As he spoke Wednesday to a courtroom packed with dozens of members from his congregation, former pastor Jack Schaap talked in quiet, measured tones, a far cry from the howling cadence of the fiery sermons he once delivered to thousands inside the downtown Hammond, Ind., megachurch just a few blocks away.
Schaap, who pleaded guilty in September to a sexual relationship with a troubled underage member of the church, described the affair in biblical terms as a lapse in faith like those of the apostle Peter and Judas Iscariot.
The courtroom gallery was silent. A few in the audience bowed their heads as if in prayer.
Moments later U.S. District Judge Rudy Lozano sentenced Schaap to 12 years in prison, two years more than called for in the plea deal between the prosecution and defense.
The judge acknowledged that Schaap’s admission of guilt spared the victim, now 17, from the publicity of a lengthy trial. But he noted that the onetime leader of the Hammond Baptist Church had denied the affair when church officials confronted him last August, fired a staff member who discussed the relationship with Schaap’s wife, and tried to delete incriminating text messages and pictures from his phone and computer.
The pastor had been asked to counsel the girl and had been advised by staff at the church’s private high school that she was in a vulnerable emotional state, according to prosecutors. Her parents were devoted members of Schaap’s conservative Christian church.
In his guilty plea, Schaap admitted to having a church member bring the girl to meet with him alone at a forest preserve near his home in far south suburban Crete and to a hotel in Michigan for “counseling sessions” that became sexual encounters. Schaap also had sexual relations with the teen in his office at the church.
Church officials voted Schaap out as pastor after pictures of him kissing and posing with the partially clothed teen surfaced. The church also expelled the girl, an honor student, from the church-run school and asked her family to leave the congregation, according to the judge.
“The victim has suffered enormously,” Lozano said. “This was the church they attended all their lives. These were people that they loved.”
Choked with emotion at times as he read from a prepared statement, Schaap asked church members not to ostracize the girl or her family.
“If you love me, please don’t blame this family for my wrongdoings. Blame me,” he said.
At another point, Schapp compared himself to a would-be “rescuer” who had fallen through the ice while trying to save a drowning child.
“I thought I wanted to be this family’s savior,” Schaap said. “Sometimes people try to be heroes. … In trying to be a hero, I became a fool.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Koster cast Schaap’s fall in starkly different terms.
“It is,” Koster began, pausing a few seconds, “troubling to hear the defendant refer to himself as a rescuer. That is faulty thinking on his part if that is how he rationalizes it. This wasn’t a rescue, this was selfish, taking advantage of a victim that he knew to be vulnerable.”
The church issued a statement, but a spokesman referred questions to an attorney, noting the church has been sued by the victim’s family.
“We always knew that this day would come and still feel the same today as we did when we turned our pastor in for the crimes he committed,” the statement read. “We believe the justice system was and is fair.”
Schaap smiled and nodded to his wife and family as he had entered the courtroom wearing an orange Porter County Jail jumpsuit, but his demeanor grew somber as Koster outlined the evidence against him.
Lozano noted Schaap’s good works as pastor of the church, which he had led since the death of his father in-law, Jack Hyles, in 2001. Hyles had built the church into one of the largest in the region, sending buses out from their Hammond base to collect the faithful from destinations as far north as suburban Waukegan.
Escorted by her son and daughter, Schaap’s wife, Cindy, did not answer questions as she left the courthouse following the sentencing and climbed into a waiting SUV. Cindy Schaap wrote two letters to Lozano asking for a lenient sentence for her husband of 34 years. In all, more than 100 letters of support were filed with the court.
Few of those in the audience would answer questions Wednesday from the news media. But one church member, asked about his former pastor’s sentence, was less supportive.
“I think he probably got what he deserved,” he said.
By Andy Grimm - Chicago Tribune (MCT)
©2013 Chicago Tribune
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