Friday, September 30, 2005

 

Pastor may face prison time for sexual assault conviction


Dallas - That a charismatic pastor of an Irving nondenominational church had sex with at least three women in his tiny congregation was never in dispute during Steven G. Smith's trial.

Mr. Smith's own attorneys called his adulterous behavior "sad and distasteful" but argued he was not guilty of sexual assault because the relationships were consensual.

A jury disagreed Thursday, finding Mr. Smith guilty after deciding under a rarely used 1996 law that the women were unwilling participants because Mr. Smith exploited the emotional dependence he held over them as their pastor.

"That was the way he treated the women in his church," prosecutors Josh Healy said during closing arguments. "He'd use the Bible. He'd use God's word to prey on these women."

In each of the three cases described in the trial, female congregation members testified that Mr. Smith influenced them into having sex during private prayer and counseling sessions.

But attorneys for Mr. Smith argued that the relationships were consensual and that Mr. Smith was not acting in his capacity as a minister.

"It's straight-up adultery and it's wrong," said attorney Jack Peacock, but he added that the allegations do not amount to sexual assault.

When questioned during the trial about their relationships with Mr. Smith, the women said he would use the Bible to justify his behavior. In one case, Mr. Smith explained that his own commandment "to heal each others' hearts" took precedence over the Bible's commandment against adultery.

The women also said Mr. Smith alternately threatened that he was considering suicide and said he needed the sexual relationships because his own marriage was lacking.

"He told me how precious it was to his heart that I had let him be intimate with my soul," one of the women testified. The Dallas Morning News does not typically publish the names of victims of sex crimes. "He told me the Lord had literally used me to save his life during the suicidal depression he had been having. ... I didn't understand how to tell him no."

Former members of the church described a tightly knit ministry that began as a Bible study in the early 1980s and operated out of Mr. Smith's Irving home. The congregation never had more than 30 by design, and new members had to be approved by vote. Most members had been attending for more than 10 years when it imploded after the behavior surfaced in 2002.

Church members described Mr. Smith as the undisputed leader and teacher who did not delegate authority when it came to church matters.

The husband of one of the victims testified that Mr. Smith advised him to refrain from having sex with his then-girlfriend at the same time Mr. Smith was counseling the victim and having sex with her.

Mr. Healy and fellow prosecutor Brian Corrigan argued during the two-day trial that Mr. Smith was a sexual predator. After six hours of deliberations, the jurors agreed.

The punishment phase of Mr. Smith's trial begins today, and Mr. Smith faces punishment ranging from probation to 20 years in prison for the second-degree felony charge.

In September 2004, a jury heard the same allegations and deliberated 16 hours before becoming deadlocked, causing a mistrial. After the guilty verdict Thursday, Mr. Smith – who had been free on bond – was taken into custody until the punishment hearing concludes.


See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.

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