A former music director at Bellingham Baptist Church must serve time in prison for molesting a girl for years, a Superior Court judge has ruled.
Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis sentenced Paul Michael Bane to 5 years in prison, the same amount of time she handed the church’s youth pastor, Christopher Trent, a month ago in a separate case of long-term sex abuse of a different girl.
Bane, 57, arrived at the Bellingham police station one morning in October 2015 to confess he had been sexually touching a girl for about 8 years, according to court records. At that point police had not spoken with the girl, who was living in the Midwest, but Bane told police the girl’s story, whatever it might be, could be trusted.
According to his report, Bane became a kind of father figure to the girl when she was younger. The sexual abuse began around the time the victim turned 12 years old. Bane would kiss her, sexually touch her, and later, started tying her with a clothesline during sex acts.
When she went to college years later, she revealed the abuse to a counselor, who encouraged the girl to report the matter to police. For about 1 ½ months, she told Bane she had been considering coming forward. Bane confessed to his pastor, Josh Carter, who told Bane he needed to turn himself in. He did and told police he’d thought of moving across the country to be near the victim.
Police called her at her Bible college. She was, at first, reluctant to help in the case. The young woman had other things going on in her life, and she still cared about Bane, she reported. About a month later, she decided to go to police, because she did not want the same thing to happen to another girl. In an interview with a detective in a Oklahoma, she described in graphic detail how Bane abused her as often as twice a week, or daily, through her teenage years.
An investigator with the Department of Corrections noted that in the police interview the young woman didn’t know basic sexual terms, or basic things about female anatomy. She seemed sheltered, and appeared Bane had groomed her for sexual abuse. He treated her with affection he did not show other children. He would buy her gifts, candy, or food. After Bane abused her, he would apologize.
In the victim’s version, the abuse mostly stopped after 4 ½ years, though there were two more instances of sexual contact when she was a young adult.
Police booked Bane into jail in December 2015. He was released without being required to post bond. He remained out of jail until May, when he pleaded guilty to second-degree child molestation and two counts of third-degree child molestation.
In court last week, Bane sat in a green jail uniform as he listened to a letter from the victim.
“The Lord … gives me peace and comfort daily, but it does not change what happened, and there is no way I will ever forget,” she wrote. “I only hope that someday I will be able to help someone who has gone through what I have gone through. I do not hate Paul Bane. I have forgiven him. But I do want him to face the consequences of his choices.”
A public defender, Darrin Hall, described Bane as “somebody who does not connect with adults,” but for whatever reason, he found he connected with the girl. Bane’s actions look and feel predatory, but in reality, Hall said, they seem to be rooted in his immaturity. Bane will undergo sex offender treatment while serving time in prison.
Bane addressed the judge in a voice hardly louder than a whisper. He said he could not justify what he had done, and he could not say anything to undo it.
Montoya-Lewis admonished Bane for statements he made during the investigation, when he claimed his “relationship” with the victim was consensual, and when he brushed aside criticism from people who were concerned about how he acted around her.
“It is inconceivable to me,” Montoya-Lewis said, her voice halting, “that you could suggest to this victim that her compliance was something that God wanted.”
Bane’s membership at Bellingham Baptist Church predated Carter, the current pastor. Bane had been a musical director, but his taste in Christian music was too conservative for some, according to court documents. So Bane switched to a church bus driver for children.
Months after Bane’s arrest, the church was rocked by a second child sex abuse scandal, when the youth pastor Christopher Lee Trent, 37, was charged with sexually abusing a teenage girl over a span of about 3 years.
In both cases the crimes went on in secret for years and the girls’ stories emerged gradually because they were reluctant to report the abuses to authorities.
Both Bane and Trent underwent yearly background checks because they worked with children at the church. The church hosted classes on how to recognize signs of child sex abuse. Trent taught one of those classes, and it was those lessons that compelled another church member to tell police about the concerning relationship Trent had with one girl.
Neither Bane nor Trent had been convicted of a crime before. So like any school or Boy Scout group, a church can’t predict when someone will abuse a child for the first time, Carter said Tuesday.
Carter said the church had safeguards, and continues to reiterate the importance of those safeguards at weekly and monthly meetings with teachers.
“The problem comes in with human error,” Carter said. “That’s where Paul and Chris come in. They’re the human error.”
Since the abuse came to light, there has not been a mass exodus from Bellingham Baptist Church. The only people to leave the congregation of about 130, Carter said, were those involved in the actual investigations. Members trust the church to protect the children, he said. Instead, he continued, it’s the legal system that showed cracks.
“How is it that Paul Bane walked around (awaiting trial) for 1 ½ years? How is it that Chris Trent gets only 5 years in jail?” Carter asked. “It’s our laws in this state – and it’s not the D.A.’s office, it’s not the judge, because she made it clear she would have given (Trent) more time. It’s lawmakers that have made it possible to prosecute these guys in this manner. Their sentencing doesn’t fit the crime.”
Carter said the church has hired a Christian consulting group to help assess what, if anything, Bellingham Baptist Church can do to prevent similar incidents. The consultant has yet to present its findings to the church.
“We did everything we could to prevent this from happening, and we did everything we could to put these men in jail, where they belong,” Carter said. “The only thing I can’t do is read people’s minds. I can’t make people do right when they’re bent on doing wrong.”