Minister accused of sex crimes

Soliciting a minor over Internet among charges from state police sting

May 23, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

A Dundalk minister has been arrested and charged with soliciting sexual intercourse from a Maryland State Police trooper posing as a 13-year-old named Jennifer in an Internet chat room.

The Rev. Jonathan N. Gerstner, 44, is accused of sending instant messages to "Jennifer" from his Inverness Presbyterian Church computer beginning at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday and, within hours, arranging an afternoon sexual tryst with the girl at a park in Bowie, state police spokesman Lt. Bud Frank said.

"He truly believed he was talking to a 13-year-old the whole time," Frank said.

Using the screen name "baltimorecare," Gerstner wrote that he wanted to teach the girl about sex, according to a statement of probable cause filed in Howard County District Court.

His unsolicited messages to "Jennifer" asked her to engage in sexual intercourse and oral sex acts with him, the court document states.

The father of five, who lives in Perry Hall, became senior pastor at Inverness after serving as a professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, according to the church's Web site. He has been minister at Inverness for about two years.

The eight ruling elders of the 62-year-old church met yesterday morning and removed Gerstner from active ministry, assistant pastor Bill Broderick said yesterday. The allegations against Gerstner were forwarded to the church's ecclesiastical courts for further action, according to a statement released by the church yesterday.

The Inverness statement expressed support for the Gerstner family and thanked the Maryland State Police "for their outstanding work in this matter."

"We're just trying to get through this," said Broderick. "We've got to deal with this whole thing."

Gerstner has been charged with attempted second-degree rape, attempted second-degree sex offense, attempted third-degree sex offense and using a computer to solicit sex from a minor, police said. He was being held yesterday at the Howard County Detention Center on $50,000 bond.

A bail-review hearing is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. today. Gerstner is being held in Howard because the computer crimes unit of the state police is based there.

Gerstner was arrested about 2:40 p.m. Tuesday, immediately after he arrived at Foxhill Park off Collington Road in Bowie - the prearranged meeting site, Frank said.

Police were not aware the man was a clergyman until after his arrest, Frank said.

The computer crimes unit, which carried out the sting against Gerstner, patrols the Internet looking for sexual predators, Frank said. The unit was created in 1991 and has grown to include 13 full-time personnel, he said.

"And there is more than enough work for them," Frank said. Since January 2000, the unit has arrested 35 people accused of attempting to solicit sex from a minor, he said.

Troopers seized a computer from the Wise Avenue church Tuesday night but did not search Gerstner's home in the 5000 block of New Forge Road in Perry Hall, Frank said.

When reached at home yesterday, Gerstner's wife, Kathy, declined to comment on the charges against her husband. She teaches a Bible study class at Inverness, according to the Web site. The couple's fifth child was born in February 2001.

Gerstner earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Chicago and has studied in South Africa and the Netherlands, according to the Inverness Web site.

The state Court of Appeals is considering a case that could put the computer crimes unit out of business.

In August 2000, a Frederick circuit judge dismissed charges against a Camden, N.J., man who was accused of traveling to Frederick to meet with a fictitious 15-year-old girl. The judge agreed with the defense's argument in that case that no crime was committed because the girl was an adult police officer and it is legal for two adults to meet this way.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who argued part of the appeal of that decision before the high court in May of last year, said, "Our argument is, it was not a legal impossibility. ... He intended to have illegal sexual activity with a young girl."

Sun staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this article.

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