A former Colorado Springs pastor who tried to coerce sex from a teenage girl who attended his church avoided jail time Monday under a plea agreement.
Stephen Michael Houlihan, 29, was sentenced to five years on sex offender supervised intensive probation after pleading guilty in April to promoting obscenity to a minor, a felony. The former clergyman at Fellowship of the Rockies, which has locations in Colorado Springs and Fountain, sent lewd pictures to a then-16-year-old parishioner in pursuing a sexual relationship with her, investigators said.
During a hearing before 4th Judicial District Judge Thomas Kelly Kane, prosecutor Nathaniel Marsh called the crime an abuse of trust.
“The (victim’s family) had an implicit trust that he was going to be there for their children and help them along in their spiritual development, and yet this is what he chose to do with that trust,” he said.
Prosecutors agreed to the plea bargain after weighing the “stress” on the victim and her family of participating in a trial, Marsh told the court.
In exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to take prison off the table and to drop two additional counts: possession of sexual exploitation of a child and attempted sexual assault of a child by one in a position of trust.
Marsh called the sentence “an opportunity for Mr. Houlihan,” noting that if the defendant failed to stay out of trouble he could be re-sentenced to prison.
Houlihan’s attorney, Richard Bednarski of Colorado Springs, said his client agreed to plead guilty partly to spare the girl and her family a trial. Bednarski asked the judge to amend the plea agreement to allow Houlihan to use the Internet for work, which the judge denied, ruling that Houlihan's probation officers will decide his request. Bednarksi didn't disclose the nature of Houlihan's employment.
Houlihan started working at Fellowship of the Rockies in 2013, handling communications, The Gazette previously reported. He apparently left in September 2015 before returning in January 2017 as a pastor. He was placed on unpaid leave after his arrest and later fired.
Although Houlihan wasn't assigned as a youth pastor, he did occasionally volunteer at youth events, said Senior Pastor Stewart McWilliams.
"When something like this happens, it’s always tragic for the victim involved," he said, adding that it was "doubly" tragic given Houlihan's role in the church.
The church observes standard safety protocols including doing criminal background checks before making hires, McWilliams said. Houlihan's showed no prior trouble.
Investigators say the crimes came to light when the girl’s mother found lewd messages from Houlihan on the girl’s phone. The defendant had known the girl for years but said he had become close with her in previous weeks, an arrest affidavit said. He admitted kissing her twice on her 16th birthday. The two had mostly communicated by Instagram, and Houlihan acknowledged sending her pictures of his genitals and telling her he wanted to have sex with her, according to a probable cause affidavit.
“I just I know that my actions were not good and I just wanted to apologize to the family and the victim,” Houlihan said before the penalty was imposed. “I know that words can only go so far, so I’m going to show through my actions over the next five years .”