In the Atlantic coastal state of Delaware, a state judge is trying to sort out the details of a child abuse case to determine and rule on the constitutionality and application of existing laws regarding “clergy privileges and exemptions” as they apply to child abuse cases.
In Delaware, current law mandates reporting of child abuse except in very specific situations. The law requires anyone (including health care professionals) who are aware or suspects that a child is in danger – or has suffered abuse – must call a 24-hour hotline and bring the situation to the attention of civil authorities.
However, certain Jehovah’s Witness elders assigned to a Kingdom Hall located in Sussex County chose not to report a case of child sexual abuse they learned about involving a 14-year old boy and an adult woman. They later claimed that under an exception to the law they were exempt from reporting the criminal activity they knew about due to “clergy-penitent” interaction.
State law does allow for “religious confessional” and lawyer-client exemptions. The Jehovah’s Witness elders and their legal advisors want the exemption applied in this case. They have asked the court to reject the charges, and to order the case dropped against them before it goes to trial.
Australian Royal Commission hearings publicly investigated child abuse cases in that country in 2015 involving religious and charitable organizations. They found indisputable evidence that over the past 40 years Jehovah’s Witness elders were reluctant (and often outright refused) to report child abuse to secular authorities – even in Australian states where reporting was mandatory for all organizations.
“Clergy-penitent confidentiality” has historically only applied to conversations between priests or ministers with church members and other “sinners.” These “sacramental exemptions” applied only to clergy, and only when serving those who confessed their own faults and crimes while asking for forgiveness and counseling. Those exemptions have rarely been applied or allowed to bystanders or non-clerical persons connected with the church.
Confidentiality of communications would not normally be applied if a member of a religious group overheard someone planning or reporting a crime. By law and social expectations, all potential crimes or details of crimes in progress must be reported to the police and to potential victims. This makes sense to catch and punish criminals, but more importantly to protect other church members, their families, and the public at large.
The Associated Press reported that an attorney representing the Jehovah’s Witnesses elders involved in this case claimed that they are covered by the clergy exemptions and that the lawsuit should be dismissed.
The state’s deputy attorney general argues that this case did not qualify under the definition of “clergy exemptions.” The facts show that the victim and his mother were reporting a crime – not confessing to any criminal activity of their own.
The Watchtower and its attorneys are essentially arguing that any communication between any elder and any member of the congregation should be considered exempt – no matter what the intent or subject might be.
This may very well end up as a case where the Watchtower ultimately “shoots itself in the foot” and damages its own credibility going forward. Other states and countries are not bound by the ruling of a judge in a single US states, but they may look at this case and realize that the Watchtower is – as has been alleged so many times before in other high profile cases – protecting pedophiles and endangering children and other members of their congregations.
How hard is it for an elder to act sensibly and either pick up the phone and call the police to help a fellow Jehovah’s Witness report a crime? What does the Watchtower gain by protecting criminals within their midst?
This is an opportunity for the legal system – through one state level judge – to finally force the Watchtower to rethink its ridiculous policy of protecting accused pedophiles. On the other hand, if the judge can not see the logic of mandated reporting and rules in favor of the Watchtower, then that judge should accept the responsibility for the damage done to future victims and their families.
Reporting guidelines should be strengthened, not relaxed or given exceptions. A Watchtower representative, while testifying during the Australian Commission hearings, stated and affirmed that “state laws requiring mandatory reporting” would make JW elders’ jobs easier and provide more protections to JW children and women.
Rank and file Jehovah’s Witnesses should recognize that the Society’s lawyers are doing them no favors by fighting this law and trying to hide behind “sacramental exemptions.” They should demand that all accused pedophiles should be reported to authorities and face their day in court – not protected by the Society’s lawyers and elders and allowed to continue threatening JW children.