Frank spiritual talk about sex, or exploitation? Judge weighs difference in pastor's exploitation case

Could youth pastor Paxton Singer's text messages to a 15-year-old congregant at Harvest Bible Chapel be construed as a frank spiritual discussion about sexual matters?

A Kane County judge asked prosecutors that Tuesday, as he prepares to decide whether to issue a directed verdict of "not guilty" for Paxton Singer of Sugar Grove on a charge of child sexual exploitation.

Defendants routinely ask for a directed verdict after prosecutors finish their side of the case.

Judge Michael Noland asked several questions of prosecutors and defense attorneys about elements of the alleged crime. State law says a person who "knowingly entices, coerces, or persuades a child to remove the child's clothing for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification of the person or the child, or both" commits sexual exploitation of a child.

Defense attorney Terry Ekl again argued prosecutors haven't shown any evidence that Singer asked the teen to take off his clothing, or that the teen ever did. The teen sent Singer a photo of underpants on the floor.

"Asking for a picture of a young man in his underwear may sound unusual, weird or strange," but being weird is not illegal, Ekl said, likening the red underpants to a Speedo swimming suit in terms of exposure.

Ekl also argued the case should be dismissed on a technical issue: The original complaint did not name a victim. An amended complaint filed in July, extending the statute of limitations for the prosecution, did include the victim's initials.

Singer is accused of asking a boy, then 15, for a photo of the boy in his underpants; for a photo of the underpants; and for the boy to stay at his house overnight. He did so via text messages between February and December 2017.

Noland said Singer was in a position of trust or authority, as a youth minister for Harvest Bible Chapel. Assistant State's Attorney Lori Schmidt previously argued the teen looked up to Singer as a mentor.

"Isn't it fair that that role (pastor) could become relaxed in a way ... to open lines of communication" to foster spiritual growth and ease for talk about sex, Noland asked.

He referred to other texts between Singer and the boy, which Schmidt had argued gradually groomed the teen. Singer and the teen had discussed the teen seeing sexually oriented videos and whether the teen had a girlfriend or experienced his first kiss. They discussed sexual temptation, with Singer admitting he had fallen prey and experienced "darkness" because of it.

Schmidt replied that two former Harvest pastors had testified such texts were inappropriate by the church's standards. They said Singer was fired over the matter.

"Where was the sexual gratification?" Noland then asked.

"For what other reasons would he want a picture of him in his underwear, exposing his genitals through the underwear?" Schmidt said.

She disagreed with a theory the judge floated, that in today's "liberal" or "progressive" times it might be appropriate for a youth pastor to frankly discuss sexual topics with a teen. He also asked if it was akin to a Catholic priest speaking in detail with a parishioner in confession.

"I don't think God cares what kind of underwear a child wears," Schmidt replied.

Noland said he will issue a written decision Oct. 8. If he grants a directed verdict of "not guilty," the trial will end. If he does not, the defense will present its case.

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