In 2013, 30-something Katheryn Harris Carmean White confessed to elders in her Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation that she had repeatedly had sex with a 14-year-old boy.
The two elders didn’t tell police. They, and the congregation, now face a lawsuit from the Delaware attorney general accusing them of violating the state’s mandated reporting laws. The defendants claim the elders were protected from having to report the abuse by a legal exemption for clergy.
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.
In the Delaware case, Jehovah’s Witnesses attorney Francis McNamara argued that the law must allow Witnesses the same protection and that Superior Court Judge Mary M. Johnston should dismiss the case.
In sworn affidavits, elders William Perkins and Joel Mulchansingh wrote that Carmean White’s victim had come to them “seeking spiritual advice and counsel from us as elders in a private setting.”
“In accordance with the beliefs and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” they wrote, “confidential information is kept confidential so as to uphold the elders’ role as spiritual shepherds of the congregation.”
The attorney general’s office argued that the victim and his mother were not offering a confession when they disclosed the abuse to elders in 2013 – and also that Carmean White confessed only after the boy reported his abuse to elders.
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 Watchtower did not return calls seeking comment.
A Reveal investigation last year found that since 1989, Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders have instructed elders in the U.S. not to report child abuse by members of their congregations.
The Watchtower currently is facing more than a dozen lawsuits brought by alleged child abuse victims in the U.S. The Delaware case is a rare instance in which a state agency is suing a religious organization over its handling of child abuse.
In England and Australia, government commissions have been investigating the Watchtower’s child abuse policies for more than a year. Australian investigators found that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ officials had failed to report more than 1,000 known or suspected child sexual abusers to authorities in that country. The investigation in England is ongoing.
Reveal found last year that the Watchtower had collected the names and whereabouts of child abusers in its U.S. congregations for almost 20 years, but kept that information from authorities.
The Watchtower violated court orders in two recent California lawsuits by refusing to provide its list of perpetrators. So far, there has been no indication that federal law enforcement agencies have stepped in to investigate the organization or procure the list.
In Delaware, both Carmean White and her victim were disfellowshipped – the Witnesses’ version of excommunication – in February 2013, according to affidavits.
Carmean White was arrested the same month after the boy’s mother reported his abuse to police, according to news reports. Carmean White confessed to having sex with the boy about 40 times during a 10-month period. She was sentenced to six years in prison for third-degree rape, fourth-degree rape and child endangerment.