CHICAGO — Jack Schaap, the former pastor of a 15,000-member northwest Indiana megachurch, was sentenced today to 12 years in prison for engaging in sex with a troubled underage girl who sought him out for counseling.
In a statement, the victim wrote that Schaap would text her from the altar during his sermons. In another statement, written as a letter to Schaap, she wrote: “When you first kissed me I was shocked. … When I asked you if it was wrong, you said ‘No.’ You told me that I was sent you from God, I was his gift to you. You made me feel special.”
Schaap entered a guilty plea last September in a deal with federal prosecutors, admitting to allegations that led to his ouster from the highly conservative Hammond Baptist Church that his late father in-law, Jack Hyles, had built into one of the area’s largest churches.
But at sentencing Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano said a 10-year-deal hammered out by both sides did not meet the 12-year-mimum required under federal sentencing guidelines. Schaap stared at the judge without emotion.
While Lozano lauded Schaap for quickly pleading guilty last fall before the complaint was even filed, Lozano said he did not want to set the example by “giving a 25 percent discount” for that cooperation.
While Schaap eventually took responsibility for his actions, he initially denied the allegations when he was confronted by church officials, Lozano said. In explanations for the stiffer sentence, the judge pointed to Schaap’s attempts to get rid of evidence by deleting text messages and photos of him with the girl and that the pastor also fired at least one church staffer who had questioned the pastor’s relationship with the girl, Lozano said.
About 70 church members were in attendance at the hearing, with many of them bowing their heads as if in prayer. The girl’s family declined comment.
More than 100 letters of support were sent to Lozano, attesting to decades of good works by the pastor, and claiming that stress and health problems — including prostate troubles and “low lithium levels” — led Schaap to stray during a romantic relationship with the vulnerable teen.
During his sentencing, Schaap referred to a news story about rescuers saving people who had fallen through ice and said, at first, his intentions had been honorable.
“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.”
He apologized to his wife, children and parents and urged the congregation of Hammond Baptist to show compassion for the victim and her family.
“If you love me, please don’t blame this family for my wrongdoings. Blame me,” Schaap said.
Lozano noted that in the aftermath of the scandal, the girl was expelled from Hammond Baptist High School and the family from the church.
Schaap’s wife, Cindy, who describes her husband’s affair with the girl as “consensual,” said her husband was suffering from “a severe case of prostatitis” and complained of exhaustion during the time he now admits he was involved in a sexual relationship with the victim.
“I feel compelled to ask once more for leniency in my husband’s sentencing,” she wrote.
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 10 years in prison, saying the evidence against Schaap depicts a church leader who used his “inside track to God” to take advantage of the girl, who turned 17 during the relationship.
In a sentencing memorandum, federal prosecutors said that Schaap “groomed” the victim and exchanged nearly 700 text messages, phone calls and love letters with the girl. They point to evidence including photographs found on his computer that show Schaap kissing and groping the victim.
“Photographs taken at (Schaap’s home) feature the defendant grinning like a Cheshire cat while rubbing cheeks with the victim, and, in another shot, engaging the victim in what one witness described as a ‘very romantic lip-lock,’” prosecutors said.
“Rather than stress, exhaustion, depression or medical maladies causing Defendant’s criminal conduct, the findings of the government’s investigation suggest that it was lust, hubris and poor judgment that prompted Defendant’s much-deserved fall from grace.”
The photographs were taken at Schaap’s home in far south suburban Crete, and at his cabin in Cadillac, Mich.
Schaap had a church member and her daughter bring the girl to Michigan for intensive counseling, and the same church member twice brought the girl to meet with Schaap at a forest preserve in Illinois, where Schaap told staffers he went once a week to “spend time with God walking and praying.” From there he took the girl to his home in Crete.
Schaap also had encounters with the girl that violated state laws regarding sex with minors at his office in Indiana. Criminal charges he faces in the three states are to be dropped as part of his federal plea deal. Schaap will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. The judge also sentenced him to five years of supervised release after he completes his prison term.
Upon leaving the hearing, a church member who would not give his name said, “I think he probably got what he deserved.”