Baldwin County

Former youth pastor from Baldwin County charged with child sex crimes in South Carolina

SPARTANBURG COUNTY, SC (WSPA) - Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office said a former youth intern pastor from Alabama has been charged after an investigation revealed he had sexually abused two minors back in 1976.

According to a sheriff's office news release, the sheriff's office's investigators in their special victims unit received a call from a Robertsdale Police Department investigator in Alabama who said they had received information from a Spartanburg County resident who said she was the victim of sexual abuse in their jurisdiction back in the 1970s.

Loana Cooper Benton identified herself to 7 News as the accuser who went to police in Alabama. The suspect of the alleged abuse was identified as Peter William Cooper, of Elmore, Alabama. Benton said Cooper is her uncle. She told 7 News Cooper molested her in Alabama when she was four years old.

"When I tried to tell my mom what had happened, I didn't even know the right words to describe what had happened," Benton said. 

In an incident report, one victim -- who was under the age of 14 -- said Cooper grabbed her in an inappropriate area while playing piano at a Bible study in her home located in Spartanburg County.

Additional witnesses confirmed the events and details of the incident, and other victims came forward who said similar acts happened to them as children.

Benton said she thought she was the only victim until years later when a friend of hers said she was also a victim of Cooper's. Then, Benton said her friend connected to a third victim on social media. 

"When the Kavanaugh hearings were taking place and alot of people were talking about sexual assault and those type of issues, the other victim had made a post on social media that was the hashtag "Why I didn't tell. "My friend saw that and knew her and put things together and then got us all three connected."

According to Benton, the three thought there might be more victims. 

"When we saw postings on social media of him at events with children nearby, we felt it was necessary for us to come forward and report so that if he was continuing to behave this way, it would be stopped," she said. 

According to the release, Robertsdale Police said the first victim in the case had spoken to two other victims of Cooper's on social media. 

Spartanburg County investigators called all three victims involved and learned that one alleged offense by Cooper happened in Spartanburg County, and the other offense against the other victim happened in Greenville County.

The three victims told investigators that they had reached out to Cooper on social media, who had apologized to them. Spartanburg County investigators then went to Alabama and interviewed Cooper, who said he didn't remember all of the details, but did say he apologized to the victims. 

An investigation revealed that Cooper was a youth intern pastor at Central Church of Christ in Spartanburg in 1976 and that the offense happened at the home of one of the victims during a Bible study.

According to the release, Spartanburg County investigators learned that Cooper was primarily employed by churches in Alabama after a short time in Spartanburg County.

Once back in Spartanburg County, investigators discussed the case with the solicitor's office and then a magistrate, who approved a warrant charging Cooper with a lewd act on a minor, which was the applicable law in 1976.

Cooper was arrested in Alabama last week and was extradited back to Spartanburg County on Sunday.

Cooper's daughter-in-law told 7 News that she thinks it's possible that he had more victims.

"He's been at so many different churches," said Cooper's daughter-in-law, Kiet Cooper. 

The Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office has also informed Greenville County Sheriff's Office officials of the offense that may have happened in their jurisdiction, and their investigation remains active.

Leadership from Central Church of Christ sent the following letter to their church members once they learned of the allegations in November 2018:

Dear Central Church Family,

In recent days it has come to our attention that in the late 1970’s an intern employed by our congregation had inappropriate and sexually abusive physical contact with two minor children of families belonging to our church. We appreciate the courage of the one who informed the leaders of this. We want to inform you about what we know and what we are doing.

WHAT WE KNOW:

• In addition to one who came to the leaders, one other person has come forward, via social media, to state that the same intern, while employed at Central, similarly abused them.
• Both of these abusive acts reported to us can be described as “forced, inappropriate and illegal touching” and were carried out at locations other than at Central. Yet clearly, these are acts of sexual abuse of a minor, actions severely condemned by God and not to be tolerated in any form by the church.
• The intern served for less than 2 years in the late 1970’s (1976-1977) and soon after moved to another state.
• We are currently unaware of any other accusations of this nature during this intern’s time at Central. However, many additional accusations of abuse perpetrated by this individual have lately been reported where the person now lives. Additionally, the individual’s family has confirmed that this person has recently admitted guilt in many of these matters.
• We are greatly grieved that even one such abuse ever took place. While we have no reason to believe anyone in leadership or membership of Central at that time had any idea it had occurred, and this happened over 40 years ago, it is still a reason for “tears, sorrow and deep grief” (James 4:9) for us all.

WHAT WE ARE DOING:

• We want you to be certain of the priority we place on and the concerted effort we give to ensuring the safety and security of all people at Central, especially our children and our youth.
• We have strong safety and security policies at Central. They include required background checks on any who teach, co-teach or lead our children’s classes and activities, a minimum of two adults at all times with children, windows on classroom doors, and many other security provisions. We built the Perry-Hortman building with safety and security as a top priority.
• On Sunday, January 20, 2019, we plan to host a Children & Youth Safety & Security Seminar following worship. We will discuss additional safety policies for us and also share information aimed at helping our parents teach and equip their children to be safer in all areas of their lives.

TO ANY VICTIMS:

Our deepest apology is reserved for you. We have prayerfully wept on multiple occasions at the thought of any child or teen being attacked. We are so sorry. We want to say, to any and all victims of any and all sexual abuse, we grieve with you. We also pray the current investigation carried out by law enforcement will insure that this individual will never be in a position to inflict abuse on anyone ever again. We are grateful to the ones who have come forward now and pray for your healing. Again, we are so sorry.

If anyone has any questions on this matter, please feel free to discuss it with one of the Central elders.

Thank you for your prayers for all of us and all involved.

"Since this case is the third one in less than a week involving pastors and sex offenses, our special victims unit would strongly encourage any other victims of these 3 suspects or any other suspects to come forward, especially since South Carolina doesn't have a statute of limitations," according to the release.

Due to Alabama's statute of limitations, Robertsdale Police were unable to charge Cooper.

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