MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. (AP) – A former pastor who co-founded a Christian music festival before admitting he had sexual contact with children and being branded a "wolf" has been sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Harry Thomas, who’s 75 years old, was the pastor of Come Alive New Testament Church in Medford and a co-founder of the Creation Festival, billed as the country’s largest Christian music festival. He failed in a bid to withdraw his guilty plea in sexual assaults and other crimes involving five minors and was sentenced on Friday.
As part of a plea agreement earlier this year, Thomas acknowledged sexually assaulting a 9-year-old in 2005, having sexual contact with three girls ages 7 to 9 in 2000 and 2010 and exposing himself to a girl between 2008 and 2010.
Relatives of the victims were in court during sentencing, and in testimony two of them described Thomas as a "ravenous wolf" and a "hypocrite" who professed to be a man of God while victimizing children. Burlington County assistant prosecutor Stephen Eife called Thomas "a devil in disguise."
Thomas, who had spent the previous 233 days in the Burlington County jail, wept as he expressed remorse and confusion about his crimes.
"I’m very sorry for the pain I’ve caused," he said.
Referencing a biblical passage about punishment for those who harm children, he said, "I agree with the scriptures. It would be better for a millstone to be hung around my neck and be cast into the sea. That’s what I deserve."
Defense attorney Robin Lord, arguing for the minimum 15-year term rather than the maximum 20-year term sought by prosecutors, cited Thomas’ age and numerous health problems, which she said would make the longer term a death sentence.
Lord argued that Thomas’ crimes were diagnosed as the result of uncontrolled "compulsion" rather than choice. She also cited Thomas’ worldwide ministry work, including building schools and hospitals in Haiti and Africa and establishing a festival at which Christians, Jews and Muslims performed together.
Superior Court Judge Jeanne Covert said she recognized that Thomas might die in prison but the 18-year sentence was appropriate given the crimes and the risk of Thomas reoffending.
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