CROWN POINT - Beverly Ballenger buried her head in her hands and cried
Friday as Lake Criminal Court Judge Richard Conroy sentenced her father to five
years in prison for child molesting.
The tough sentence, which surprised even the prosecution, was followed by
Conroy's decision to allow A.V. Ballenger to remain free on bond while his
appeal is pending.
Ballenger, 57, of Hammond, a deacon at First Baptist Church of Hammond, was
convicted March 26 of fondling a 7-year-old girl in the summer of 1991 in her
Sunday school class.
Although only the one case was brought against him, prosecutors last week
put three additional women on the stand during Ballenger's sentencing hearing
to say he had also molested them as children.
Indiana law prevents such witnesses from testifying at the trial unless the
defendant is charged with molesting them, but Conroy said, "Had they been
allowed at trial, I think the jury would have come back in 10 minutes with a
guilty verdict instead of 11 hours."
Conroy said he found the three women to be "very credible" because they did
not know each other and apparently have nothing to gain from their testimony.
After the sentence, the father of the victim said, "There is no way that man
is supposed to be walking the streets. He was supposed to go right to jail. The
judge did right by giving him five years, but he should have marched him off to
Ballenger left the courthouse after posting an additional $1,000 bond raised
in minutes by his supporters. He declined to speak with reporters, but in the
parking lot, Times photographer Aldino Gallo said he dodged a kick aimed at him
Just before sentencing, Ballenger addressed the judge and again pleaded his
innocence. "Even if I touched that little girl accidentally, there was no
criminal intent," he said. "I wish I could take my mind out, my heart out and
let you look at it."
To Ballenger, Conroy said, "Your friends do not want to believe you are a
child molester, and I can understand that. Who wants to believe a person you
love and respect and trust is a child molester? But from the evidence I heard
in this court, you are one indeed."
Ballenger's supporters, mostly from the church, packed the courtroom as they
did for each day of the trial and last week's two-day sentencing hearing.
To them, Conroy said, "There are those who believe this is a conspiracy to
damage or destroy the church. But the people who brought the charges were not
outsiders, but members of the church.
"The girls who testified showed no animosity toward the church. One even
said she felt it was still a great church. And being a clergyman or an official
of a church does not insulate that individual.
"The church might be wounded for a while, but it will bounce back," Conroy
said. "I know of no church that teaches child molesting; that would be
incredible. Child molesting is a sin morally, but some sins must be addressed
civilly, some sins are also crimes and that is why we are in court."
Deputy Prosecutor Clarence Murray asked for a seven-year prison term, one
year short of the maximum.
"If he is not committed, he will just keep doing this," Murray said.
"Consider the nature of the circumstances - committed in a church of all
places, a place where a child or anyone should feel safe and secure. He was and
is a deacon in the church, and he violated that trust.
"To his family, he has been a devoted husband and father. To his church, a
devoted deacon and to his co-workers, a good friend," Murray said. "But to his
victims, he is a wolf in sheep's clothing."
Ballenger's lawyer, James Foster, said, "As a man, A.V. Ballenger has had
much good impact. We cannot throw that away because the prosecutor wants to
look only at the bad. You don't serve in a rescue mission for years because you
are looking to molest children."
Conroy said Ballenger might have gotten probation had there been only one
victim, but the additional witnesses convinced him jail time was needed.
"I'm satisfied with the sentence," Murray said. "I hope it sends a message
to the community that child molesting will not be tolerated in this county and
you can't hide behind your status or your job."
Foster said he plans to file an appeal as soon as possible.
"I believe there are several meaty issues for appeal, and it is appropriate
that A.V. be free on bond while they are being decided," he said. "I respect
Judge Conroy's perspective, but from our point of view, five years is a
substantial sentence, and we would have liked to see it lower."
Murray said he was disappointed but not surprised at Conroy's decision to
allow Ballenger to post an additional $1,000 and remain free.
"It was a very emotional trial and a very emotional sentencing," he said.
"Under the circumstances, I understood his reasoning."