Judge’s Severe Comments During Youth Pastor’s Trial Ruled Insufficient Grounds to Reverse Conviction

Court fairly considered all of the evidence presented at trial and, despite its harsh rhetoric, imposed a sentence significantly under the maximum aggregate term that defendant faced.

Key point. Harsh rhetoric employed by trial judges in condemning the behavior of child molesters does not necessarily constitute grounds for reversing a conviction.

An Illinois appeals court ruled that a trial judge's harsh comments to a jury concerning child molesters in the prosecution of a youth pastor who had sexually molested minors in his church was not grounds for a reduced sentence or new trial.

A church's youth pastor (the "defendant") sexually assaulted two adolescent boys while they were spending the night in the church's parsonage. The defendant allowed his victims to spend the night with him in his house, which was property owned by the church. He proceeded to perform sexual acts on them in that house before taking them to church the next morning. The defendant admitted that "in both cases I destroyed their trust and friendship and broke the promises that I made to them, their families, the church, the community and to my friends and family." The defendant apologized profusely to the victims, their families, his former congregation, members of the community, and his own family.

As part of the defendant's sentencing, the court asked parents to complete a victim's impact statement. The mother of one of the victims prepared a statement which provided, in part: "You stole our son from us. You stole his innocence, his faith, his trust, his will to live … . When he met you and we found out you were a minister we thought you were going to be good for him, teaching him about God's love. Instead you took it all away from him."The defendant was charged with various felony counts, and was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Separately, the defendant faced prosecution for possession of child pornography based on numerous images of child pornography that he had downloaded onto his church computer.

The judge sentenced the defendant to 30 years in prison, a sentence less than the maximum allowed by law. His remarks, which were directed to the defendant, spanned 13 pages, and provided, in part:

These are crimes … of outrage and I think you can imagine the sentence that might be imposed on you if they left you tied to a post uptown and put above it some of the pictures I saw, some of the despicable filth that you left on your church computer. I don't think it would take too long for the good citizens of this area to deal a punishment on you much more severe than my own. And I have struggled mightily to keep my own emotions as a man, as a church goer, as a father in check and I believe that I have done so, but you need to understand that society's worst opprobrium is reserved for people who commit crimes like this … .

These victims, these boys all came to you through church. The offenses were committed on church property. It happened more than once. They occurred while you were a minister. It is clear that you used the cloak of religion to gain access to your victims and to gain the trust of them and their parents … .

Ordinarily we don't have religion in court, that's not a rule that I have made, but it's the law. It does, however, seem impossible to avoid it in this case. And I have always thought it ironic that the Bible, which is really a book of laws, is the only law book I know of that's not allowed in court. I have considered these letters … but I keep coming back to what you did.

You defied 2 churches, 2 houses of the Lord with your depravity and you cast a pall on churchmen everywhere. You have subjected now the church to a lawsuit from one of the most outstanding plaintiff's tort lawyers in Illinois. They want over a million dollars and you brought that on your church that you profess to love. How many children now will be kept out of church and out of youth group because their parents are afraid they are going to be molested? How much harder is it going to be for ministers to gain the trust of parishioners and children? And you have apparently driven at least one of these boys out of the church and away from God, that's according to the victim statement, and that's your fault … .

You might have started out in the church … but I think perversion is your true religion and you are its high priest and there's been enough sacrifice of young men on the altar of depravity by you… . There is nobody worse than a desecrater and a betrayer, especially a minister who does it, who in his actions drives people from God and that's what you did.

The defendant appealed, claiming that the trial court violated his constitutional rights by exhibiting a personal and religious bias against him. In support of his claim, the defendant cited numerous examples of the court's statements at sentencing. He claimed that these statements, including the court's repeated references to church and religion, exemplified the "judge's active, personal or religious animosity, hostility, ill will or distrust toward the defendant." The court, in rejecting the defendant's challenge, concluded:

The trial court's remarks in the present case do not evince any animosity, hostility, ill will, or distrust toward defendant. The court condemned defendant and his actions in the strongest possible terms. The court described the outrage felt in the community stemming from defendant's crimes. Still, the record demonstrates that the court fairly considered all of the evidence presented at trial and, despite its harsh rhetoric, imposed a sentence significantly under the maximum aggregate term that defendant faced. Defendant was convicted of using his position as a youth minister to engage in sexual contact with two young boys. These crimes warranted harsh criticism from the trial court. We hold that harsh criticism, based on the particular facts of a defendant's case, does not constitute any sort of evidence of prejudice derived from personal bias.

Furthermore, the court's references to religion did not reflect any religious animosity or ill will toward defendant. To be sure, the court's repeated references to religion and church are more than is commonly seen in a sentencing hearing. However, these references were plainly invited by defendant. After calling six clergy members to testify in mitigation, defendant's lengthy [presentencing] statement was ripe with religiosity. Having invited a sentencing hearing teeming with religion, defendant may not now argue that the trial court's references to that topic deprived him of due process. More importantly, a number of factors cited by the trial court in aggravation necessarily related to religion, namely that defendant used religion to ensnare his victims, that defendant's crimes were committed on church property, and that child pornography was found on a church computer. On the facts of this case, it would have been virtually impossible for the court to avoid mentioning church or religion in sentencing. The trial court simply could not reference those factors without referencing religion. Defendant's claims that the trial court exhibited personal or religious bias against him are thus affirmatively rebutted by the record.

What this means for churches

This case is instructive for many reasons, including the following.

First, it illustrates the importance of the "two-adult rule" in church programs and activities. That is, a youth or children's worker should never be alone and unsupervised with one child. Church leadership should have established such a rule, and made it applicable to all church property, including the parsonage where the youth pastor resided, and activities. All pastors and lay youth workers should have been apprised of this rule, and instructed to report any violations.

Second, churches should never allow children or adolescents to spend the night with a pastor or lay youth worker in a private residence, parsonage, or hotel room. The risk of inappropriate conduct is too great. Some churches relax the rules when other adults are present, but this seldom helps since continual monitoring in such cases is difficult, if not impossible. Many minors have been sexually molested under these circumstances because the other adults are sleeping or are in other areas of the home.

Third, the defendant copied significant amounts of child pornography on his church computer. Church leaders need to proceed with caution when contemplating searches of church-owned computers used by church staff. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that employees have a legitimate expectation of privacy in their workspace and employer-provided computer. City of Ontario v. Quon, 2010 WL 2400087 (U.S. 2010). But the Court added that inspections of church-provided computers used by employees may be legally justifiable if based on a "legitimate work-related purpose" and the search is not "excessively intrusive in light of that justification." Church leaders are advised to consult with legal counsel before embarking on the inspection of computers. People v. Rademacher, 59 N.E.3d 12 (Ill. App. 2016).

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