September 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tiny Bad Axe church reeling from pastor's porn charges

Members of the Bad Axe Church of Christ are trying to recover from a sex scandal that could have destroyed it last year. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Bad Axe— A new minister began last month. A school supply giveaway drew a robust response last week. New members are trickling in.

The Bad Axe Church of Christ, a long-struggling church in the Thumb, is gingerly recovering from a sex scandal that could have destroyed it last year.

In December, the pastor resigned after the Department of Homeland Security raided his home and allegedly discovered child pornography on his personalcomputer, according to a search warrant unsealed last month.

The indictment of Paul Rennix last month was another reminder that clergy sex abuse isn’t just a problem in the Catholic church. In June, the host of a Christian radio show was arrested in Grand Rapids and charged with having sex with a 12-year-old boy and photographing the encounter.

“When you have many denominations, this independent environment, and then this distortion of scripture, that’s an environment where abuse can flourish,” said Boz Tchividjian, a former prosecutor who helped start a Lynchburg, Va., group, GRACE, that investigates and educates churches about sex abuse.

In the Bad Axe case, Rennix, 32, was charged with two counts: receiving and possessing child pornography. Each is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

He pleaded not guilty and was released on $10,000 bond, according to court records. He is scheduled to appear before a federal magistrate for a plea hearing Tuesday.

Rennix, who has returned to his native West Virginia, declined comment. His federal public defender, Joan Morgan, didn’t return emails or phone calls.

Church members in this rural community were stunned by the turn of events.

“This doesn’t happen here,” said member Susan Carlson of Harbor Beach. “The only news we get are cows crossing the road or deer jumping in traffic.”

The quietude in the region extends to the church, which was built in a burst of optimism in 1962. The single-story brick building had 70 theater-style seats, but the congregation was never been big enough to fill them.

The only Church of Christ congregation in Huron County, its 25 members come from small towns scattered through the Thumb.

The conservative church, whose teachings are based on the New Testament, doesn’t use musical instruments during services and requires church leaders to be male.

The congregation is mostly retired, unemployed or underemployed, so it depends on financial help from larger churches in and out of the state. Church of Christ congregations are run autonomously, with no central office.

“It seems like, through the providence of God, there’s always someone who steps up,” member Scott Rayl said.

Among the expenses it struggles to pay is the pastor’s salary, members said.

Searches for ministers tend to take a while as the church tries to lure applicants to a rural outpost that doesn’t pay much. The church declined to say how much.

But things were looking up in April of last year.

Fresh from celebrating its 50th anniversary, the church hired Rennix after a six-month search. Its former pastor had resigned because of health problems.

The church found Rennix through an online bulletin board at Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., members said. He graduated from the school in 2004 with a major in the Bible and minor in children’s ministry.

He had been pastor of Pleasant Avenue Church of Christ in Shinnston, W.Va., for nearly three years when he was asked to leave, its members said.

The 60-member church had hired him to expand its membership by reaching out to teens, but Rennix had failed to do so, member Sandy Akers said.

“It’s sad,” she said. “He was a good person.”

Akers and other members said they never suspected Rennix of any improprieties.

'He was a nice guy'

Arriving in Michigan in April, the married minister was friendly and liked to show off his 5-month-old daughter, Bad Axe members said.

During services and Bible study, he gave engaging lessons based on the Bible, they said.

“He was a nice guy,” said Cindy Jaruzel of Vassar. “He was polite, your usual minister.”

In December, however, the worlds of Rennix and his church unraveled.

Federal agents raided his rental home in the small town of Kinde, seizing a computer tablet, two other computers, a cellphone and five compact disks, according to the search warrant.

The child pornography was discovered on his laptop computer, according to the warrant. He allegedly received the image in August.

The warrant said investigators were looking for depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. It wasn’t known how authorities first came to suspect Rennix.

His backyard, which has a swing set and slide, was across the street from North Huron Elementary School.

During the search, he called a church member to say he wouldn’t be able to attend Bible study that morning because the agents were at his home, Rayl said.

That night, Rennix met Rayl and three other members to say child porn had been found on his computer and he would step down, at least as long as the investigation lasted.

Rennix asked God to forgive him, Rayl said.

“When the Department of Homeland Security comes to your home, it’s gotta be pretty serious,” Rayl said.

The parents of Rennix’s wife, Mandy, traveled to Kinde, 10 miles from Bad Axe, and took her and baby Caitlin back to their home in Ohio.

Rennix, his wife and daughter now live in Fairmont, W.Va., where he works for Home Depot, associates said. He no longer is a minister.

“Keep Mandy and Caitlin in your prayers,” Bad Axe church President Terry Waitt wrote in a statement to members in December.

New minister found

Seven months after finally finding a preacher, the close-knit Bad Axe church had to begin a new search.

It resumed calling other churches and Bible study colleges to find a replacement. In the meantime, members and ministers from other regions volunteered to lead services and Bible study.

After a seven-month search, the church hired Brian Poe, a Lowe’s manager from Warren. Poe, 32, whohad never been a minister before, moved to Bad Axe last month. He declined comment.

“He’s got it together for a young man,” Rayl said.

Residents who live near the Bad Axe church said they weren’t surprised by what happened to the pastor.

Catholic priests seem to be guilty of such transgressions every day, so why not a minister in a different faith, said Al Kennedy, 92.

“In this day and age, the morals of the country have gone to pot. Anything goes,” he said.

In Kinde, Rennix’s former neighbors echoed Kennedy’s remarks, saying such accusations seem to occur more often nowadays.

Still, Jim DePatty, 33, said it was unnerving that it allegedly involved someone living so close to him.

“You don’t think it will happen in your town and then it happens right next door,” he said.

FDonnelly@detroitnews.com
(313) 223-4186

The house in Kinde, a small town in the Thumb, was raided when then-Pastor ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)