Sex Offenders Find Safe Haven in 'Miracle Village'

PHOTO Pastor Dick Witherow, 77, preaches to his congregation at ?Miracle Village,? a religious-based safe haven for sex offenders.
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Florida has been the battleground for several sex offender cases, including those involving missing children and child pornography collectors. However, near a small town in the southern part of the state sex offenders can find a spiritual safe haven.

"It doesn't matter whether you're stealing, lying, cheating, committing sexual sins. A sin is a sin, OK? And there's only one cure for sin ... that's Jesus Christ," said 77-year-old evangelical pastor Dick Witherow.

Witherow leads a tiny church parish spanning 20 acres on the outskirts of Pahokee with his wife, Maggie. His pews are often filled with convicted sex offenders wearing GPS devices that the police monitor constantly.

"I was charged with lewd and lascivious battery on a minor under the age of 16," said one churchgoer, 25-year-old Matt Grant.

Another, Rodney Thompson, 56, who is also a cancer survivor, said he was charged with "two accounts of attempted sexual battery."

"I was convicted of possession of child pornography," said 32-year-old Lavelle Cunningham.

Witherow said he likens these criminals who attend his church, and have been shunned by society, to modern-day lepers. In 2009, he established a safe haven colony for them. which he calls "miracle village."

"We're completely surrounded by sugarcane fields, so we're just an oasis here in the desert kind of thing," he explained. "A large number of people living here right now are sex offenders."

Witherow's parish is the largest sex offender community in the United States, with 66 registered offenders listed as members of the colony. Grant was one of the first sex offenders to move to "miracle village."

"All of us are sex offenders or predators, but it's not the main thing," Grant said. "The main thing is most of us, I would say at least 95 percent of us, are here because of God."

Grant said he served time in prison after he was convicted of sexual battery on a 14-year-old girl. He claimed he was in love with her and didn't know her age at the time of their relationship.

Pastor Witherow's 'Miracle Village' Gives Sex Offenders a Place to Call Home

"You got 12-year-olds who are starting to develop at a very young age, and the girl that I had met, you'd look at her, you would think she was 18, 19 years old," he said.

Florida law bars registered sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet -- about a half mile -- of schools, playgrounds, parks or any other places children might gather. This makes it almost impossible for them to find housing.

If it weren't for "miracle village," Grant believes he would still be in prison.

"I would be doing my time in prison until I did all 15 years," he said. "I would have no place to go. I had no money. No family. Nothing."

Witherow said he had gone into debt to give people like Grant a place to live. His sanctuary includes a heavy dose of religion. Every Wednesday Witherow teaches a sexual purity class.

"Do you believe that God has demanded that you live a sexually pure life?" the pastor asked his students during a class.

To carve out his community, Witherow worked hard to clear the area of any spots where children congregate. That included moving a bus stop away from the entrance.

"There are other areas around here that [children] can live and still catch the bus," he said.

Lavelle Cunningham would not have been allowed to move into the community had the bus stop not been moved.

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