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Pastor's Past Raises Concerns In Tea

July 7, 2009, 7:56 AM

The founder of a youth center that's set to open this month in Tea has criminal convictions and charges pending.

Joe Panaia Jr., the 42-year-old pastor of Bridging the Gap Ministries, says on his Web site that his past is an "open book." But he declined to talk about it, other than to say his lawyer misled him about a plea deal involving an indecent exposure charge.

Criminal records show Panaia has convictions for theft and indecent exposure in South Dakota. He also faces charges of bigamy and perjury in Maryland. A prosecutor says there is a warrant out for Panaia's arrest.

Residents of Tea say the youth center is a much-needed addition, but some say they're worried about Panaia's involvement. Perry Edblom, a friend and youth center volunteer, says Panaia is a good person.

Panaia says his goal for the center is to give youth a safe place to go and stay out of trouble.

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