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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

by Ballenger.

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."