A former deacon at a Lakehurst church was charged with three counts of possession of child pornography.

Billhimer said that a referral from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, through the New Jersey State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, led to the arrest of Anthony Laterza, 70, of Berkeley, on Thursday.

Investigators seized electronic devices from his home and and found the sexually exploitive images of children, Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer said Thursday.

Laterza served at St. John’s Catholic Church in Lakehurst. According to a church bulletin last November, Anthony was going to "assist at Mass, visit the sick at home and in nursing homes, baptize little ones and lead prayers at vigil services in funeral homes."

A message on the church's website from Father Jim O'Neill said Laterza took a break from his position at the end of 2019 and left the parish after O'Neill turned down his request to return in May, which was the last time he says he spoke to Laterza. O'Neill did not reveal why he rejected Laterza's return.

"At St. John's and in the Diocese of Trenton, we take the protection of children very seriously," O'Neill wrote, adding that all staff and volunteers who work with children undergo background checks and are subject to the Virtus program that many Catholic dioceses use to help prevent child abuse. 

 A 2005 Archdiocese of Newark newsletter indicates Laterza graduated from the diaconate class of ordained deacons in June 2005.

Trenton Diocese spokeswoman Rayanne Bennett told NJ.com he was a deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark before he "relocated." She did not respond Friday morning to New Jersey 101.5 for further information.

Laterza was being held Friday at the Ocean County Jail pending a detention hearing.

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