Walterboro -- The leader of a religious commune has pleaded guilty to fondling two former female residents.
Ralph Stair, leader of the Overcomer Ministry in Canadys and host of a Christian radio show, was sentenced Monday to time served on two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery.
Stair, 71, served 77 days in jail after he was arrested in 2002 and initially charged with two counts of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree, authorities said. He was indicted on the lesser charges in August.
The original warrants charging criminal sexual conduct alleged that Stair used coercion on two women, ages 18 and 20, by "enforcing his religious/personal beliefs" on them.
Special Prosecutor Suzanne Mays said the two women provided written statements describing how Stair inappropriately touched them. She said she couldn't discuss why the charges were reduced. vJoenathan Chaplin, Stair's lawyer, said his client is happy the case ended as it did. "We thought that's all the case should have been when he was arrested," he said.
Chaplin said his client admitted to "illegally touching" the women, first to his congregation and later to authorities.
He said the case was blown out of proportion because people don't understand the religious community.
"It's a lack of knowledge from what takes place at the location," he said. "It's curiosity."
The commune has been criticized by former residents partly because its members give up their worldly possessions to become a part of it.
Chaplin said giving up one's possessions is a voluntary act. He said many of its residents had nothing when they joined the community and accepted its free food and shelter.
A spokeswoman for the State Law Enforcement Division, which investigated the allegations, said she couldn't comment on the case because Stair still faces breach of trust charges for an unrelated case.
Stair and the ministry are also the subject of civil litigation alleging financial misconduct. Joenathan Chaplin's brother and law partner, Mathias Chaplin, who is representing Stair in the civil matter, said the plaintiffs donated that money to the church and now want it returned.
"I don't know a church in this country where your tithes are returned to you after you leave," he said.
A call to the ministry was not returned Tuesday.