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California Southern Baptist Pastor Charged With Molestation

A Southern Baptist pastor in Fresno, Calif., was arrested Monday on felony charges of child molestation.

John Earl (“Jeb”) Bonine, 43, pastor of Sierra Heights Baptist Church, remained in jail Thursday, where he is held on $500,000 bond. He is charged with two counts of continual sex abuse of a child, two counts of sexual penetration by force and two counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14 years of age.

Sierra Heights Baptist Church is a 1,000-member church founded in 1957. It is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, California Southern Baptist Convention and Mid-Valley Southern Baptist Association.

Fresno TV station CBS-47 said the charges involved two children, both girls, and alleged acts that occurred over the course of several years.

Richard Johnstone, director of missions for Mid-Valley Association, said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com there is no indication that allegations against Bonine extend beyond two victims in his immediate family. Bonine and his wife, Carla, have eight children, six who are adopted.

Johnstone said the church immediately reached out to minister to the family. The congregation met Wednesday night to plan how to respond. Johnstone said he and Ron Climer of the Mid-Valley Counseling Resource Center met with church leaders, and that Climer met with Bonine in jail.

Bonine reportedly has been pastor at the church for about four years. According to the church Web site, he previously held pastorates at McCroskie Creek Baptist Church in¬†Carrollton, Mo., and Sandy Baptist Church¬†in Hillsboro, Mo. Before coming to Sierra Heights, Bonine said in his Web bio, he served as a children’s pastor, associate pastor, youth pastor, education pastor and “missionary” in Iowa and Belarus.

Bonine has served as a leader in Mid-Valley Association and recently taught a study of the Book of Acts in the association’s Seminary Extension program.

Sierra Heights is the latest in a string of Southern Baptist congregations caught in the spotlight of molestation scandals during the past year. EthicsDaily.com has published 42 stories on the subject since last September. The problem was also profiled in April by ABC’s “20/20” in a report titled “Predator Preachers.”

Mansel Trimble, associate pastor, is handling day-to-day responsibilities at Sierra Heights Baptist Church. Trimble told a local TV station the church would “cooperate with the authorities in any way so that justice is taken care of.”

Trimble told the Fresno Bee the congregation also “is a victim” and understands “that the view of the community toward Christ and our church suffers.”

“Our compassion also extends to Jeb Bonine as he faces the consequences of these charges,” Trimble said.

Next week the SBC Executive Committee is expected to consider a feasibility study for a denomination-wide database of clergy sex offenders to make it harder for sexual predators to move from church to church.

Baptist Press reported Wednesday that the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention has signed with a service provider to help churches screen and use proper procedures for maintaining the safety of children in Baptist churches.

But Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said there can be no “peace of mind” in Southern Baptist churches until denominational leaders provide a “safe and welcoming” place for victims to report abuse.

In addition to a database of offenders, SNAP has called on the Southern Baptist Convention to establish an independent review board to collect and investigate credible allegations of sex abuse by clergy and make that information available. Catholic bishops responded to the pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic Church by developing such a process.

Brown, a survivor of sexual abuse by a Southern Baptist youth minister when she was a teenager, runs a Web site called Stop Baptist Predators. She and David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director, are planning to travel to Nashville for next week’s meeting of the SBC Executive Committee. Brown said they hope to be in the room with a bylaws work group to hear what SBC leaders have to say, gain understanding of whatever process they are using for a feasibility study and to be available as a resource.

According to his bio, Bonine is a graduate from Missouri Baptist University with a master’s in divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate in ministry from Bethany Seminary. He was licensed to ministry in 1983 and ordained in 1989. He met his wife in college.

Johnstone said Sierra Heights Baptist Church is “shocked and saddened,” but “committed to seek God’s guidance as they address the issues of healing and refocusing ahead.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.