published Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Former North Georgia youth pastor faces molestation charges

A former North Georgia youth pastor went to church and volunteered with a teenage girl, who recently complained to police that he fondled her several times over a two-year period, authorities said.

Police arrested 38-year-old Ronald Howard on Monday, charging him with one count of child molestation, stemming from an incident in 2009, said Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson.

Howard was released from Walker County Jail, but couldn't be reached for comment.

The investigation was opened after a LaFayette High School student complained to the principal that she had been touched inappropriately, kissed and groped on several occasions by Howard, a police report shows.

In January, the teenager told police that Howard started talking with her in 2009 when she was 15 and they both volunteered with an organization, a police report states. Howard's wife, son and daughter volunteered with the same group, the report said.

But she also said she met with Howard for about two years and most of the incidents happened after the girl turned 16, which is the age of consent in Georgia, Wilson said.

Howard, a former youth pastor in Trion, Ga., wasn't employed by any LaFayette church but some of the alleged incidents occurred at several local churches, the sheriff said.

The teenager started attending Second Baptist Church of LaFayette with Howard and his family, the report states.

Second Baptist officials said Wednesday he was a member of the church for a short time but was never employed there.

The teenager told police the first incident happened in July 2009 when she rode with Howard on his motorcycle to a graveyard behind a church in Kensington, Ga.

The two met regularly for two years, the teenager told police, often at the girl's church, Howard's house or at the location where they both volunteered, according to the police report.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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