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Pastor Steps Away From Youth Center

July 16, 2009, 5:58 PM by Shawn Neisteadt

Pastor Steps Away From Youth Center
There are changes in Tea where a registered sex offender turned pastor planned to open a youth center.

Pastor Joe Panaia Junior started the Bridging the Gap Community Church and Youth Center in Tea. But Panaia is currently on South Dakota's sex offender registry. That brought worry from the community, and now, Panaia has posted a message on his Web site that the church and youth center are closed.

Plans for the Bridging the Gap Ministries in Tea changed rapidly this week. Earlier this month, Panaia told KELOLAND News about his plans to run a youth center for sixth to twelfth grade students.

"Bridging the Gap doesn't turn anybody away. We don't care about your walk of life, your background, anything. Our door's open and everyone is welcome,” Panaia said to KELOLAND News on July 4.

Panaia also planned to have the center open for birthday parties and have special days for younger children. But he wasn't open to talking about his 2003 guilty plea to indecent exposure, where court documents say he exposed himself to a woman. That landed the now 42-year-old on the South Dakota Sex Offender Registry.

“I am currently in the process of getting off that list. This interview is over. Thank you,” Panaia said on July 4.

In August 2008, Panaia told KELOLAND News how he wants sex offender laws to be changed.

Now, the sign is down and what was once a church is empty.

Thursday, Panaia declined to do an interview with us on camera, but by phone he would say he plans to continue his ministries, just not at the same location in Tea. But if he plans to stay in Tea, he wouldn't answer.

"I guess him being a citizen of the city, I don't have a problem with that at all. He's got every right as does everybody else. It's working with the children where the line gets drawn," Pam Hoffard said. 

Hoffard is a mother of three. She says knowing Panaia's criminal past, she would never have allowed her children to visit the youth center. But she does think the community would benefit from one.

"The idea is really good. The town really needs this opportunity. But to have the right leadership is very important,” Hoffard said.

The online message says that Ryan Shepherd is going to try to open a youth center in Tea. Shepherd was a volunteer for Bridging the Gap. A look at his background only found tickets for fishing without a license and not wearing eye protection on a motorcycle.

He didn't return calls made Thursday by KELOLAND News.

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