SHARON, S.C. - At tiny St. John Baptist Church, the congregation was faced with a pastor who confessed to molestation, and it decided to let others cast the first stone.
It voted to forgive the Rev. John T. Brown and allow him to return to the pulpit after he finishes a four-year sentence for sexually assaulting two teenage girls who attended his previous church.
"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."
The Rev. Brown's supporters point out the crimes didn't happen in their town; they occurred 90 miles away in Bennettsville. And some members of the independent, predominantly black church say the judicial system cannot always be trusted to get things right.
The Rev. 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 the Rev. Brown sexually assaulted her in her home in 2002 while her mother was away. Also in 2002, a 13-year-old girl said he sexually touched her while she was in his home and in his car.
The Rev. Brown's lawyer, Michael Stephens, said the pastor begged forgiveness from the victims' families and they responded by asking the judge to have mercy.
"Everyone said he was a very gifted speaker and a very talented musician and they were shocked at these allegations," Mr. Stephens said. "One of the victims' fathers said it shook his relationship with the reverend, but it also shook his faith."
On a recent Sunday, about half of the 100-member congregation gathered in the white-columned sanctuary on a wooded hill and listened as the interim pastor told them the issue should be no one else's concern.
The Rev. Perry Oliver said the church was going through a time of tribulation, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And just as Jesus faced Satan in private, the church must also.
"Let all the newspaper articles come out. You can't fight the devil in public," he boomed.
Church members would not comment after the service.
Ms. Wade said the Rev. Brown had been a good pastor since he took over St. John's last year. Attendance and baptisms had increased. She said only 10 people left after the vote in February to retain him.
Prison officials don't allow media interviews with inmates, but the congregation still hears from its pastor through correspondence from behind bars. One letter said he had joined the choir and Bible study in prison and thanked the members for their unconditional love and his wife for support.
While the Rev. Brown is in prison, leaders at St. John say the church is giving half of his salary to his wife, Tonya, and the other half to the interim pastor.
Mrs. Brown attends services at St. John. She said her husband is doing fine and she appreciates all the support from the church.
"We can't do anything without God," she said. "God is still in control."
Member Dorothy Cobb is still attending services at St. John, but does not support keeping the Rev. Brown as pastor.
"As long as I'm living, a child molester will not be leading that church," she said. She made copies of the police reports 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 the Rev. Brown's actions in detail. Ms. Cobb said the information was so explicit that she stapled the sheets of paper closed. She said the information should have been given to members before the vote.
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.
Ms. Scott said she understands the church's need to forgive the pastor, but she reminded members that God told the Israelites in the Old Testament that he forgave them but there were consequences for their actions.
She said the practice of keeping clergy after they have abused is "insane" but happens too often because Protestant churches are unaware of the risks. If more abuse occurs, churches can be held liable for negligent hiring if they knew about the misconduct, she said.