Sharon -- At tiny St. John Baptist Church, the congregation voted to forgive the Rev. John T. Brown and allow him to return to the pulpit after he finishes serving 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 church member Debra Wade. "He says don't judge and forgive others, so that you won't be judged harshly."
Brown's supporters point out the crimes didn't happen in this town 30 miles southwest of Charlotte, N.C.; they occurred 90 miles away in Bennettsville. And some church members say the justice system can't always be trusted to get things right.
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 Brown sexually assaulted her in her home in 2002 while her mother was away. Also in 2002, a 13-year-old girl said Brown sexually touched her while in his home and in his car.
Brown's lawyer, Michael Stephens, said the pastor begged forgiveness from the victim's 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," Stephens said. "One of the victim's fathers said it shook his relationship with the reverend but it also shook his faith."