Jehovah’s witnesses continue their fight on reporting child sex abuse to police
In State v. Laurel Del. Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, C.A. No. N14C-05-122 MMJ, 2016 Del. Super. LEXIS 49, a juvenile member of the Laurel Delaware Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses ("Congregation") reported to his mother that he was engaged in a sexual relationship with an adult female member ("adult member") of the Congregation. Two elders of the Congregation met the juvenile and his mother at the church building and were informed of the sexual relationship.
The elders spoke to the adult member, who confirmed that such relationship occurred. Both the juvenile and the adult member were excommunicated from the Congregation. The elders did not report the child abuse as opposed to what was required under 16 Del. C. §§ 903 and 904.
Thus, the State seeks civil penalties against the Congregation and the two elders for violating the state’s mandated reporting laws, following which defendants moved for summary judgment and claimed that all communications among elders, juvenile member and adult members were subject to clergy penitent privilege. They further argued that they were barred by the First Amendment to the United States and Delaware Constitutions and were also exempt from reporting duty pursuant to Section 909.
In response to this, the state argued that § 909 privilege is a narrow exception to the duty to report child abuse or neglect. It is the religious equivalent of the attorney client privilege. The obvious purpose of these privileges is to balance free and candid communications with legal or religious advisors, with the public mandate to prevent and prosecute child abuse.
While on one hand, Delaware law provides for any individual or organization to report about suspected child abuse, on the other, it exempts a priest who learns about the abuse during a “sacramental confession” specifically in the Catholic Church to report of the same.
The Judge denied the summary judgment and concluded that although the exemption was interpreted to include the witnesses, Carmean White’s admission to the elders was not a sacramental confession. Moreover, the witnesses frequently cited their right to religious freedom in order to justify their act of keeping child abuse secret from secular authorities.
The “2012 Watchtower memo” revealed that since 1989, Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders instructed the elders in the U.S. not to report child abuse by the members of their congregations. It further revealed that the information regarding the names and whereabouts of child abusers have been collected but was kept secret.
Carmean White was arrested in February 2013 and admitted to authorities that she had sex with the boy about 40 times over a 10-month period. The now 37-year-old woman was convicted of third-degree rape, fourth-degree rape and child endangerment, and is serving a six-year prison sentence.