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Grand jury hears molestation case against ex-youth minister

DATE: 10-23-2002
PUBLICATION: The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
SECTION: Gwinnett

A Brookwood High School junior says her youth minister touched her sexually two years ago when she was 14. He insists he didn't.

Now a Gwinnett County jury must decide whether Shannon Rhodes, 33, is guilty of child molestation while he worked as youth minister at Sunrise Baptist Church in Lawrenceville.

The girl detailed her relationship with Rhodes during more than two hours on the witness stand Tuesday. She said there were three separate incidents during which he exposed himself to her, tried to French kiss her and placed her hand to fondle him.

The teen said she grew to love Rhodes but kept their relationship from progressing because "it just didn't feel right." She was a member of his youth group and knew Rhodes was married and had a child, she said.

An investigation was launched Dec. 10, 2000, after the girl told a school friend.

Rhodes left his job as youth minister at Sunrise Baptist Church after his arrest on the felony charges. His bond agreement bars him from contact with minors while the charges are pending, said his attorney, Michael Katz of Decatur.

Jurors are expected to hear testimony from a 21-year-old woman who alleges that she and Rhodes had a relationship that began in 1994 when she was age 13. The woman, who was in Rhodes' youth group, told police she had sex for the first time with Rhodes, prosecutors allege.

Rhodes initially was charged with statutory rape, child molestation and aggravated child molestation in that case, Lawrenceville police Detective Larry Riddle said. Those charges were dropped because the 21-year-old thought she already may have turned age 14 --- then the legal age of consent --- when the two began sexual touching and had sexual intercourse, Gwinnett Assistant District Attorney Nancy DuPree said.

The girl later confided in her parents, who left the church but didn't initiate a police investigation.

Katz told jurors that the 21-year-old and 16-year-old knew each other as teens and that both have a history of giving inconsistent statements.

The lawyer said Rhodes dealt with hundreds of teenagers for years, but no one else alleged any inappropriate contact.

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution