The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.
In 2019, Benjamin “Gus” Harter, pastor of Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church in Sandy Springs, Georgia, was accused of repeatedly sexually molesting a girl under the age of sixteen. He was later accused of molesting other girls.
An arrest warrant details how Harter is charged with molesting a girl under the age of 16, touching her inappropriately as she lay in his bed on multiple occasions across at least three years, from 2012 to 2015.
Harter was arrested on Friday, and is being held without bond.
Church officials confirmed parts of a winding, expansive biography: Harter and his wife joined religious communities in Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Texas and even as far away as the Philippines.
They have five adult children in addition their adopted children and more than 20 grandchildren.
Before joining Ebenezer Primitive, Harter worked at several other churches in the Southeast, and most notably spent three decades with Bethany Primitive Baptist Church in Suwanee until 2000.
At that time, Harter left the church and moved with his wife to the Philippines.
While there, he led two churches and helped build many more. He and his wife also built an orphanage. They returned to the U.S. in 2008.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:
Benjamin “Gus” Harter, 80, had served as pastor of Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church in Sandy Springs since 2014, according to the church’s website. But Tuesday afternoon, tape covered Harter’s name on the sign outside the historic church. And Tuesday evening, an associate pastor said Harter was no longer pastor nor a member of the church.
Harter has led two churches and helped build dozens of others here and in the Philippines, where he and his wife built an orphanage. The Harters also adopted 19 children from the Asian country, according to his church biography, adding to their already large family.
Harter previously served as pastor of Bethany Primitive Baptist Church, now located in Suwanee, for nearly three decades beginning in November 1971. In the mid-1990s, Harter and his wife began traveling to the Philippines regularly to work with churches there.
He later resigned from Bethany church in May 2000 and moved with his family to the Philippines for several years, according to the Ebenezer Primitive Baptist website. In the Philippines, the Harters built an orphanage before returning to the U.S. in 2008. The couple adopted 19 children over the years, bringing them back to their home.
“For over 7 years, Gus traveled, taught, and served the fast growing primitive baptist congregations of the Philippines,” the church’s website states. “In that time he participated in the formation of over 100 new congregations and helped constitute over 60 as churches.”
After Harter and his family returned to the U.S., he served several months as co-pastor of a Texas church before returning to Atlanta and Bethany. He led the church through a move from Tucker to Suwanee.
In a 2012 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the pastor explained that the word primitive means original.
“We worship like they did when they came over from England. We’re very fundamental, and not charismatic,”Harter said. “The closest to us theologically is a reformed Presbyterian church.”
A Florida native, Harter completed undergraduate studies at Southeastern Bible College in Alabama, where he began serving as pastor of a small Methodist church, the AJC previously reported. He continued his education at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, where he first attended a Primitive Baptist church. Harter served as a pastor in Kentucky for two years and in Florida for seven years before moving to the Atlanta area.
In October 2019, 11-Alive reported on the additional charges levied against Harter:
A pastor already accused of molesting a girl under the age of 16 multiple times is now facing more charges of sex crimes involving minors, bringing the total number to three.
Last month, Benjamin “Gus” Harter, 80, was arrested for one count of child molestation – accused of touching the 16-year-old inappropriately as she lay in his bed on multiple occasions across at least three years, from 2012 to 2015.
Now, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office confirms two new charges of child molestation – one for each new alleged victim. The allegations, officials said, are similar to the previous one and happened within Forsyth County. Harter resides in Cumming, Georgia in Forsyth County.
In 2014, Reporter Newspapers reported on Harter coming to Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church:
I came here to make this historic church work,” he[Harter] said. “I don’t want to see it die.”
Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church has fallen on hard times. First established in 1829, it sits on the corner of Roberts and Spalding Drives. But whereas it had over 1,000 people attend service in 1928, its membership dropped to an all-time low this spring.
“When I came, Edward Cagle [the previous pastor] was the only active member of the church,” Harter said. “But 27 people joined with me so we’ve got a basic start.”
Patsy Froy is one of the members who moved with Harter from Bethany Primitive Baptist Church to Ebenezer. “I’ve known him my whole life, basically,” she said. “He’s been there for funerals, babies being born, weddings. He’s a very influential person in my life.”
Harter plans on renovating the church as his first order of business. The current brick building stands across the street from the original church, which Harter said was taken apart by Union soldiers during the Civil War. The building as it is now is the church’s fourth reconstruction.
“I want to dress it up, but I don’t want to lose the antiquity of it,” said Harter. “It’s a beautiful church.”
He thinks that this beauty alone, coupled with the improvements, will help attract new members. But Harter also believes that the church offers something different.
“We are not contemporary, but we are unique,” he said. “Every service has 30 minutes of a capella singing, and about 45 minutes to an hour of expository preaching. And we have a potluck lunch after church.”
Primitive Baptists are known for the simplicity of their worship. No musical instruments are allowed in church, so members engage in Sacred Harp singing, a tradition where singers use their voices as instruments in four-part harmony. There are also no divisions by age or gender. This means that children attend services and are encouraged to participate in all activities.
Earlier this week, Harter pleaded guilty to three counts of child molestation. The good pastor was sentenced to twenty years — five years in prison and fifteen years on sex offender probation.
An 81-year-old man who was a pastor at churches in metro Atlanta and around the world is now facing the next five years in prison after admitting to child molestation charges.
According to the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office, Benjamin Harter of Cumming, pleaded guilty of three counts of child molestation and was sentenced to 20 years — five years in prison with the remainder on sex offender probation.
It seems likely that Pastor Harter has a long track record of sexually molesting children. Ever the Calvinist, I suppose Harter can say that his predatory behavor was decreed by the sovereign God of John Calvin.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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