|Former Music Minister at St. Eugene Catholic Church Cops Porn Plea
By Josh Boatwright
March 12, 2010
The former music minister of St. Eugene Catholic Church faces up to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty Thursday to a federal charge of producing child pornography.
Paul Lawrence Berrell, 29, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Asheville to one count of production of child pornography, according to a statement by U.S. Attorney Edward Ryan.
“Berrell coerced a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of the conduct,” on or about April 23, 2009, court documents state.
Asheville police arrested Berrell last May on numerous charges ranging from indecent liberties to sexual exploitation of a minor after the parent of a female student called police.
A police report about the initial charge of indecent liberties says the incident occurred at Berrell's North Ridge Drive apartment in Woodfin. He also was a teacher at Asheville Catholic School, a ministry of the church.
Berrell was later charged with nine counts of second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor and indicted on two counts of indecent liberties and one count of statutory sex offense in incidents involving a 13-year-old girl.
Police also charged the Rev. John Schneider, then-pastor of St. Eugene, with deleting hundreds of child pornographic images from Berrell's home computer in an attempt to foil the investigation.
Schneider shortly after his arrest resigned from the church, Asheville's largest Catholic parish with about 1,000 families as members. He is awaiting a court date to face a charge of felony obstruction of justice.
Schneider is on leave from his post as a priest, said David Hains, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, of which St. Eugene is a part.
According to diocese policy, priests accused in connection with sex abuse do not participate in ministry until their case is resolved, Hains said.
Schneider was replaced as pastor of St. Eugene by Rev. Ed Sheridan, who left retirement to assume leadership of the parish.
Hains said the Charlotte Diocese hasn't had the extensive problems with sex abuse seen in places like Boston, but it did spend more than $30,760 last year to pay for victim counseling, according to financial records on the diocese's Web site.
“The Diocese of Charlotte deeply regrets the incident that occurred in the home of Mr. Berrell. Bishop Peter Jugis continues to pray for God's healing grace to be with all victims of sexual abuse and also with Mr. Berrell as he serves his sentence,” Hains wrote in a statement.
Hains couldn't say whether Berrell was the victim's teacher because “it might identify the victim.”
Asheville resident Neal Evans, with the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he hoped Berrell's case would deter others from these crimes.
“I'm pleased that justice has caught up with this man. I worry though that there are other children who haven't come forward who might have been involved,” said Evans, who was abused by a Catholic priest as a child.
A woman who answered the phone at the church declined to comment and referred questions to the diocese.
Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore said he wasn't sure when the state's cases against Berrell and Schneider would go to court.
In the federal case, he faces a minimum prison term of 15 years to a maximum of 30 years, a $250,000 fine, and the potential for a life term of supervised release.
Berrell could still face most or all the state charges pending against him depending on the extent to which his alleged crimes were dealt with in the federal case, Moore said.
If found guilty of those charges, his sentence could be served concurrently or consecutively with his federal prison term, he said.
Moore said state prosecutors often work with federal agencies in cases where computers are used to exploit children.
“We work closely with the feds especially in these types of computer solicitation cases and look for the best place to deal with an individual's case,” Moore said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office has entered into an agreement with the N.C. attorney general to prosecute many online sex crimes and child pornography cases in federal court to secure stiffer sentences.
Berrell remains in federal custody. His sentencing date has not yet been set.
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