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The trial of a Southern Baptist pastor charged with molesting two stepdaughters and raping one of them is moving forward, even though his lawyer says the two star witnesses have recanted.

Charles Dickerson, senior pastor of Pearly Grove Baptist Church in Fresno, Calif., has maintained his innocence throughout an ordeal that began with a police investigation in June 2006 and his arrest four months later on charges of lewd and lascivious acts against a minor and forcible rape.

He has continued to function as pastor at the predominantly African-America charismatic church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, reportedly dividing church members between those who believe the allegations stem from an estranged wife with a vendetta and others who believe Dickerson’s supporters are blindly following their pastor instead of God.

A judge ruled in March 2007 there was enough evidence to order Dickerson to stand trial. Media said both girls testified in graphic detail at a preliminary hearing alleging numerous sexual advances, including claims by one of the teenagers that he raped her when she was two-months pregnant with another man’s child.

By the time the trial rolled around this week, however, defense attorney Glenn LoStracco told the Fresno Bee both girls had recanted, telling a defense investigator two months ago they made the whole thing up because they were tired of living with Dickerson’s strict rules and wanted their mother to kick him out of the house.

“They came in. They talked to me. They sat in my office on tape, and explained these things never happened and the reasons why,” LoStracco told Fresno TV station ABC-30. “I think finally the weight of the guilt finally got to them and they came forward.”

But prosecutor Art Corona said in opening statements Wednesday it isn’t uncommon for victims of sexual abuse to recant, even when the allegations are true. Corona said the girls changing their testimony “does not kill the case” because it allows the prosecution to bring up questions of why they recanted.

Corona told the a jury of eight women and four men the molestation went on several years, because both girls were afraid to report it. “[C]hildren many times will not report incidents of sexual abuse or other abuse because they are afraid of the problems that it will cause to their parents,” he said.

Corona told the Fresno Bee there is a third victim–a male identified only as “James R.”–who was 16 when Dickerson also molested him in 2000. The prosecutor said there are other witnesses who can verify the girls’ story, including a babysitter who says she overheard one of them talk about the abuse.

The girls are expected to testify at the trial, which is scheduled to continue into next week. They reportedly have socialized with Dickerson recently and now regularly attend his church.

Defense attorney LoStracco has long maintained their story was shaky. “I have never seen such vague generalities made in testimony and lack of memory of specific details,” he told reporters outside a courtroom in March 2007. “In human experience, when something happens to you that is real, you remember it. You remember the details of it.”

The accusers said at first their abuse began when they were younger than 10 and continued for about eight years. One of the girls said at a preliminary hearing in March 2007 she feared getting in trouble if she told anyone about the abuse. “He told me a long time ago not to tell my mom,” she said.

Their mother, Dickerson’s estranged wife, testified she pursued a divorce after her husband became physically abusive. She said she didn’t call police, because: “We had a church. That would be the unpolitical thing to do. It would destroy his career.”

The mother has been accused of orchestrating the whole controversy and coaching her daughters about what to say, but she claims they came to her separately to report their abuse.

Dickerson, 37, has been pastor at Pearly Grove Baptist Church since 2001, moving there from a church in Washington State. Federal marshals picked him up at a hotel room in Seattle two weeks after an arrest warrant was issued Oct. 3, 2006. Initial reports said police believed he had been hiding to avoid arrest, but Dickerson’s attorney said those rumors were false and he was in the Northwest attending a Bible conference.

Dickerson is well-known in the Fresno community for activism against street violence and encouraging support of black-owned businesses.

He is also California state bishop for the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, an international fellowship based in New Orleans blending Baptist and Pentecostal traditions. The brainchild of Presiding Bishop Paul Morton, the 14-year-old organization “encompasses the scope of the Pentecostal movement for its spirituality, the Baptist Church for its structure, and the Word Church for its emphasis on the Word of God,” according to its Web site.

Despite that affiliation, Pearly Grove Baptist Church is still listed as a Southern Baptist Convention church in an online database at the SBC Web site reporting 230 members and a founding date of 1946. Dickerson’s name is also listed in a database of SBC ministers.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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