The ex-youth pastor of a Bellingham church grimaced, wept, and struggled to breathe in court Wednesday, as he listened to a teenage girl – standing feet away – describe the lasting harm he caused when he raped her countless times.
Christopher Lee Trent was sentenced to 5 years in prison for sexually abusing the girl, who went to Bellingham Baptist Church on Orleans Street when she was under the age of 16.
Court records describe how he kept the abuse a secret for about 2 years.
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Trent, 37, graduated from Heartland Baptist Bible College in Oklahoma, where he met Josh Carter, the future pastor of the Bellingham church. Trent moved across the country with his wife and seven children in June 2013, after Carter asked if he’d be interested in a youth pastor job.
Over the next three years, Trent supervised children at church activities, preached in front of the main congregation at times, and led classes about how adults can prevent child abuse in the church.
Meanwhile, he started driving the girl home from church. She visited his home often, and she came to think of him as a kind of father figure. Over time he started showing affection by giving her “side hugs,” and later hugging her chest-to-chest. In text messages he told the girl he loved her and wanted to kiss her. Eventually he promised to marry her at a gazebo on a beach when she turned 18.
The girl later estimated that over months, he sexually abused her over 100 times – so often she lost count. Months before the abuse came to light, the girl’s mother noticed her phone bill showed hundreds of texts from Trent’s number, sent at 1 or 2 a.m., where he talked about holding and loving the girl. According to a letter the mother wrote to police, she confronted Trent, but he laughed and denied anything inappropriate had happened. She warned him to not touch her daughter, and blocked Trent’s number, but did not contact police.
Trent and the girl switched to texting over private apps on their phones.
Trent’s wife found explicit pictures of the girl on his phone, too, but he convinced her the girl must have sent them by accident and to the wrong person, according to reports summarized in a Department of Corrections investigation.
The head pastor confronted Trent in 2016, because others had noticed he had an oddly close relationship with the girl. Then a member of the church found a letter that fell out of Trent’s Bible, where the girl talked about Trent holding her close. Both Trent and the girl denied that anything sexual had happened between them, when Carter spoke with them.
Trent was fired. His family was given a month to move out of a church parsonage. No report was made to police until a couple of weeks later, on July 11, 2016, when another church member told police Trent was fired for an inappropriate relationship with a girl. As detectives started to investigate, the girl revealed Trent had been sexually abusing her, at the church, in the car behind the church, and in their homes.
Much later the girl told authorities the abuse was even worse than she had first reported: Trent called her his “sex slave,” and forced her to endure sex acts that left her bleeding and in pain for days. He would monitor her conversations with boys and, at times, told her not to eat. She feared he would kill her, if it would keep his secret from getting out.
Police arrested Trent on July 18 as he was loading a U-Haul to move out of Bellingham. He never denied the abuse.
As he awaited trial in jail Trent led a Bible study for other inmates.
In February 2017, a cell block mate told police Trent asked him to pass along a coded message online to the girl – a string of emoticons – in what would be a violation of a no-contact order. The inmate didn’t go through with it when he got out so the message never reached the girl.
Trent pleaded guilty in March to four counts of third-degree child rape. He had no prior criminal record. No other charges of sexual abuse emerged. He told authorities that, a decade before his arrest, he worked with special needs kids in Franklin Township on the outskirts of Indianapolis, in his home state of Indiana.
At a sentencing hearing Wednesday, a Bellingham police detective wrapped an arm around the girl as she read an excruciating, tearful letter to Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis. The girl stood at a podium a few feet to Trent’s right, and described how he had stolen her dignity and her teenage years.
“I lived my life in fear of the next thing he would do to me, what the next day would bring, and if it would bring more mental and physical pain than the day before,” the girl said. “Your honor, I never knew someone could harm another individual as much as Chris did, when he put his hands on me for the first time.”
She begged the judge to give Trent the highest sentence possible. Tears rolled down Trent’s cheeks as he listened. He pressed his fingers to his temples, and dry-heaved at one point in the girl’s 10-minute statement, when she talked about how much pain he put her through.
Trent’s hands shook when it was his turn to address the judge. He began by confessing –“before God and man” – that he was guilty, that he was sorry for how he hurt the church, and that what happened was entirely his fault.
“As David stated in Psalms chapter 51, verse 3: ‘For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,’” Trent said.
He said he would spend the rest of his life trying to repair his name. A plea deal suggested Trent serve 5 years in prison, the most allowed under state law, according to the deputy prosecutor, Eric Richey.
Montoya-Lewis said she found it extraordinarily frustrating that, in her reading of the law, she could not hand down more prison time. She reiterated to the girl and her family that the crime was not their fault: It was Trent’s alone. She turned to Trent, and told him his behavior had been “insidious and terrifying.”
“You cannot hide behind the concept of sin, as you have represented to the court. These were poor choices,” Montoya-Lewis said. “They were your choices, over years. You had every opportunity, every day, to stop what you were doing to this child, and you chose to continue.
“It is not in the court’s authority or ability to hand out forgiveness,” Montoya-Lewis continued. “But I listened to what happened to (the girl), and I read about her experiences, and your response to that. And it is unforgivable.”