Pastor Jack Schaap is out of prison.
I didn’t think I’d be saying that until his scheduled release date next February, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons now says he’s a free man.
Schaap (which rhymes with “cop”) was a church leader whose fundamentalist preaching stood in stark contrast to the crime he eventually committed. And since it’s been a long time since people may have heard his name, it’s worthwhile to remember who this monster was and what he did.
Who is Jack Schaap?
The First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana used to be one of the largest Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches in the country when Schaap became its leader in 2001. It had previously been led by a man named Jack Hyles, who helped the church attract upwards of 20,000 people per week by promoting his brand of fundamentalism; Schaap had married Hyles’ daughter. (More recently, “New IFB” preachers like Steven Anderson and Jonathan Shelley have taken the baton when it comes to fire-and-brimstone preaching, even celebrating the murder of LGBTQ people and calling for the government to execute anyone guilty of sodomy.)
When Schaap took over, he used the pulpit to denounce rock music, teach women how to find a good man (“… keep your weight down to the proper level”), and, uh, polish his shaft:
All of that came to a screeching halt in 2012 when the church suddenly announced that Schaap had been fired “due to a sin that has caused him to forfeit his right to be our pastor.” They didn’t specify what had happened, but it didn’t take long for the details to come out.
Schaap confessed that he had had sex with a 16-year-old girl who was a member of the church. Because 16 was the age of consent in Indiana, it wasn’t technically considered rape.
So the church fired him on grounds of adultery.
Making matters worse was the fact that the girl had been seeing Schaap for counseling. It was in one of those sessions where he first kissed her. He later told her that having sex was “exactly what Christ desires for us.” And then, when facing prison time, he blamed “his prostate, exhaustion from 100-hour work weeks, and the mental strain of financial difficulties that forced him to lay off church employees.”
Prosecutors later said, as a way of rejecting his excuses, that “the only way [Schaap] could have been working 100-hour weeks during the time-period investigated by the government is if he’s counting the many hours he dedicated to grooming and sexually abusing the victim.”
What Jack Schaap did to his victim
Just before he was sentenced in 2013, those prosecutors revealed just how predatory Schaap had been.
He apparently told staffers that the girl was “extremely vulnerable” and “engaging in self-destructive behaviors.” Because spending alone time with her in Indiana might raise too many questions, he had a staffer drive the girl to Illinois for “counseling” sessions and, later, to his cabin in Michigan. That didn’t seem unusual to staffers since Schaap visited his Illinois home once a week to “spend time with God walking and praying.” But keep in mind that in Illinois, the age of consent was 17, making his actions a crime. In Michigan, the age of consent is 16 but sex is banned between a minor and an adult who holds a position of authority over the victim.
Why did he cross state lines to have sex with her? Because, prosecutors later said, it allowed him to spend extended periods of time with her (“up to 36 continuous hours”) without anyone finding out.
He also had sex with the girl (1) in his office (2) during a youth conference (3) taking place in his church.
That didn’t just happen out of nowhere. Schaap spent months grooming the children, including by sending her “love” letters. One of them included this message:
In our “fantasy talk,” you have affectionately spoken of being “my wife.” That is exactly what Christ desires for us. He wants to marry us + become eternal lovers!
Another letter said this:
This week, [Jane Doe], I tried to climb into your heart and write the graffiti of the Gospel on the walls. I wanted to spray paint in Neon colors that you are Priceless + Precious + are “off the charts” important – yes – to me personally – but especially to OUR Savior Jesus Christ. I’m reading my Bible now to draw a little closer to God – even if it’s a millimeter closer – because if we both get a little closer to Him, we also get closer + stronger + deeper w/ each other. Every relationship not built around that truth eventually must die – that’s what happened w/ you + J. And that’s why afterwards you pursued “dead” things + “dead” relationships. My passion this week was to show you a living relationship + how to keep it alive!
When Schaap’s staffers confronted him about the excessive amount of time he was spending with the child, he told them she was on her period and needed to rest in his office. Days later, Schaap left his phone on the pulpit during a youth conference. The girl in question had texted him a picture of the two of them “making out“… and another church leader found the phone. His secrets had finally been revealed… though evidence showed he had tried to delete any incriminating evidence.
All of this grooming and child sex abuse took a predictable toll on the victim and her family. The girl’s father later said Schaap caused them irreparable harm:
I will never forget how [Schaap] looked me in the eyes and lied to me and told me how great my daughter was doing. I know he lied to me the same way he lied to [my daughter]. He was able to use his power and position as Pastor to manipulate her and take advantage of her trust in him and faith in God. There is no doubt in my mind that [Schaap] carefully planned every detail of his crimes. This is not something that just happened. It is sickening to me that a man who claims to be a messenger of God, with a daughter of his own, would take advantage of a young girl in such an evil and immoral manner.
The victim herself delivered a powerful impact statement to the Court:
[Schaap] violated my trust. But when it was being violated, I didn’t even know it because he made me believe what we were doing was okay and right in the eyes of God. When I asked him if it was wrong, he told me no, and that I was his precious gift from God. I felt so special when he texted me from the holy alter during his sermons. . . . His lies and deception made me feel closer to him and to God.
She also sent a message to Schaap himself:
… This has been extremely hard to go through but it has been a journey for me. First I was in love with you and I would not admit that I was a victim. I honestly believed you loved me. I also felt so guilty and partially responsible, like maybe it was my fault. I know now that is not true. We know that I did not do anything but trust you like everyone else did. Then I became really angry towards God. For a second I did not believe in God. I thought there can’t be a God because he would not let this happen and if there is a God, I hate him because he did let this happen because you told me that he was ok with this. I couldn’t even say the word God, let alone, hear it. But God didn’t do this to me you did and I’m not going to blame God for it.
You said that you didn’t want to hurt me. You did not just hurt me. That would have been bad enough. You hurt my entire family. We all trusted you. We went to church for our entire lives. Now, I am in counseling to deal with the constant anger, sadness, guilt, and shame that I feel. I have come a long way. I have had to leave my friends and teachers that I have known my whole life and start a new school which has been really hard. Every day is a challenge for me because every day when I wake up I don’t want to get out of bed. I want to push pause because I do not want to go on with my day because I do not want to have to deal with this stuff. I didn’t ask for this to happen. I didn’t want this. You did. I don’t want to feel sad, ashamed or hurt anymore. I want things to be normal again. But I do get up and go on with my life no matter how hard it is. I know that I am strong enough to handle it. This has majorly affected my life but it hasn’t ruined it. I’m going to get through this and grow from it.
Schaap later agreed to a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for 10 years, followed by another 10 years of supervised release. The judge, taking that into consideration, sentenced him to 12 years behind bars with five years of probation. That would have kept him in prison until February 2, 2023.
Jack Schaap was released from prison early
Last year, however, Schaap’s lawyers asked for an earlier release date. They said he was 63, his elderly parents (86 and 84) were in poor health, his sister was in no condition to help them because of her own medical problems, and that Schaap’s wife “divorced him after his conviction.” The government said he had no business being let out early because it’s not like he was a model prisoner. They even cited an incident in which he lost 27 days of “good time credit” and visitation privileges for nine months after getting caught “putting [his] hand under jacket and in crotch area of female visitor.”
The judge denied Schaap’s request for an early release, saying plenty of prisoners had sick parents and that, in this case, “the seriousness of the offense is immense, and the circumstances are grotesque.” That was the last public document available in association with his case. As far as the public was concerned, he wasn’t going to get out of prison before February of next year.
And yet he’s now a free man. It’s not clear why he was let out early, though there are now ways for federal prisoners to earn a quicker release based on participation in programs designed to reduce recidivism.
The First Baptist Church of Hammond did not reply to my request for comment about his release. However, they distanced themselves from Schaap in a separate statement:
Rick Sparks, a spokesman for First Baptist Hammond, said in a statement that the church was aware of Schaap’s release.
“Our ministry has not had contact with him and do not know his future plans,” Sparks’ statement read. “We are confident he will not have any connection to First Baptist Church or Hyles-Anderson College.”