Jehovah’s Witness elders who failed to report child abuse received bad counsel, local pastors and lawyers say

In 2006, a Crystal Lake man confessed to his church leaders that he was sexually abusing a 6-year-old girl.

It was not that confession, however, that McHenry County Judge Mark Gerhardt considered when he convicted the two church elders of violating the State-Employed Reporters Act.

Instead, he relied on information provided to Michael M. Penkava, 72, and Colin Scott, 88, elders at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crystal Lake, by another worshiper, avoiding whether the man’s confession was protected by the First Amendment and the doctrine of penitent clergy privilege, which protects confessions from later disclosure.

A confession to a serious and ongoing crime puts a pastor in a “difficult situation,” the Reverend Mark Buetow of Zion Lutheran Church and School told McHenry.

Confessions between a church member and a pastor are sacred, he said, but in cases of child abuse, the child must be protected. A church member cannot use the confession as a way to avoid accountability, Buetow said.

“From a pastor’s perspective, we want to do the right thing and get that help for the kids. We have to do everything we can to keep the kids safe,” Buetow said. “You can confess me and I will absolve you, but there will be consequences. I will be as welcoming as the Lord wants me to be, but not with my children.”


In Penkava and Scott’s case, Penkava called attorneys at the Jehovah’s Witnesses world headquarters in New York for advice, according to testimony at the couple’s trial in March. He was told he didn’t have to call the authorities, so he didn’t. Instead, he and Scott prayed with him, in accordance with their teaching, according to trial testimony.

In 2018, the then 18-year-old girl told church elders that the abuse never stopped, and Penkava helped her report it to the police.

Arturo Hernandez-Pedraza, 44, was later convicted of aggravated criminal sexual abuse, criminal predatory sexual assault of a child, felony sexual assault, sexual intercourse within families and assault and battery. domestic injuries. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Gerhardt “avoided” this complicated issue in the Penkava and Scott case, said Mark Brown, a Chicago-based attorney who has handled child abuse cases involving churches and youth organizations for the past 14 years. .

“I hope that, generally speaking, in any court, if a member of the clergy has knowledge of child sexual abuse and has not reported it – whether or not he has received bad advice from a lawyer – he didn’t report it and they should be charged,” Brown said.

Reverend Gabriel Bardan, pastor of Cary-Grove Adventist Fellowship Church in Fox River Grove, has been involved in situations in which the police had to be called.

He said a person’s sin – when it is repetitive and hurtful to others, such as watching child pornography, which he says is an addiction that often leads to child sexual abuse – must be recognized .

“If we don’t recognize that, the reality is there’s no chance of change,” Bardan said.

He said he believed that a person who has sinned or committed a crime can be transformed and he will continue to work with that person. But, he said, he will also work with the police if this sin is repeated and causes harm to someone else.

“Even if the person goes to jail, we still talk to them. They are not outcasts,” Bardan said. “It is our responsibility to bend down and pick up those who have fallen, and I can fall tomorrow.”

He is currently working on training a team of counselors to work at the church’s lifestyle center in Elgin. He said he bought an addiction program and was trying to build a team of counselors skilled in areas such as sex addiction, weight loss, depression and anxiety.

He and other leaders of his church, which also has congregations in Elgin, Deer Park and Schaumburg, undergo annual mandated journalist training.

Confessions involving ongoing, repetitive or harmful behavior to other people, such as murder or child abuse, are reported to police, Bardan said.

The advice given to Crystal Lake elders telling them not to report an admission that a child was being sexually abused “was wrong,” Brown said.

There is some penitent clergy privilege, but not when an ongoing crime is being committed, particularly child sexual abuse, Brown said. It’s the law in Illinois and most states, he said.

“Obviously they got bad advice from national headquarters,” said Nicholas Miller, professor of religious studies and history at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is also a lawyer specializing in religious institutions.

When contacted for this article, Jehovah’s Witnesses world headquarters in New York said it did not comment on specific cases, but referred to articles from the edition of May 2019 Watchtower study, which provided an overview of Church practices based on the scriptures.

“Do elders follow secular laws regarding reporting an allegation of child abuse to secular authorities? “says the article. “The answer: yes. In places where such laws exist, elders strive to abide by secular laws. … The elders assure victims and their relatives and others with knowledge of the matter that they are free to report an alleged abuse to secular authorities.”

Attorneys for Penkava and Scott argued throughout the court proceedings that Hernandez-Pedraza’s confession, as well as statements made by the child and another church member, were protected by penitent clergy privilege. .

Anything Penkava and Scott heard about child abuse fell under the protection of the confessional process, similar to a confession made inside a Roman Catholic Church confessional booth, the authorities said. defense attorneys.

That’s the position of Mark J. O’Donnell, a former faith member who now works as a consultant for law firms representing victims of child abuse and is the publisher of a whistleblower website and oversight for matters related to Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the faith has taken forward in other cases.

O’Donnell was born into the faith and left after almost 40 years because, he said, he “couldn’t understand the outrageous complexities of how this religion interfered with the lives of young children”, including including his.

“In the Penkava/Scott case, Jehovah’s Witnesses gambled with the welfare of a young child in hopes that someone else would report his abuser. That never happened,” he said. O’Donnell said in an email.

Both Bardan and Miller said that certain aspects of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ faith make them more vulnerable to child abuse issues that go unreported.

Domestic violence and crimes against children are often dealt with “in a spiritual way, and honestly, many conservative churches have suffered from this over the years,” Miller said.

While other religions are more willing to participate in juries and the military, Jehovah’s Witnesses may not participate at all, he said.

Miller said he teaches his students and educates pastors that if there is a complaint of abuse against a child under 18, “you have to report it” to the police and child services .

“We always say err on the side of reporting,” Miller said. “The worst that can happen is child protective services say, ‘You don’t need to report this,’ but at least you did what you could.”

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