Registered sex offender worked as youth minister at church
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A registered sex offender was convicted Monday for violating state law by working as a youth minister at a local church and taking children to a city recreation center.
Steven Lennard Johnson, 53, of Stewart Road pleaded guilty in Forsyth Superior Court to working with children and being in a place where children are present, both of which he is prohibited from doing because he is a sex offender.
Johnson is married to the daughter of the church’s pastor, but the pastor said neither he nor his daughter knew about Johnson’s criminal background.
Assistant District Attorney Lizmar Bosques said Johnson volunteered as a youth minister at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church from July 1, 2012, to Feb. 5, 2013. As youth minister, he supervised children and took them to Sprague Street Community Center to play basketball, Bosques said. There were no allegations that he sexually abused the children under his care.
Johnson is prohibited from working or volunteering in a position in which he is around children, Bosques said. He also is prohibited from going to places where children regularly gather for educational, recreational or social programs, such as Sprague Street Community Center and other city-run recreational centers.
Johnson was convicted in February 2001 in North Dakota of gross sexual imposition, involving a 14-year-old. He served at least four years in prison and was released in 2005. Johnson was required to register as a sex offender. In 2011, he was convicted of failure to register as a sex offender in Florida, Bosques said.
Judge A. Moses Massey of Forsyth Superior Court consolidated the charges and gave Johnson a suspended sentence of 20 months to 33 months in prison.
He placed Johnson on 36 months of supervised probation and ordered Johnson to five months of electronic house arrest. Massey told Johnson that he cannot work with or be around children because of his status as a registered sex offender.
“I can’t think of anything more frightening to a parent than to have their children exposed to someone who is registered as a sex offender,” Massey told Johnson. “It’s downright scary.”
Johnson said in court that when he moved to Winston-Salem, he had to fill out a lot of paperwork to register as a sex offender and that he did not realize that state law prohibited him from working with young people.
“I didn’t do this to break the law intentionally,” he said.
He said that he made mistakes in the past but is now a devoted Christian. He said he and his wife wanted to save the children they saw in the neighborhood who were exposed to drugs and sex.
“It is a hurting thing when you see children 14 and 15 selling their bodies and dealing drugs,” he said.
The Rev. James Fulwood, senior pastor of St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, and other members of the church were in Forsyth Superior Court in support of Johnson. They said that Johnson is very effective in getting young people involved in the church. They urged Massey to show Johnson mercy in his sentencing.
Fulwood said in court that more than 60 young people under the age of 15 were baptized while Johnson was head of the youth ministry. He said that in his 40 years of being a pastor, he had never seen the youth ministry flourish as it did under Johnson.
Members said they never saw Johnson be inappropriate with the children.
But Dayzharha Mitchell, who grew up in the church and reported Johnson to the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, said in court that she felt betrayed by her church and Johnson.
“I trusted Mr. Johnson,” said Mitchell, who has four sons who were part of the youth ministry.
She said Johnson would pick up her children at her home and that she tried to bring up Johnson being a sex offender to church leaders.
“I got ignored,” she said in court.
After the hearing, Fulwood said he didn’t know that Johnson was a convicted felon or a registered sex offender. Johnson is Fulwood’s son-in-law. Fulwood said Johnson’s wife also didn’t know about Johnson’s background.
Fulwood said Mitchell did bring the subject up with him and others at the church, but that it was hard to believe. Once it was verified, Fulwood said he immediately dismissed Johnson as youth minister.
Fulwood said he would have never allowed Johnson to be a youth minister had he known about Johnson’s background from the beginning.
“If I had known it, he would have just been a church member,” Fulwood said.