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Businessman sentenced in sex case.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

Issuing a stern rebuke, a judge sentenced a local businessman to three years and eight months in prison for sexually abusing two underage teens at the Veneta church where he was known as a compassionate benefactor.

James Richard "Burt" Simmerman, 63, pleaded guilty to 10 counts of third-degree sexual abuse and four counts of second-degree sexual abuse for several encounters with two 16-year-old girls.

Because he has no record and has been well-respected at St. Thomas Becket Rectory where he is a parishioner, Simmerman asked for no jail time, electronic surveillance and treatment for what he called "erroneous thinking." He expressed sorrow for his actions and cried as he apologized to the victims and his wife.

"From the first day, my heart has been broken," Simmerman said. "I have the deepest possible remorse for this."

Circuit Judge Darryl Larson didn't buy it.

"With every word out of your mouth I'm more convinced," Larson said. "The last three minutes I've seen the kind of ridiculous behavior that we see in drug addicts. We call it pretend crying."

At that moment in the courtroom, Simmerman's wife spoke out through very real sobs. "He has cried. He's cried and cried," she said.

Larson ignored her outburst, blasting Simmerman for behavior that had not only emotionally damaged his victims and betrayed his wife, but fractured the tight-knit church community.

The teens were students at the private school operated by the conservative Catholic church that conducts Mass in Latin. Simmerman was the godfather of one of the girls and a close family friend of the other, according to Assistant District Attorney Erik Hasselman. The Register-Guard does not name the victims in criminal proceedings.

A wealthy man who owns the Oregon Lox Co. and is a co-owner of a motorcycle dealership in Colorado, Simmerman had donated at least $700,000 worth of interior design work at the parish's new church, according to parish priest Daniel Cooper.

He was charged in March with 17 counts that ranged from fondling to deviant sexual intercourse. He pleaded guilty to 14 of the charges.

Hasselman described the victims as naive young ladies so protected by their families that they couldn't see a predator coming.

Rather than impulsive brushes with the victims, Hasselman said, Simmerman planned the encounters, for example stashing a sleeping bag in the bell tower of the church where he later took one of the girls.

When one victim told her parents - and an investigation led to charges - Simmerman was able to "raise an army of supporters," some of whom wrote letters to the court, blaming the victims for making themselves available to him, Hasselman said.

"He should be ashamed he has friends like that," Hasselman said.

He read a statement written by one of the victims, expressing a confusing twist of emotions, "heartfelt gratitude" to her godparents for some of the fondest experiences of her life and at the same time an inability to trust as well as pain at the hurtful rumors that have circulated in the community in regard to the incidents.

The other victim spoke herself, describing her own confusion: disgust at the unasked-for attention fighting against her lifelong training to respect her elders.

Defense attorney James Jagger asked the judge not to blame Simmerman for letters from his supporters criticizing the girls. Jagger said his client wasn't a predator, that he had helped many families in and outside the church community, regardless of whether they had children.

He acknowledged that his client has a slowly developing pattern of age-inappropriate sexual interest that would be likely to continue without sex offender treatment.

To lock him away without treatment wouldn't serve the community, he said.

But Judge Larson disagreed.

"I have to ask myself, if you could betray your wife repeatedly ... how can you be trusted?" Larson said. "I don't see that you can."

The case has been devastating for the parish, said Cooper, the priest.

"Obviously we love and support the girls and want what's best for them. Mr. Simmerman, we love his family, too," Cooper said.

In the aftermath, school staff and church members have become more vigilant and less trusting, Cooper said. There's guilt among a few people who didn't speak up about their worries that Simmerman was too friendly toward the girls.

"But honestly," Cooper said. "He was so friendly to everyone in the parish."

Besides prison, Simmerman also will have to pay both of his victims $10,000 to help them cope with costs such as counseling. He faces three years of postprison supervision, must register as a sex offender and will be required to get treatment.
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Title Annotation:Courts; James Simmerman pleads guilty to abusing two teenage girls at a church
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 6, 2007
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