HAMMOND | With an orange jail jumpsuit and leg shackles replacing the suit and tie he wore to a previous hearing, disgraced Pastor Jack Schaap admitted Wednesday to having three sexual encounters with a parish girl beginning when she was 16.
Schaap, 54, formally pleaded guilty in Hammond federal court before U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano, admitting to a charge that could bring 10 or more years in prison.
Schaap, former pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, periodically winked and gave a thumbs-up to family members and others gathered in the court's visitors gallery.
One man seated in the gallery and holding a Bible whispered a quiet prayer to Jesus when Schaap took his seat in the defendant's chair.
During the proceedings, Schaap admitted to Lozano that his sexual encounters with the girl began when she was 16 — in June 2012 — and continued two more times through July, when she was 17.
At the time of the encounters, the victim was both a church member whom Schaap was counseling and a student of the Hammond Baptist Schools, of which Schaap was the superintendent, he told the judge.
Schaap told Lozano he had someone else — who was not named during the proceedings — drive the victim to locations in Crete, Ill., and western Michigan for the encounters.
He told Lozano what he did "was a sin. It was wrong." But Schaap also claimed he did not realize it was illegal at the time he was carrying out the acts.
Lozano deferred accepting Schaap's plea until the scheduled Jan. 15 sentencing hearing.
Under the plea deal, Schaap also relinquished to federal authorities various computer and electronics equipment, including an Apple iPad, iPhone and digital camera, court records state.
Prosecutors told Lozano that various text messages, photos on Schaap's cellphone showing him and the victim together and other evidence would have been brought forth had the case gone to trial.
Federal prosecutors allege Schaap, who was fired from the church earlier this year, used those — and other — electronic devices when he carried on a sexual relationship with a minor, having the girl driven to Illinois and Michigan.
Responding to Schaap's plea Wednesday afternoon, church spokesman Eddie Wilson said, "We are one step closer to closure."
Church officials have said they fully cooperated with a police investigation into the case.