Church counselor charged with molestation

By Josh Green, Staff Writer

Gwinnett Daily Post

January 18, 2011

James Harris

LAWRENCEVILLE — Gwinnett police have charged a Lawrenceville youth counselor and Sunday school teacher with having an ongoing sexual relationship with an underage pupil.

Police arrested James “Ben” Harris, 33, a youth counselor at Lawrenceville’s Brookwood Baptist Church, on multiple counts of felony child molestation Friday after the alleged victim’s parents intercepted explicit text messages between them.

The alleged victim, a 14-year-old boy, is a home-schooled ninth-grader.

Harris met the boy three years prior in his Sunday school class, and contact between the two had been increasing over the last several months, including trips to malls and baseball games, the boy’s parents told police.

Last week, the boy’s mother found sexually explicit text messages dating back several days on a cell phone Harris had bought the boy for Christmas. Recent contact between the two included a church retreat in Macon last month in which Harris and the alleged victim slept in the same motel bed, according to a Gwinnett police report.

Harris is charged with six counts of child molestation and another felony count of enticing a child for indecent purposes.

Pastor Dean Oliver of Brookwood Baptist Church said Harris was not technically on staff at the church but was subjected to “a very thorough process of background checks” that all workers undergo. Harris’ history bore no red flags, Oliver said.

Church leaders are letting the legal process play out before taking action against Harris, who is a member with his family, Oliver said.

“It’s an ongoing investigation,” the pastor said. “We’re going to wait and see what occurs.”

Married with two children, Harris is employed as a finance manager with the Coca-Cola Company, according to court documents and an online portfolio. He remains at the Gwinnett County Jail without bond, pending a probable cause hearing scheduled Thursday.

Oliver said the church is reviewing policies and procedures in light of the allegations, but leaders are confident no further safeguards could have been in place.

“It’s been very shocking to all of us,” Oliver said. “Right now we’re focused on making counselors available for our young people and their parents, and making sure everybody’s properly cared for in response to (the allegations).”

SBP Note: Brookwood Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia, is a church shown as being affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.