Pittsburg County judge dismisses church sex abuse cases from the ’70s, ’80s

McALESTER — Charges were dismissed last week against a Pittsburg County church elder whose alleged molestation of children more than 30 years ago was claimed by prosecutors to have been covered up.

Ronald Lawrence, 76, was charged in November with 11 counts of lewd molestation, five counts of forcible oral sodomy, two counts of forcible sodomy and one count of rape by instrumentation.

Lawrence, an elder at the Jehovah’s Witness Church in McAlester, was arrested after three accusers said Lawrence had abused them in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Associate District Judge Jim Bland dismissed the charges Thursday over the state’s objections due to statute of limitations issues, Lawrence’s attorney, Warren Gotcher, said Monday.

Court records show Bland stayed the decision, pending prosecutors’ appeal.

SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, issued a statement following the ruling, saying: “We are appalled that an allegedly spiritual man would seek to hide behind a technicality like this. If he wants to defend himself, let him do it on the merits, not on the technicalities.”

McAlester police arrested Lawrence on Nov. 26 after a woman reported to them she had been molested as a child by Lawrence. Two other alleged victims spoke with police during the monthlong investigation, police said at the time.

Prosecutors said Lawrence told police in October that he had been “dis-fellowshipped” from the church because of multiple sexual misconduct allegations and had admitted to the allegations in order to be reinstated to the church. Lawrence told the investigator that he “did admit to his church that all the allegations brought against him by church members were true” and that “law enforcement was never informed of these allegations,” the affidavit says.

Lawrence’s defense had previously filed a motion stating that the statute of limitations regarding the allegations had expired. The statute of limitations provides a 12-year window for “prosecutions for the crime of rape or forcible sodomy, sodomy, lewd or indecent proposals or acts against children,” according to court documents.

The state responded in late January, arguing that the statute of limitations clock begins at the moment of “discovery.” Prosecutors said that since there was a cover-up that reached to the upper levels of the church’s national governing body, the crime had not been “discovered” until late 2013.

That was due in part because of “directives of the governing body toward the victims and their family members,” as well as “further actions preventing the victims from reporting the crimes to law enforcement.”

The accusations were not reported at the time, according to the motion, because of concealment from “the entire church body, most especially the governing body of the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

In 2012, a California jury awarded a woman $28 million in damages after she said the Jehovah’s Witnesses allowed her to be molested as a child in the 1990s.