Police: Pastor raped 17-year-old at Newport church

NEWPORT, Tenn. (WVLT) -- A Newport pastor now faces rape charges following an alleged incident Saturday.

Pastor of Cross Way Worship Center, James "Ronnie" Messer, was charged with statutory rape, aggravated sexual battery, and rape after an investigation by the Newport Police Department.

At 8:23 p.m. Saturday, officers were sent to investigate a report after a 17-year-old girl told her family she had been raped by her church pastor.

Police spoke with the 17-year-old who said that at noon she rode with Messer to the Crossway Worship Center. She said she entered the back door of the church with Messer and went into a room where Messer allegedly started flirting with her and asked her three to four times to take her clothes off. The teen told police she felt scared, so she removed her clothes and laid on the floor where Messer allegedly raped her.

The 17-year-old said she then went with Messer to the Hartford area to swim, but the water was too muddy and swift. She said Messer took her to a different location.

In an interview with a detective, Messer reportedly admitted to having sex with the 17-year-old, but claimed it was consensual. He was arrested Saturday at 11 p.m.

The 46 year-old lives off Tom Treece Road in Morristown. Neighbors said he was always helpful and they never expected this news. "We're sitting here in shock -- surprised," John Hromco, who lives across the street, said. "They've been wonderful neighbors."

Hromco, who has lived in Morristown for about 12 years, said he recalls Messer helping him clean up storm damage a couple years ago. "That's the kind of guy Ron was. If you needed some help; he'd be there to help you out," he said.

Just down the street, Little Redeemed Primitive Baptist Church in Morristown held their Wednesday night service. Pastor Shane Russell was shocked to hear the news. While he never knew Messer, he said it effects everyone. "It hurt me -- for her and for all the families involved and for the church involved, and for all the churches involved," he said.

Officials issued warrants for aggravated statutory rape and sexual battery by an authority figure out on Messer on Sunday. He was taken to the Cocke County Jail at 1 a.m. Sunday. He has since been released on $150,000 bond.

The DA's office said that Messer would be in court on August 13 at 9 o'clock.