UPDATE:: Jehovah’s Witnesses fight law on reporting child sex abuse to police_
The case highlights the struggle of courts to interpret a convoluted web of clergy reporting laws that stretches across U.S. Elevating the tension is the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses explicitly are instructed not to report child sexual abuse to secular authorities unless required by state law.
Clergy are mandated to report child abuse in 45 states, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But laws in 32 of those states contain some version of a loophole called a clergy-penitent privilege. Those exceptions allow clergy to withhold information from authorities if they receive it from members seeking spiritual advice.
Delaware law requires any individual or organization suspecting child abuse to report it. But then it gets confusing. The law allows an exemption for a priest who learns of abuse during a “sacramental confession,” wording that suggests a privilege specifically for clergy in the Catholic Church.
The judge concluded last week that while Delaware’s clergy reporting exemption could be interpreted to include the Witnesses, Carmean White’s admission to the elders was likely not a “sacramental confession.” She denied the Witnesses’ motion to dismiss the case.
The Witnesses frequently have cited their right to religious freedom to justify keeping child abuse secret from secular authorities. The Witnesses’ parent corporation, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, claimed its First Amendment rights in a major California lawsuit last year and in several other child abuse cases.
The Delaware attorney general's office is suing a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in Sussex County, claiming that elders failed to report an unlawful sexual relationship between a woman and a 14-year-old boy, both of whom were congregation members.Curious about the so-called "First Amendment issue", I found this:
After speaking with attorneys this week, a New Castle County Superior Court judge scheduled oral arguments in the civil action against the Laurel congregation for Nov. 9.
Under Delaware law, any person, agency, organization or entity who knows or in good faith suspects that a child is being abused or neglected must call a 24-hour hotline to report it. The law specifically states that the reporting requirements apply to health care workers and organizations, school employees, social workers, psychologists and law enforcement officials.
But a lawyer for the congregation is arguing that the elders of the Jehovah's Witnesses congregation are protected from the reporting requirements by clergy privilege, similar to the confidentiality of a church confessional.
"It's a First Amendment issue," defense attorney James Liguori said.
The civil case will likely raise questions about the constitutionality of Delaware’s child abuse reporting mandate. A Superior Court judge in a Sussex County trial recently upheld the mandate.Authorities: Jehovah's Witnesses didn't report child sex abuse involving congregation members
Eric Bodenweiser, a former political candidate charged with abusing a young boy in the 1980s, asked a judge to rule his pastor couldn’t give prosecution testimony because the conversation he and the pastor had was a ‘sacramental confession’ under the law, which is exempt from mandatory reporting.
Alternatively, Bodenweiser’s lawyers argued, the law was unconstitutional if it was read to allow Catholic confessions, but not faith leader-congregant talks in other faiths, to be privileged.
The judge in Bodenweiser’s case declined to interpret the law that way and the pastor did testify. That trial ended in a mistrial; Bodenweiser later pleaded no contest to a lesser charge.