The pastor of a Louisiana church and six of its members, including the pastor's wife and a sheriff's deputy, have been arrested in what the police described as a cult-like sex ring that abused children and animals.
All seven are being held on charges of aggravated rape, including rape of a child younger than 13, which can be prosecuted as a capital crime in the state, the authorities said.
Five other adults were identified yesterday as "persons of interest" at a meeting of seven law enforcement agencies, including the F.B.I., said Deputy Chuck Reed, a spokesman for the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office.
Deputy Reed said the police wanted to interview as many as 24 children as possible victims in incidents that might date to 1998.
The Rev. Louis Lamonica, 45, pastor of Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula, a town of 5,000 about 40 miles northwest of New Orleans, is both the chief suspect and the man who broke the case, which deputies had been investigating since a woman called from Ohio five weeks ago. She said her children had been abused but was reluctant to give specifics, Deputy Reed said.
On Monday afternoon, the authorities said, Mr. Lamonica walked into the Livingston Parish sheriff's office and began to confess. "I don't really know what motivated him," said Detective Supervisor Stan Carpenter in Livingston Parish.
Deputy Reed said Mr. Lamonica "began to recount some horrific instances where children from the age of toddlers to pubescents to teenagers had been involved in sex acts in affiliation with this church."
Mr. Lamonica also spoke of a poodle and cat that had died from abuse, Deputy Reed said. Among those arrested was Chris Labat, 24, a deputy sheriff in Tangipahoa Parish.
Mr. Lamonica was charged shortly after he confessed on Monday, Mr. Labat the next day, and the other two on Wednesday. Last night, three more people, including the pastor's wife, Robbin Lamonica, 45, were arrested and charged with aggravated rape, Deputy Reed said.
The Hosanna church was once led by Mr. Lamonica's father, who was respected in the community, the authorities and neighbors said. After some interim pastors, Mr. Lamonica took control, and the church became increasingly isolated, they said.
"His mother was secretary when he took over, and he put his momma out," said Tim Normand, who lives next door to the church.