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Former pastor imprisoned for touching young girl

by Hagadone News Network & KEITH KINNAIRD
| December 31, 2008 11:00 PM

SANDPOINT, Idaho — A district judge declined to go along with a plea agreement which proposed a limited jail sentence for a former pastor who pleaded guilty to fondling a Priest Lake girl several years ago.

Steven D. Bicknell’s betrayal of the trust placed in him as a spiritual leader was cited as an aggravating factor when he was sentenced.

“The violation of trust when you’re in a position as a minister or pastor is even more damaging because those individuals are individuals that we need to be able to trust. We, as a society, must be able to have faith in people who are placed in trust of dealing with our souls, our development,” said 1st District Judge Steve Verby.

Verby on Dec. 16 rejected a proposed sentence of up to 60 days in jail and instead imposed a two- to five-year prison sentence. Verby retained jurisdiction, which means Bicknell could be released after serving six months.

Bicknell, a 57-year-old who relocated to Libby, was charged with sexual abuse of a minor for touching the girl’s breasts in 2005 and 2006, when she was between the ages of 9 and 10. The abuse occurred when Bicknell was pastor of Priest Lake (Idaho) Community Church.

The charge against Bicknell surfaced earlier this year, after the victim reported the conduct to her parents. The charge was subsequently downgraded to felony battery in a plea agreement which the defense and state sought to make binding upon the court.

The victim’s parents have voiced strong objection to the plea agreement. They contend Bicknell had a moral obligation to confess early on and plead guilty as originally charged.

“As a preacher, the right thing would have been not to plea bargain; it would have been to come here and do the right thing. This is a shame,” the father said.

The girl’s mother tearfully told the court she was “horrified and shocked” by Bicknell’s conduct and said if her daughter hadn’t come forward, the abuse would never have been discovered.

“We trusted the welfare of our daughter with him and felt beyond betrayed. He took a part of her innocence and I realize no matter what happens here today that there’s no way that’s going to be restored to her,” she said.

Bicknell’s defense attorney, Clark Peterson, said his client is “racked with guilt” over his conduct and emphasized that Bicknell had indeed confessed.

When it became clear the prospect of a jail sentence was evaporating, Peterson suggested retained jurisdiction, which put Bonner County Prosecutor-elect Louis Marshall in the awkward position of recommending the lesser punishment due to the terms of the plea agreement.

“Because of case law, the state needs to stand by and recommend the probation with a period of 60 days of local jail,” Marshall said.

Bicknell said he has lived with guilt for three years and apologized to the victim and her family.

“I hope that in time, somewhere down the line, that like the good book says that we take so faithfully, that you will find it within your heart to forgive as we have been forgiven,” Bicknell said.