Thursday, December 29, 2005                                                                                       View Comments

Ex-Lutheran minister sentenced in sex case

Kristen Rasmussen
@PensacolaNewsJournal.com


A former local minister was sentenced Wednesday to nearly three years in state prison, despite his plea that he is not a pedophile and "still has much to give" to the community.

Michael Anthony Harris, 43, stood expressionless as Circuit Judge Nick Geeker sentenced him to two years and 10? months. Harris pleaded no contest last month to third-degree felony charges of attempted lewd or lascivious battery and using a computer to solicit the sexual conduct of a crime. He was taken into custody immediately after the sentencing.

Tears and embraces

More than a dozen friends and family members -- including Harris' wife of 21 years, Christa Harris, and their teenage son -- watched the proceeding. Some cried and embraced each other afterward, but all declined comment.

In a statement to Geeker, Harris -- the former pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Pensacola -- said he "accepts full responsibility for (his) actions" and suffered from "clouded judgment" when he arranged in April to meet and engage in sexual acts with a 14-year-old boy who actually was an undercover officer.

"I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am ... for the pain, sorrow and embarrassment this has caused my family, my wife, my son and my congregation," he said.

Harris' attorney, Barry Beroset, described the incident as "aberrant behavior." For many years, Harris has been going through "serious conflict with his sexuality," the defense attorney said.

Several people -- including other pastors, family and former congregation members and local business people -- wrote letters of character reference on his behalf, Beroset said. Many described Harris as a positive member of society and a contributor to his church and community, he said.

'Wonderful provider'

No other instances of inappropriate behavior toward adults or children have ever been reported against Harris, Beroset said.

Christa Harris, a Santa Rosa County teacher who is separated from her husband, described him as a "wonderful provider" who has always been "loving and caring" toward her and their son.

"He's done everything that a good man should do," she said.

But Sgt. Ski Gowitzke -- who directs the Escambia County Sheriff's Office computer crimes unit and who posed as the boy during several online conversations with Harris -- testified that Harris initiated the chat with him.

After inquiring about whether the boy was really 14, Gowitzke said Harris quickly steered their conversation toward the topic of sex.