-old girl.

Fentress County District Attorney John Gallaway says the former pastor of Bridge of Hope Ministries is charged with rape, sexual battery by an authority figure and statutory rape in his county.

Persinger is expected to go to trial in that case on November 2.

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