Legal Ramifications of Sexual Misconduct

Court upholds lengthy conviction for molester.

Church Law and Tax 1996-11-01

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point. Sexual contact with minors, even if it involves only fondling, can result in lengthy prison sentences.

A Missouri court upheld a sentence of 60 years in a state penitentiary for an adult leader of a church youth group who fondled a 10—year—old boy. The adult leader was in charge of a church youth group consisting of young boys. The church operated an overnight summer camp for children, and the leader invited several boys to spend two nights at his apartment before camp started, and a third night after camp ended. The boys slept in the living room together. Some slept on couches, but the 10—year—old victim slept on the floor next to the leader. The victim wore underwear and pajamas and slept in a sleeping bag. The victim was awakened the first night when he became aware that someone’s hand was touching his penis under his pajamas and underwear. The hand remained on the victim’s penis for 10 minutes. During this time, the victim heard heavy breathing. He did not look or move, he later testified, because he was afraid. He noticed that the hand was large, and that is was an adult’s rather than a child’s hand. The victim concluded that the leader had touched him, since he was the only adult in the room and he was sleeping directly next to him. The same scenario occurred the second night, and the night after camp ended. The leader was later found guilty of three counts of violating a state sodomy statute, and was sentenced to three consecutive 20—year sentences for a total term of 60 years. The leader appealed his conviction on a number of grounds. First, he argued that there was insufficient proof to convict him. Specifically, he noted that the victim never saw who touched him, and that the conviction was based on the victim’s testimony that an adult had touched him and that the leader was sleeping next to him. The court rejected the leader’s argument, noting that “the testimony of a single witness is sufficient to support a criminal conviction,” and that “in cases involving sexual offenses, the victim’s testimony alone will sustain a conviction even if uncorroborated.” The leader also claimed that his conviction should be reversed because of statements made by the prosecutor during his closing argument to the jury. The prosecutor observed: “The state is asking you to consider the maximum, send a message out that, in this county, when you abuse that trust, when you take the liberties and take the innocence of a little kid, expect to be treated harshly and with a severe sentence.” The court refused to reverse the leader’s conviction on the basis of these remarks. Finally, the leader claimed that his 60—year sentence in a state penitentiary was illegal because it amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment.” The court disagreed. It acknowledged that this was the leader’s first offense, but it also noted that the punishment for sodomy can range between 5 years and life imprisonment for each count, and that 20 year sentences on 3 separate counts was not unreasonable. While conceding that the sentence “seems harsh under the circumstances,” the court concluded: “A punishment within the statutory limits cannot as a matter of law be held cruel and unusual when the statute authorizing the punishment is not invalid; when punishment imposed is within the range prescribed by statute, it cannot be judged excessive by the appellate court; and where defendant is convicted of separate offenses and the sentences imposed are within statutory limits, consecutive effect of the sentences does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.” The court noted that while the leader had no prior convictions, he “continues in denial of guilt, and therefore would not be considered a good risk to succeed in counseling.” State v. Graham, 906 S.W.2d 771 (Mo. App. 1995). [ Seduction of Counselees and Church Members]

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