Preacher gets split sentence in teen sex case
By Michael R. Moser / firstname.lastname@example.org
Cumberland County, TN
February 2, 2007
A Crossville part-time preacher and trucking company dispatcher/driver dodged a prison sentence in Fentress County Criminal Court this week when a judge gave him a split sentence for having sex with a teenage girl who was a member of his church.
Another Crossville pastor attacked the 14-year-old victim while testifying on behalf of the preacher who was at one time under his charge and who pleaded guilty to one of four sex charges.
Benji Dale Persinger, 28, received a four-year suspended sentence which will be served as a split-sentence under the law. Fentress County Criminal Court Judge Shayne Sexton sentenced Persinger to four months in the county jail followed by six years probation.
Persinger must pay court costs and must perform one day a month of community service. He is to register on the Tennessee sex offender registry and cannot be around children outside the immediate family of a step-son and daughter.
Sexton lectured Persinger for several moments about contact with children and juveniles before announcing that Persinger would surrender to authorities 30 days from Monday's sentencing hearing.
Persinger, who is senior pastor of Bridge of Hope Church on Maryetta St. in Crossville, made a statement to the court during his sentencing hearing during which he talked about "a terrible decision that has hurt my family, took me out of my home, hurt my children ... I have had to start over with my wife."
He lamented how his actions put "all in a terrible situation," and that he was "sorry I put her and her family in this situation."
That was in contrast to the testimony of Crossvillian, Vern Daugherty, 73, who has preached in Crossville for 39 years and most recently at New Hope Baptist Church.
"I know that girl and I don't believe that," Daugherty told Assistant District Attorney Joey Galloway under cross examination. "She has caused problems in other families and her behavior is far from accusing anybody of anything."
Daugherty continued about the 14-year-old, "I have no doubt Benji was set up ... He told me he didn't do it."
The state prosecutor then handed a Daugherty a copy of the statement Persinger gave authorities in which he said the 14-year-old unzipped his pants and performed a sexual act on him and that he could not do anything about it. The incident took place when Persinger drove the girl and others from Crossville to their Clarkrange home following church services in January 2006.
Cumberland County Sheriff's Investigator John Haynes testified that authorities here first became aware of the charges when parents of three girls came to authorities to complain about inappropriate contact between their daughters and the preacher.
As a result of the local investigation, the District Attorney's Office in Fentress County was contacted and last May Persinger was indicted on charges of rape, statutory rape and two counts of sexual battery by an authority figure. He pleaded guilty to one count of sexual battery by an authority figure.
During his testimony, Daugherty said he had no concern about Persinger being a risk in the community, said the young preacher had always been involved in community projects, and that he would ask the court to give Persinger probation.
Stuart Ramsey, a part-time pastor in Clarkrange, said he has known Persinger for three to five years and that he could see no problem with the defendant being placed on probation. He said "it was not likely to happen again."
Lennis Redwine, Persinger's mother, also testified and told the court that her son had worked in the family business, Redwine Trucking, since his graduation from high school.
She added that in addition to his church work, her son had served as a school bus driver and substitute teacher. She told the court that should he be placed on probation, she would monitor his actions and keep him "under my wing."
Dennis Pierce, owner of a flooring business in Cookeville, said that he had no concerns about Persinger being placed on probation and when asked under cross examination if Persinger should continue working with youth, said, "If that's what the Lord told him to do, why not?"
Galloway argued that Persinger should be given the maximum of six years in prison because of what he called abuse of public and private trust. He said the position of pastor "enabled him to take advantage of misguided youth. That is what he is supposed to be doing, not making it worse."
The prosecutor went on to state that the crime not only affected the victim, but all who serve in youth ministries. "Things like this do serious damage in the community ... it has an affect across the board ... it affects society."
And last, Galloway scored Persinger for constantly denying responsibility and laying blame on the victim.
Crossville attorney Kevin Bryant countered that Persinger was eligible for alternative sentence because he has no prior criminal record and there was no injury or bodily harm to the victim. He added that Persinger was not a risk to the community and was unlikely to repeat the offense.
This argument countered what was in a presentence report filed by Tom Netherton of Crossroads Counseling Services.
Sexton took a 10-minute recess to review that report and a presentence report plus arguments forwarded by both sides before announcing his decision.
He reflected on how the breach of trust had a direct affect on many individuals, including families, youth and the church. It forced people to pick sides, the judge noted.
"There are some things that concern me," Sexton said. "The report indicates a potential for the same behavior in the future." Sexton also scored those who would put the victim on trial.
"That is very inappropriate here," said Sexton.
But in the end, Sexton noted there was no prior criminal history, the charge was a mid-grade felony and by virtue of the charge, had already been enhanced. He then issued his ruling.
In Cumberland County he pleaded guilty to one count of sexual battery by an authority figure and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 19.
SNAP Note: New Hope Baptist Church in Crossville, TN is shown as an SBC-affiliated church.