Disgraced pastor: Please don’t blame my victim or her family
BY TERESA AUCH SCHULTZ firstname.lastname@example.org March 21, 2013 12:19AM
Jack Schaap, former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Hammond. | Provided Photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 21, 2013 12:22AM
Repentance flowed from former First Baptist Church of Hammond pastor Jack Schaap at his sentencing hearing Wednesday morning as he accepted responsibility for seducing a 17-year-old girl and telling her their sexual relationship was fulfilling God’s will, even pleading with his former congregation to stop blaming the victim.
“If you love me, please don’t blame this family for my wrongdoing,” the 55-year-old man, who has been in jail since his arrest last summer, told a packed courtroom during the hearing at U.S. District Court in Hammond.
U.S. District Judge Rudy Lozano didn’t buy that Schaap came clean with his crime from the start, however, noting the pastor fired at least one employee and asked another one repeatedly to destroy evidence of his crime before Schaap finally agreed to plead guilty to one count of having a minor transported across state lines for sexual relations.
That’s partly why Lozano did not grant federal attorneys’ request to sentence Schaap to 10 years in prison, the mandatory minimum sentence on the charge, and instead sentenced Schaap to 12 years in prison, along with five years of supervised release, the judge said.
The sentence, which ends the criminal scandal that hit one of the country’s largest megachurches last summer, is still less than the range of 168 months to 210 months, which federal sentencing guidelines had recommended. About 100 people from the community showed up to hear the judge’s ruling, although about 40 people didn’t make it inside the courtroom.
Crime ‘very serious’
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Koster argued during the hearing Wednesday that although 10 years fell below the guideline range, Schaap had saved the government from expending resources on the case and the victim from going through the torture of a trial by agreeing to plead guilty even before he was charged.
“That’s a very difficult time for a victim,” Koster said of the period before a trial takes place.
Koster noted that this could also encourage other people facing similar charges to also plead guilty early on.
Lozano said he understood the benefits of that but was concerned about setting a precedent of slashing so much time, in this case almost four years, from the guideline range of a crime he considers “very serious.”
“We’re dealing with the treasures that are most important to us: our children,” Lozano said.
The judge did speak of the good work Schaap has done as pastor of First Baptist, one of the country’s largest churches, such as starting programs to help pregnant teenagers, senior citizens and people with substance abuse addictions. However, the judge spent most of the hour he spoke focusing on the facts of the case and how the crime developed.
Records from federal attorneys show that Schaap started counseling the girl last spring after she was expelled from First Baptist’s high school because of a sexual relationship she had with someone else. A school administrator wrote to Schaap that the girl was hurt and confused at the time and that the administrator had convinced her to trust her church leaders and let them make decisions for her.
“The administrator further writes that the victim is willing to trust her leaders but is very scared,” Lozano said.
The administrator then asked Schaap to counsel her.
Schaap did so, and from the beginning took improper steps toward the girl, Lozano said. Church rules state that someone counseling a person of the opposite sex should not have closed-door sessions for more than 20 minutes. Schaap’s first session with the girl, who had attended the church for most of her life, lasted two hours behind a closed door. One session lasted six hours.
When staff questioned him on it, Lozano said, he responded by saying, “I made the rule, and I can break it.”
Federal attorneys say they found evidence on Schaap’s computer that he searched for the legal ramifications of what he did and that he also fooled a church employee into taking the girl to Illinois and Michigan for him by claiming the girl needed one-on-one counseling time with him. He also wrote her two letters and an email, most of which talk about how their relationship was holy and that, through it, he was helping to save her life.
“I tried to craftily catch your heart so that I could lead you into a better life,” Schaap wrote at one point.
He also wrote that God wanted them to be husband and wife and that he was leading her to a “better path of living — that’s what we call Righteousness.”
Lozano said he was concerned how Schaap used his power as a pastor and the fact that the girl had been taught her whole life to obey church leaders to “mold her into what you wanted.”
When a church technology employee finally found photos of Schaap with the victim, he told another church employee, who then approached Schaap’s wife. That’s when Schaap held a six-hour meeting with church employees, railing at them for their lack of loyalty and for questioning his actions. He then fired the one employee and later asked the technology employee if he could delete the photos and the more than 600 texts between Schaap and the victim.
The employee instead downloaded the photos and took them to other church officials, who went to the local law enforcement around the end of July.
‘Buck stops with Schaap’
Schaap, wearing his short hair still neatly combed to the side, apologized to the girl and her family, saying he had betrayed their trust.
“In trying to be a good pastor, I became a fool,” Schaap said.
He also likened himself to people who want to rescue a drowning person only to drown themselves.
“Sometimes rescuers take risks they have no business taking,” the former pastor said.
Federal attorney Koster disputed that, saying Schaap never intended to rescue the girl.
“This wasn’t a risk taken by a rescuer trying to help a victim,” she said.
Schaap also apologized to his wife and children, thanking them for standing by him, and appealed to First Baptist to heal the rift his crime committed. His attorney, Paul Stracci, also spoke directly to the audience of the need to accept that Schaap was solely responsible for the crime.
“Let there be no question: The buck stops with Jack Schaap,” Stracci said.
Stracci did stress his client’s cooperation, noting that Schaap agreed to the guilty plea just four days after the government first offered it to him and without the benefit of seeing the government’s evidence or many of his other legal rights. Schaap also called the victim’s father to apologize and stress that the crime was his fault.
Schaap has also lost his career and knows he committed wrong “on many levels,” the attorney said.
“He knows it every day he wakes up, he knows it every time he looks in the mirror, and he knows it every time he can’t sleep at night,” Stracci said.
Schaap’s plea agreement wasn’t completely selfless, however, Lozano argued. The judge said he thinks Schaap agreed to plead guilty so quickly partly because the government’s case against him was so strong. Federal attorneys also reached agreements with Illinois, Michigan and Indiana to not press their own charges against Schaap.
No restitution was ordered after medical officials said they needed more time to estimate how much medical help the victim will need throughout her life. Federal attorneys said the girl’s family wanted to put the case behind them and will instead seek restitution through other means.
First Baptist officials said in a news release Wednesday afternoon that they thought the criminal justice system had been fair in the case. “We are also glad that our church family can now move beyond this situation and can continue the healing process,” spokesman Eddie Wilson said.
He did not respond to questions regarding the comments made at trial about the church expelling the victim’s family as members.
One former church member, Sarah, who sat through the sentencing hearing said she understands why the judge gave Schaap 12 years but said she thinks he should still serve more time. Sarah, who declined to give her last name because of threats other people have received from church members in the past, said she was most concerned that Lozano encouraged Schaap to preach while in prison.
“My impression of that man is that he’s an egomaniac ... and standing in front of a crowd and being respected as some oracle of wisdom only serves to feed that ego,” she said.
She also said his call for the church to not blame the victims was “too little, too late.” Although some members might change their ways, she said, she doubted the congregation as a whole and people in power would.