Fresno pastor pleads not guilty to sex abuse charges

The pastor of a northeast Fresno church pleaded not guilty Thursday to 107 felony counts of sexual misconduct involving two girls.

John Bonine, 43, pastor of Sierra Heights Baptist Church, is charged with lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under the age of 14 over a period of nearly five years. The two girls are now in their early teens.

Fresno County Superior Court Judge Houry Sanderson set bail at nearly $5.5 million. Bonine is being held in Fresno County Jail.

"It is a sad situation for us," said Fermin Whittaker, executive director of the California Southern Baptist Convention, of which Sierra Heights is a member.

Jeff Cardinale, a Fresno police spokesman, said the investigation of Bonine started Monday when police received a complaint from Fresno County Child Protective Services to look into possible child abuse charges against Bonine.

Police interviewed Bonine at his home in north Fresno on Monday and again later the same day at police headquarters before they took him into custody, Cardinale said.

Bonine reportedly admitted the crimes, Cardinale said.

Cardinale said that because of the nature of the charges and in order to protect the identity of the alleged victims, the department was not at liberty to release any details about the alleged crimes. But there does not appear to be a connection between the alleged offenses and Bonine's position as a pastor, Cardinale said.

Ty Murphy, a Fresno County deputy district attorney who is handling the complaint, declined to comment.

Before coming to Sierra Heights, Bonine served as pastor of McCroskie Creek Baptist Church in Carrollton, Mo., and Sandy Baptist Church in Hillsboro, Mo. Bonine also has worked in various levels of ministry, including children's pastor, youth pastor and church education director.

As news of Bonine's arrest circulated, church leaders spoke about how congregations can cope with similar situations and the difficulty of screening pastors.

Terry Barone, spokesman for the California Southern Baptist Convention, said the convention provides resources and staff members, who are trained in counseling and conflict resolution, to help congregations experiencing the loss of their pastor.

The Revs. Peter Celum, church and pastoral care specialist at the California Southern Baptist Convention in Fresno, and Rich Johnstone, director of missions for the Mid-Valley Southern Baptist Association in Clovis, have contacted Sierra Heights Baptist Church to offer assistance, Barone said.

"They can walk alongside the church and help them with the process," Barone said.

Lynn Jost, academic dean at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, said national faith-based agencies can help churches to conduct background checks on pastors applying for jobs. But he said churches also must deal with the issue of trust.

"If a person has been a pastor, we tend not to treat them suspiciously," Jost said. "We believe what they say about themselves. We depend on these pastors to have this level of authenticity. That, sadly, probably has to change."

Bonine is not the only Fresno pastor to face such charges. Charles Dickerson, pastor of Pearly Grove Baptist Church in southwest Fresno, is awaiting trial in Fresno County Superior Court on rape and child molestation charges.

A girl in Dickerson's family testified that she was molested and raped by Dickerson over a period of nearly seven years. Dickerson's estranged wife testified that another girl in the family also was molested.

Dickerson, 36, is to be in court Oct. 18 for an appearance to set a trial date.

Because there allegedly was more than one victim, Bonine could be sentenced to life in prison if he is convicted, according to James P. Lambe, the public defender who represented him in court Thursday. Lambe said that was the reason for the high bail amount.

Bonine's next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 27.