Key point 4-11.1. Clergy who engage in sexual contact with an adult or minor are subject to civil liability on the basis of several legal theories. They also are subject to criminal liability .
A Michigan court acted properly in sentencing a defendant who had been convicted of sexually inappropriate behavior with four minors to two consecutive, rather than concurrent, terms of incarceration.
Background: Youth pastor secretly video recorded four minors
A police investigation revealed that during 2015 and 2017, a youth pastor (the “defendant”) used his iPhone to secretly video record three sisters and another girl as they showered and changed clothes in his home while staying there on vacation. At the time of the first recording, the three sisters were 12, 14, and 16 years old. The other girl was 16.
The defendant had made several recordings of the girls in various stages of undressing. Using his computer, the defendant created more than 144 still images from the videos, enhancing them to better show the girls’ nudity.
The defendant pleaded guilty to four counts of capturing or distributing images of an unclothed person, and four counts of use of computers to commit a crime. He was sentenced to serve four concurrent sentences of two to five years’ imprisonment for the four convictions of capturing images of an unclothed person. The defendant was also sentenced to four concurrent sentences of four and one-half to seven years’ imprisonment for the four convictions of use of computers to commit a crime. The two sentences were all to be served consecutively.
Concurrent sentences are served simultaneously, whereas consecutive sentences are served back-to-back. The judge’s decision to go with consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentences meant the defendant’s total prison term would run from six and one-half to twelve years.
The defendant appealed, claiming that the trial judge’s decision for him to serve his sentences consecutively, rather than concurrently, was unreasonable.
Decision wasn’t unreasonable, didn’t “improperly rely on religious grounds”
The appeals court noted that a trial court has considerable discretion in imposing consecutive sentences. In this case, the trial judge had given a lengthy explanation as to why he imposed consecutive sentences based on the defendant’s “background and the nature of the offenses.” The trial judge reasoned that a consecutive sentence was warranted for the defendant’s abuse of the trusted relationship he had with his victims and their families.
The trial judge additionally concluded that the defendant in general was a danger to society and in particular to people who would place their trust in him. Thus, the appellate court concluded, the trial judge did not abuse his discretion by imposing the consecutive sentences and appropriately articulated multiple reasons for his decision.
The defendant also argued that the trial judge impermissibly relied on religious views as the reason for imposing the sentence. At sentencing, the appeals court noted, the trial judge stated:
The Bible speaks to a circumstance like this when our Lord Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depths of the sea. . . .”
The appeals court responded:
Although this passage references the Bible [it was] merely a reference to defendant’s abuse of his position in the church to exploit his victims. The trial judge’s reference to Jesus’s admonition against causing children to sin is simply an acknowledgement that crimes involving children are generally considered more serious than crimes involving adults and also could have been a reference to defendant’s previous position as the youth pastor for his victims. There is no basis for an inference that the trial judge imposed the consecutive sentences because defendant or the trial judge was Christian. The record shows that the trial judge relied on objective secular factors in deciding to impose the consecutive sentences. . . . Thus, the trial judge did not improperly rely on religious grounds when sentencing defendant.
What this means for churches
This is yet another case illustrating the risks associated with the use of technology by pastors and church leaders in inappropriate and illegal ways. See also “Former Youth Leader Convicted for Attempting to Engage Minors in Sexting.”
For help confronting and managing the many potential risks related to youth ministry, see “Minimizing the Risks of Child Molestation in Churches” and “Defending Youth Ministries from 8 Critical Risks.” To help train staff and volunteers, see Reducing the Risk—available on DVD or through online streaming video. People v. Enciso, 2020 WL 5985069 (Mich. App. 2020).