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.

"In the eyes of the law, because it was child pornography, I shouldn't have contact with anyone under 18, including my own kids," he explained, adding that he hadn't seen his two sons in four years.

When asked if he ever felt tempted to repeat his offense, Cunningham said he could resist it.

"Some people can't. Some can. Me, myself, I feel, will I ever put myself in that situation again?" he asked. "Knowing the consequences, no, I wouldn't."

Most of the nearby families with children moved away after their new neighbors moved in. A mother of three, Tara White said when sex offenders began living in the area, she packed up and moved her family 40 minutes away.

"I don't want to be around those types of people," she said. "Not with my kids. Not with my mom. Not with me."

Thousands of Registered Sex Offenders in the U.S.

There are more than 700,000 registered sex offenders in the United States, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children 2010 survey.

In "miracle village," local law enforcement constantly patrol the neighborhood and check up on registered offenders, who are new to the area.

Sgt. Mark Jolly heads the Palm Beach County Sheriff Office's Sexual Offender Tracking Unit, and part of his job is to knock on doors of sexual predators moving into the village. Jolly said while families might not feel comfortable having sex offenders on their block, Witherow's community offers an advantage for his unit.

"If you are talking to someone who lives in close proximity to this, they would probably tell you ... they don't want it in their backyards," Jolly said. "Now if you are looking at it from a law enforcement and a parole, probation standpoint, yes, it is something that is easier for us to monitor, control."

Witherow said he doesn't mind the patrols as long as they are conducted humanely.

Pastor Dick Witherow Almost Faced Statutory Rape Charges as a Teen

Witherow has much in common with many of his wards. Like Rodney Thompson, Witherow received a lung cancer diagnosis last month. About 50 years ago, he was also almost charged with statutory rape.

At the time, Witherow had gotten his then 14-year-old girlfriend pregnant. The two went before a judge to be married, and when the judge found out their ages, he threatened to charge Witherow with statutory rape, a sentence that could bring up to 25 years in prison.

"I should have had more morals and more sense as an 18-year-old to have sex with a 14-year-old, OK? But it goes on all the time." Witherow said.

The judge instead decided not to charge Witherow and allowed the two to marry. His girlfriend later died, and he eventually met Maggie.

The Witherows embrace the registered sex offenders who live in their colony, even though Maggie said both she and the pastor had been molested as children.

"Fondled ... when I was 4," Maggie said. "When Dick and I were married, it took us five years to learn to live together because he had been molested too."

Despite their past, the Witherows believe in offering kindness to sex offenders instead of harboring resentment.

"They are people that God made, and they need a place to live, and they need another chance," she said. "I just want to cry sometimes. What's happened to them in their background."

Witherow said that providing this safe haven was his form of missionary work.

"They've got issues, they've got hurts, they've got pains, they've got addiction problems," the pastor said. "Most of us have come from dysfunctional families, and so, Jesus is the one who sets the captives free."

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