A former Gaston County pastor pleaded guilty on Friday to charges he engaged in illicit sexual conduct with two minors while in Haiti working for a church ministry.
As Larry Michael Bollinger, his legs shackled, walked into the courtroom, he smiled and waved to his wife.
“I would not be here if I had not confessed what I had done,” Bollinger, 67, told U.S. Magistrate Judge David Cayer.
Bollinger, struggling to hold back tears, then said: “I am very remorseful … I am willing to accept responsibility.”
As Bollinger left the courtroom, he again waved at his wife and then mouthed kisses to her.
Bollinger must now await sentencing. Each of the sex charges is punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“He’s never denied what happened during that short period of time in Haiti,” defense attorney Tony Scheer told the Observer. “He confessed to doing it to law enforcement. He now faces the possibility of a long prison sentence.”
But Bollinger still has hopes of avoiding a lengthy incarceration. He entered a conditional guilty plea that will allow him to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that denies his motion to dismiss the charges against him.
Bollinger argues that the U.S. government doesn’t have the power to charge him for committing crimes in another country. If the courts eventually decide the law is unconstitutional, his guilty plea will be vacated and he’ll be released from prison.
A Lutheran minister for 33 years, Bollinger was pastor at Christ’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Stanley when he and his wife left for Haiti to work with the Lazarus Project in 2004.
A mostly Lutheran ministry, the Lazarus Project runs a vocational school and medical clinic in Haiti.
Paul Klein, an attorney in Charlotte, said Bollinger had worked for years with the Lazarus Project and had “a record of doing a great deal of good” for Haitian citizens.
He said Bollinger was immediately dismissed and advised to seek counseling when the allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. The attorney pointed out that a background check of Bollinger would have shown that he had no criminal record.
Klein said the Lazarus Project began conducting criminal background checks on its workers after learning about the allegations of sexual misconduct by Bollinger.
Klein has been following the Bollinger case for the nonprofit Lazarus Project.
“This episode is looked upon as extremely unfortunate,” Klein said. “The welfare of children is paramount. We hope that this isolated incident will never be duplicated in the future. These are good people sacrificing and enduring deplorable conditions to do mission work.”
Bollinger was indicted last May and accused of traveling to Haiti to engage in illicit sexual conduct with two minors. The girls were 11 and 12 years old, authorities have said.
A federal magistrate in May ordered Bollinger jailed without bond pending his trial.
“The government’s forecast of its evidence is disturbing and suggests the defendant, an ordained minister, repeatedly engaged in sexual conduct with girls as young as 11 and 12 years of age while in Haiti doing relief work,” U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler wrote in the detention order.
“The defendant has been treated in several settings for mental health conditions and sexual addiction.”
The indictment alleges that the sexual activity with children took place in 2009. A spokesman for the Lazarus Project said Bollinger worked for several years as coordinator, but was removed from the position when the allegations of sexual misconduct arose.
Federal prosecutors disclosed new details about Bollinger’s work in Haiti and the sex crimes he’s accused of committing in a document asking a judge to deny the former pastor’s motion to dismiss the charges against him.
Bollinger’s wife would often accompany him on trips to Haiti but would return home before him. It was after his wife left Haiti that Bollinger sexually abused the victims, according to the prosecutors.
In November 2009, Bollinger and his wife traveled to Houston for counseling, the court document says. Bollinger had signed an agreement with his counselor that any disclosure about abuse or exploitation of a child would not be confidential and would be reported to authorities if required by law.
While in a counseling session, Bollinger admitted that he sexually abused several Haitian children on multiple occasions, the prosecutors said. His confession prompted the counselor to call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to report the abuse.
During the call to the national center, Bollinger informed the operator that he had sexually molested four girls, all between the ages of 11 and 16, the prosecutors said.
The case was referred to the federal Homeland Security Investigation office in Charlotte. The girls identified by Bollinger as his sexual abuse victims were interviewed. During those interviews, the victims gave details about Bollinger’s sexual abuse that corroborated his confession, the prosecutors said.