State, The (Columbia, SC)
Edition: FINAL
Page: B1


   RICK BRUNDRETT, Staff Writer

A former deacon at one of the largest and oldest Baptist churches in South Carolina faces trial this week on charges he repeatedly fondled a 12-year-old girl at the downtown Columbia church.


John Hubner, 54, is charged with assaulting the girl - now 18 - five times at First Baptist Church on Hampton Street. He's also accused of fondling her during a church youth party. Hubner's behavior with another girl also is the subject of a civil lawsuit involving the 5,500-member, 190-year-old church.


Hubner, who lives in West Columbia, could be sentenced to 90 years in prison if convicted of six counts of lewd acts on a minor. He has been free on $200,000 bail since his arrest last year.


Hubner, who has a child sex abuse conviction in Maine, is married with two grown daughters. He declined to comment Friday when contacted at his job in Columbia, where he makes medical braces for limbs.


Hubner's lawyers, Carol McCurry and Jack Swerling, said Friday their client is innocent.


"Nothing happened," Swerling said. "He's prepared to go to trial, and he anticipates he'll be exonerated."


McCurry and Swerling declined to discuss the case.


One of the state's most prominent defense lawyers, Swerling said he's been on the defense team for less than two weeks and is not the lead lawyer.


Fifth Circuit deputy solicitor Johnny Gasser and assistant solicitor Anne Spears, who are prosecuting the case, declined Friday to discuss the charges.


Hubner is accused of fondling the girl five times between Sept. 1, 1996, and Aug. 1, 1997, in the church "annex," or old library.


He once told the seventh-grader, "God had given them a special relationship" and another time that her "maturing body was natural," indictments said.


Hubner also is charged with touching the girl in November 1996 at Frankie's Fun Park, in Harbison, during a church "lock-in" party.


The girl has been in the hospital several times for an eating disorder her parents largely blame on stress concerning Hubner.


First Baptist has been sued by another Lexington County family. That suit alleges Hubner raped another 12-year-old girl he knew through the church. No criminal charges were filed in that case.


The suit says the church and the Rev. Wendell Estep, its senior pastor, did not check Hubner's past and ignored parents' complaints about Hubner.


In May, Estep told The State newspaper he was proud of how the church handled the situation. Last year, First Baptist adopted a screening policy for volunteers and procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct accusations.


Estep and other church officials Friday declined to discuss Hubner's case.


Michael Montgomery, the lawyer for the family of the girl in the lawsuit, said a trial on that suit likely won't happen until next year. Montgomery said he doesn't think Hubner's criminal trial will affect the civil suit.


In 1983, Hubner pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual contact with a 12-year-old girl on Dec. 26,1981, in Waterville, Maine. The girl wasn't involved with a church, Waterville authorities said.


Hubner, then a 33-year-old auto mechanic, was sentenced to 364 days in jail. As part of a plea agreement, four other charges of rape or sexual contact involving the 12-year-old and another 11-year-old girl were dismissed, Maine records show.


Richland County prosecutors want to use Hubner's Maine record in the trial, according to a motion filed Wednesday. They say higher S.C. courts have been liberal in allowing into the record previous evidence involving child sex abuse.

Hubner and his family began attending First Baptist in 1992 after moving from Maine, the lawsuit said.


In 1997, he was ordained as a deacon. First Baptist has about 80 deacons. He also began volunteering for church youth programs that year.


First Baptist officials didn't remove Hubner from his deacon's position until after his January 2001 arrest, despite parents' complaints about his behavior at least four years earlier, the suit says.


Staff writer Allison Askins contributed to this story.

John Hubner, 54, is charged with assaulting a girl five times at First Baptist Church on Hampton Street and with fondling her during a church youth party.