SANTA ANA, Calif. (ABP) — Prosecutors in California sought public help in identifying possible additional victims of a former youth pastor under arrest on a charge of sexual assault.
Joe David Nelms, 47, was arrested March 18 in Lindale, Texas, on an Orange County warrant charging him with eight felony counts of lewd acts on a child under 14. A press release from the California district attorney's office said a woman now in her 30s came forward recently to allege that Nelms molested her over three years beginning when she was 14 years old in 1993.
Prosecutors said Nelms committed the crimes while working as a youth pastor at Pacific Coast Church in San Clemente, Calif., originally named First Baptist Church of San Clemente, from 1990 to 2000.
At the time of his arrest, Nelms was a volunteer Bible study teacher at First Baptist Church in Lindale, Texas, a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas . He also worked as a counselor for high school-aged children at Sky Ranch, a Christian camp and ministry.
Tom Buck, senior pastor of the Texas church, released a statement on the church website correcting inaccurate reports that Nelms served as a pastor at First Baptist Church. Buck said Nelms and his wife taught together in a Sunday morning class for youth and he was removed immediately when he disclosed the situation. Church leaders cut Nelms off from any contact with teenagers, notified civil authorities and began an internal inquiry by meeting with all members with children in the youth group.
"We are committed to the safety of our children," Buck said. "A background check and diligent screening process takes place for anyone who works with them in our church. This was our practice for the man in question, and our efforts revealed a clean record. We are committed to continuing these rigorous steps, and are resolved to evaluate our system to ensure we are doing everything within our power to create a safe environment for our children."
Based on evidence obtained in the investigation, investigators said they believe that Nelms may have additional victims. They encouraged anyone with additional information or who believes they have been a victim to contact Supervising District Attorney Investigator Lou Gutierrez at (714) 347-8794.
Sky Ranch, a Christian camping ministry with locations in Van, Texas; Cave Springs, Okla., and Ute Trail, Colo., released a statement saying that based on an internal investigation there is no reason to believe that Helms harmed any children during his employment there.
After his arrest Nelms was held without bail in Texas awaiting extradition to California. Prosecutors there said they intend to request bail of $200,000. If convicted Nelms could receive a maximum sentence of 22 years in prison.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.