Apologetic Pastor Sentenced in Sex Case

By Rodney Hart
Quincy Herald-Whig [Carrollton IL]
November 14, 2006

Carrollton, Ill. — A former Plainville and Carrollton pastor who pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse was sentenced Monday to four years of probation.

Jeffrey D. Heberlein, 43, pleaded guilty Sept. 22 to having inappropriate sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl in Carrollton. He could have received up to four years in prison. He was a pastor at two Carrollton churches in 2003 and 2004 when the offenses took place, authorities said.

Heberlein was pastoring at Akers Chapel Church in Plainville for about two years when he made the guilty plea. He left that church last month.

Several Akers Chapel church members declined to comment when contacted by The Herald-Whig, but one member did say Heberlein was voted out by church members.

In court Monday, Heberlein apologized to the victim's family, his family and supporters, attorneys and Judge Lois Bell. Bell sentenced him to probation, fined him $1,500, and ordered him to pay court costs and restitution for nearly $1,200 in counseling bills for the victim.

Heberlein must also register as a sex offender and may not have any contact with the victim.

"There are no words to describe what a horrid time this has been for them," Heberlein said to the victim's family, which was seated in the courtroom. "I wish you peace of the Lord Jesus Christ, a peace that passes all understanding."

Heberlein admitted to fondling the girl's breasts, but in a written confession dated after his August 2005 arrest, Heberlein gave a much more graphic description of the encounter.

Bell called it a difficult case and said one of the factors she considered was Heberlein getting help. If he had been imprisoned, Heberlein would have received day-for-day credit and probably been out of prison in a year-and-a-half, the judge said.

"With probation, he'll be under the court's jurisdiction for four years," said Bell, who also noted Heberlein could go to prison for seven years if he violates his probation.

Heberlein was pastor of Mount Gilead and Berdan Baptist churches in Greene County between 2001 and 2003. A member of the Greene County churches who asked not to be identified said allegations of sexual improprieties arose in 2003 when explicit e-mails between Heberlein and an 18-year-old girl were discovered.

Greene County State's Attorney Matt Goetten called Heberlein "dangerous," in part because of his charisma and access to young people. He asked for a four-year prison sentence.

"He seems to be adept at using his position to prey on young people," Goetten said.

The pre-sentence investigation and a report by a licensed counselor said Heberlein, who claimed he was molested as a child, suggested the victim put herself in a vulnerable position, Goetten said.

"That doesn't sound like somebody who is remorseful, ready to be on probation and ready to face his charges," Goetten said.

Bonnie Furniss of Fowler testified on Heberlein's behalf and said the pastor had helped her with counseling. Furniss, who said she was sexually abused at age 15 but never told authorities, said she understood why Heberlein pleaded guilty, but she didn't believe the victim's story.

"I feel betrayed by the whole ordeal," Furniss said. "The girl's story has changed repeatedly and changed every time Jeff proved her wrong."

Goetten countered by saying Heberlein also changed his version of the encounters with the victim.

"He's told so many different versions, maybe he doesn't know what the truth is," Goetten said.

Goetten also said Heberlein wasn't honest with authorities when telling them about a 1997 Pike County conviction. Goetten said Heberlein broke into a family member's house and called a 900 sex phone line on seven different occasions. He eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft, defacement of property and trespassing, and served two years of probation.

Court-appointed attorney Thomas Piper said Heberlein was assessed as a low risk to reoffend. "I don't mean to minimize it, but in the range of sexual offenses, it ranks on the lower end," Piper said.

Heberlein wouldn't be better off in prison and could get help if put on probation, and Piper urged Bell to give "a flawed man" a chance.

"Peter denied Christ three times, yet he became head of His church," Piper said.

Heberlein left the courtroom with family members and supporters without speaking to reporters. Former church members said they were unsure what the pastor is doing now.



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