A St. Francis church volunteer has been sentenced to six years in prison for sexually abusing two boys in Japan while he was growing up there with his Baptist missionary parents.

Wednesday's sentencing of Joshua P. Gardner, 29, in federal court in Minneapolis by U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery includes three years of supervised release and the requirement that he register as a sex offender upon leaving prison.

Gardner pleaded guilty in January to abusing the boys, who were then 12. Gardner was a teenager at the time of his crimes, which federal authorities said occurred sometime between September 1997 and May 2002 on Kadena U.S. Air Base in Okinawa.

Prosecutors said soon after Gardner was initially charged last September and arrested that he could have been sentenced to up to life in prison and fined $250,000. Gardner has remained in federal custody since his arrest.

In arguing for leniency, the defense noted in a court filing that Gardner has been an active member of First Baptist Church in St. Francis and that "members of his faith community have explained that his service to the church and volunteerism have been outstanding."

Gardner's father is a senior minister for a Baptist church in Okinawa, where he and his wife have been missionaries since before Joshua Gardner was born.

Gardner had an "active religious life" in Japan, according to the defense, and moved to California to study at a Bible college. He then moved to Missouri and then Kansas.

He arrived in the Twin Cities area about four years ago and became involved at the St. Francis church, where some of his relatives were already members, said senior pastor Steve Brower. The church became aware of the allegations against Gardner late last year.

Gardner's contributions to the church have included being an usher at services, singing and being among teenagers at open gym and a church-run concession stand, the pastor said.

"For quite some time, we've had a policy in place" that when anyone is involved with kids on a one-on-one basis, there must be another adult present, Brower said. "There was no risk" in Gardner's case, the pastor said.

Brower, who was present for the sentencing along with Gardner's parents as part of a "pretty large support group," said it's his church's duty to stand by Gardner.

"Everybody struggles in areas with what God wants us to do," Brower said. "I feel we have a biblical responsibility ... to help Josh work through the sinful decisions in the past. Josh has made some tremendous progress there."

Once Gardner has served his prison time, "there will be some restrictions" on him at the church, Brower said, but he "absolutely" will be welcomed back. "The church is made up of people who need the Lord," he said.

Gardner "apologized to pretty much everybody involved" at sentencing, Brower said, "the prosecutors, the judge, the victims. One victim was there with his parents."

Brower believes that Gardner benefited before the court because he had no history of behavior that often accompanies child molesters, such as evidence of abusing others or an addiction to pornography.

"What makes Josh atypical -- and the judge alluded to this -- is there is no evidence of this type of behavior since" the crimes in Japan, the pastor said.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482