Vancouver lawyer Ryan D. Whitaker was sentenced Friday to more than seven years in prison for sexually molesting a 9-year-old girl in 2011 in a Sunday school class he taught at the St. Johns Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Whitaker, 59, plans to appeal his Jan. 31 conviction of two counts of first-degree child molestation.
The accusations of abuse apparently caused a divide in the church’s congregation. Some church members ostracized the victim’s family, Deputy Prosecutor Jessica Smith said during Friday’s hearing.
The victim’s father said the family had to move so that his daughter could attend another school and the family could attend a different church.
He said his daughter has grappled with anger, depression, anxiety and insomnia as a result of the abuse. One of the hardest lessons for the family to accept is that bad things can happen in sacred places, he said.
The victim testified during a four-day trial in January that Whitaker reserved a special seat for her next to him nearly every Sunday in the back row of a children’s worship room, called the Sharing Room. She said Whitaker would touch her private parts as about 30 to 50 children and some 15 adults, including teachers and parents, carried out group lessons, activities and songs. Sometimes, he reached his hand under her skirt from the front and other times, he slipped his hand through a gap in her folding chair and touched her from the back, she testified. He concealed the crime from other people in the room by draping a jacket over the back of her chair or over her lap, she said. She told her mother about the abuse after Whitaker asked her if the touching made her feel uncomfortable.
“You assaulted our daughter in our church, a place that is suppose to be as safe and secure for her as our home,” the victim’s father said.
The victim’s mother asked Whitaker to finally admit his guilt.
“I want you to be accountable, and it hurts me you haven’t taken any responsibility,” she said.
She didn’t get her wish.
Whitaker then spoke and continued to maintain innocence. He accused investigators of tailoring their case to what they feared had happened instead of seeking the truth. He said their fear-fueled investigation had influenced “the impressionable mind of this young girl.”
“Truth was not given a fair day in court in my case,” Whitaker said.
Smith said she asked Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis to sentence Whitaker to 178 months to life in prison. Lewis found in his Jan. 31 verdict that the crimes were aggravated by Whitaker’s position of trust as a Sunday school teacher in the church. Aggravating factors authorize a judge to impose a sentence that is lengthier than the standard range.
Whitaker’s attorney, Josephine Townsend, submitted 22 letters of support for Whitaker, each writer describing the good the defendant had done in the community and in their individual lives.
Lewis sentenced Whitaker to 89 months — maximum under the standard range — and didn’t impose the heftier sentence allowed by the aggravating factor.
He said the volume of letters in support of Whitaker were unusual for a defendant and illustrated that “people are not all good or all evil.”
He said prison might offer Whitaker some opportunities for rehabilitation, but that rehabilitation would be hindered if Whitaker continues to deny his guilt.
He also ordered Whitaker not to contact the victim or her family ever again.
“I hope that gives (the victim) and her family some peace, knowing that you will not contact them at any time,” Lewis said.